Food for Thought for Student Teachers

At this time of the year, the majority of – if not all – student teachers are on School Placement (formerly known as Teaching Practice). It is arguably the most demanding element of teacher training. Due to this pressure, students in such situations may be tempted to look for ways to ease the workload. Some choose to purchase lesson plans online – I have discussed the issues surrounding this in a previous post, but to be blunt, it’s sacrificing long-term gain for short-term gain.

There is no magic formula for success on School Placement, but there are some steps the trainee teacher can take that will set good foundations. Continue reading “Food for Thought for Student Teachers”

Primary Languages Curriculum – A Review of an In-service Training Day

I attended training for the new Primary Languages Curriculum yesterday. The focus for this year is on the Oral Language (Teanga Ó Bhéal) strand for classes from Junior Infants to Second Class, while next year will see training of some sort in the Reading and Writing strands. An overview of this new curriculum is available here.

From the outset, it appeared that the facilitators were eager to address the concern that many viewed this new document as merely an assessment checklist, with individual tracking for each pupil. They pointed out that this was not the case and that the Milestones (from ‘a’ to ‘h’) were not to be applied to each pupil, rather they were to be applied to the class from a general perspective of where the group as a whole is currently at, with other milestones only being used specifically where differentiation was required. This was some relief.

The next clarification was that long-term and short-term planning does not need to change straight away. We are to continue planning as we normally would and to continue teaching as we normally would. This makes sense as it would be a complex task to rethink a curricular area in such a manner with just over one term left in the school year.

It wasn’t all positive unfortunately. I was particularly unimpressed with how the Gaeilge elements were presented. I heard nothing that teachers didn’t already know from the 1999 Gaeilge curriculum. “Make Irish interesting” was put forward as the answer to teaching it effectively – this isn’t new thinking! There will always be challenges when teaching Irish, and in fairness, a question on this was put to participants. School and local context will always decide whether you have an easy or a tough time teaching Irish. This point was acknowledged but not dealt with in any depth.

We were shown some videos of activity in a classroom, which looked normal. What I found unrealistic were the follow-up videos where the teacher was asking questions of individual children in order to assess what oral language milestone they were at. I call this unrealistic because I couldn’t hear the sound of any other children in the background. Where were they? What teacher could assess like this on an individual basis with a large number of pupils in her class? If a video of an unrealistic situation is being shown to me during a training day, I can only deem that particular element of the training to be without merit. Idealistic and realistic are two completely different things.

When it comes down to it, I won’t be teaching a curriculum, I’ll be teaching children. I will continue to use my professional judgement whenever the situation requires it. All this curriculum does is ask us to look at things from a slightly different angle. Teachers have always done this – it’s nothing new to us.

Fads in Teaching and Learning

While reading on in the new book mentioned in a previous post, I came across another quote that reminded me of a conversation I had a number of months ago with a member of staff in one of Dublin’s teacher training colleges.

“Teaching approaches can also be fashionable. You need to use your judgement in selecting methods, so you don’t dismiss a useful approach that is not in vogue, or embrace another approach unquestioningly just because it’s new.” (Delaney 2017, p. 59)

The conversation I had was quite short and casual and took place while I was filling a cup with tea. We discussed the evidence-based approach to teaching and why just because something is new, that in itself does not make it worthwhile. My thoughts directed themselves towards the new Languages Curriculum being introduced across Ireland’s primary schools. At this stage, all schools would have received their first inservice day (effectively a PowerPoint presentation from within each school last year).  Many schools have already undertaken and a lot are due to undertake the second round of inservice this year.

I have not yet had a chance to attend the second round of inservice but I have heard from many teachers who have. The feedback is not positive. This new curriculum has been described by fellow teachers as little more than an assessment checklist. In other words – heavy on paperwork. I have yet to hear any positive feedback. I’m not yet in a position to provide my own fully-informed critique as I will have to wait until later this month to attend the second inservice.

I think it’s important for all teachers to keep an open mind. That said, I also believe that teachers should not hesitate to question anything that they do not agree with. If the general feeling among teachers is that the new Languages Curriculum becomes a hindrance to real teaching, through an over-emphasis on unnecessary paperwork, teachers should be listened to and their views respected. I’ll be posting a response to the second inservice before the end of the month, when I have had the chance to attend it. Keeping quiet about opposition to what could be considered an unhelpful fad in education will ultimately be to the detriment of the main stakeholders – pupils and teachers. Everyone’s voice should be heard.

INTO Presidential Election 2017

For the first time since 1991, INTO members will be offered the chance to have a say in who represents them as President of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. The unwritten rule within the Central Executive Committee of the INTO has been that the longest-serving member of the CEC becomes president. This questionable notion has been challenged this year, as there are two candidates running for the presidency – one who is a current member of the CEC as Vice-President (John Boyle) and one who is a long-time trade union activist and challenging the status quo for these elections (Gregor Kerr). A quick Google search will point you to substantial amounts of information about both candidates.

The election will take place in March by postal ballot. I would encourage all members to inform themselves fully of what both candidates have to say and quite importantly, their track records in relation to standing with ordinary members on the most important issues.

In advance of this election, I have decided to do a bit of polling here. Who would you vote for?

Professionalism and Planning

I’m currently reading a very insightful book called “Become the Primary Teacher Everyone Wants to Have” (a new book by Seán Delaney) and although I’ve only read eighteen pages so far, something he wrote caught my attention. Delaney refers to a culture in our teaching profession of using the internet to source schemes of work.

He writes

“… sharing schemes of work can lead to producing or reproducing notes you have little ownership of and that are geared towards children in a different setting. Acquired schemes may be a solution to someone else’s teaching problems but not to yours.” (2017, p. 10)

I thought about what he had written and it reinforced my existing opinion. While teachers can find inspiration in lesson ideas, I believe that they should use their professional ability to construct their own lessons suited to their pupils’ situation. Sharing, buying or selling schemes of work or lesson plans for the sole purpose of implementing without change or without casting a critical eye over takes away from the professionalism of teachers. It can lead to a view that once you have your step-by-step instructions, anybody can do it. The reality of teaching is that the one-size-fits-all approach does not work.

During my first year as a teacher, I would have taught a certain way. I’m now in my eighth year in the profession and I’m happy enough to say that I’ve improved as an educator. That’s not to suggest that I was a bad teacher during Year One, rather I was a beginner teacher with limited experience, a teacher prepared to take chances, make mistakes, reflect and learn. I’m still prepared to do all of those things but what’s most important is that I learn from my own actions and experiences first and foremost. This would be very difficult to do if I was following someone else’s instructions. My own development as a teacher depends on how I look at my own practice.

Getting back to the creation of schemes of work or lesson plans for the purposes of dissemination to others, this is something that can tempt the newer teacher or the trainee teacher. A person in that situation won’t have the benefit of post-qualification, professional experience and may be inclined to look for a quick-fix. For the purposes of improvement and professional development, reflecting on another person’s lesson can’t compare to reflecting on your own lesson. Create your own plans, improve upon your own errors and be better off for it.

Failure, Articulation and Learning

I recently read a blog post on another primary teacher’s website about how to teach a Mathematics lesson while on Teaching Practice. While full of good intent no doubt, I found the advice to be incomplete and therefore unhelpful to the impressionable student teacher. To summarise, the advice consisted of the following:

  • Play a game;
  • Demonstrate the problem in front of the class, step by step;
  • Get some children to try it;
  • Set an active task and include group work if possible;
  • Ask some children what they have learned.

On first glance, this might look okay. Many teachers may have started out in their careers teaching Mathematics this way. However, experience; reflection; and professional development have taught me differently. I don’t claim to be the ultimate authority on teaching, but at this stage of my career I can identify a flawed process.

The main issue I have with this lesson is its lack of discussion at the beginning of the lesson – the discussion, limited as it is, is tucked away at the end of the suggested lesson. Mathematics is ultimately a mental activity where the goal is to be able to think automatically about what skill needs to be used to solve a problem. The beginning of a Mathematics lesson should be an opportunity for children to talk about what they already know and to incorporate a new problem into the discussion. At this stage the children should be encouraged to think. The quickest and most effective way to make sure that this is happening is to encourage the children to articulate their thinking.

This is where failure comes in. The children should be encouraged to say what they think, without fear of failure. Where mistakes are made, lessons are learned. This can be done in a comfortable way for children, not by saying “that’s right” or “that’s wrong” but rather by asking them how they worked out their answer, what skills they chose and why, regardless of the answer they give. Teaching is about a lot more than ‘chalk and talk’ – it is about encouraging children to be problem-solvers. Finally, instead of just asking the children what they have learned, ask them how they learned it and why they think it will be useful. The quality of learning suffers when it is confined to the ‘repeat after me’ approach.

Spanish Language Challenge – Six Weeks Later

Six weeks ago, I wrote about my desire to learn a new language. I chose to learn Spanish and I discussed how I planned to do this. I initially planned on using a combination of Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, SpanishPod101.com podcasts, the HelloTalk app and conversation groups in my local library. I have whittled this down to Rosetta Stone, sporadic use of HelloTalk and a weekly Spanish conversation group in Raheny Library every Monday night from 6:30pm to 8:00pm.

Continue reading “Spanish Language Challenge – Six Weeks Later”