Social tech keeps teachers classy

How to prepare new teachers for effective classroom practice, especially in the complex contexts of many South African schools, was the focus of the Teachers Upfront seminar held at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg two week ago.

Young teachers at the seminar described not only their sense of mission and purpose but also the many challenges they face in their new roles. Sven Glietenberg, who is currently studying a postgraduate certificate in education, has been teaching English First Additional Language to grade 10s at a public school near Hammanskraal, north of Gauteng, for the past 18 months. He described his experience as a young teacher as “a baptism by fire”.

He spoke of large classes and demotivated colleagues, and said that teachers in that context often have much to cope with, including how underprepared learners are to manage the challenge of studying subjects in their second language.

Francois Naudé, a former teacher and now part of the University of Johannesburg’s education faculty, added to Glietenberg’s observations by arguing that student teachers are not prepared by their training for all the challenges that they will face not only inside but also, and especially, outside the classroom. His experience as a new teacher had been dominated by “tedious amounts of administration, the stresses of the social war zone that is the staffroom and the demoralising burden of excessive extra mural responsibilities”.

Not knowing how to talk to parents was just one of the tasks he had faced as a new teacher and felt ill-prepared for. Newly qualified teachers in the audience described situations that were similar and echoed these frustrations.

Preparing newly qualified teachers who are knowledgeable, skilled, resilient and able to adjust to the challenges of classroom life is easier said than done, though. Dr Lee Rusznyak, senior lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand’s school of education, pointed out that “classroom life is exceedingly complex, and it would be impossible to prepare all newly qualified teachers for every possible situation in the very short time of an initial teacher education qualification”.

A deep understanding
She stressed the importance of providing opportunities in initial teacher education degrees for prospective teachers to develop strong content knowledge in the subjects they will teach and gain confidence in planning and delivering lessons that offer learners meaningful learning experiences. It is essential that these teachers develop a deep understanding of the nature of teaching if they are to navigate the challenges of their early professional life without compromising the quality of the education they provide to their first classes of learners, she added.

With this in mind, what is it that pre-service teacher training should do to ensure that young trainee teachers understand what is required of them and are prepared for effective classroom practice? Because newly qualified teachers start their professional careers in vastly different school contexts, it is not possible for student teachers to learn everything they need to know during their initial teacher education, Rusznyak said. There is some learning that can only happen in situ.

Universities have the responsibility to ensure that newly qualified teachers have sufficient knowledge for practice, which includes what to teach (subject knowledge and curriculum); how to teach and assess (pedagogy); the role and history of schooling in South Africa; and how children learn and develop, she said.

These crucial concepts need to be worked on within a context, however, and it is at the point of intersection between concept and context where effective practice occurs. A central question that teachers need to learn to ask before they graduate is: “How do I teach this content to these learners, within the challenges and possibilities of this context?”

Rusznyak gave some examples where student teachers in their third year of study demonstrated their ability to prioritise the teaching and learning agenda, without being overwhelmed by the enormity of the contextual challenges they faced in rural schools. In one example, a third year student taught in a rural school and faced a class of 78 learners.

The learners had to stand in class because there were not enough chairs and tables to accommodate them, and the lack of space meant that the teacher had to remain at the chalkboard and could not move around the classroom.

The teacher realised that she was losing her students’ attention and was unable to monitor the level of their understanding under these conditions. She decided to split the class in half and teach the same lesson twice. Those who were not in class worked on an activity outside. “Although she created more work for herself, this teacher’s priority was on getting learners to understand the content of her lesson and, in the context of an over-crowded classroom, she strategised and adapted her lesson to ensure that the purpose of her lesson was achieved,” Rusznyak said.

Contributors to the seminar proposed a range of means by which newly qualified teachers can be supported more effectively. Rusznyak made an argument for the importance of mentoring: “Experienced teachers can help inexperienced teachers bridge the gap between the concepts of teaching and learning and the contextual realities of the classrooms in which they find themselves.”

Naudé agreed, saying that “a gap needs to be bridged and mentorship is part of it; we need real mentors who really care for new teachers and we need more formal structures in schools that allow for effective mentoring”. Glietenberg also argued for the need to develop a formal system of mentoring teachers and support to address the feelings of isolation that newly qualified teachers often experience.

Beyond that, he also described a range of strategies for the young teacher, including talking reflectively to learners about their experience of the classroom, thereby involving them in their own education, as well as connecting with other teachers in professional learning communities which offer space for sharing ideas and giving moral support.

This does not have to be face-to-face; he uses a WhatsApp group for teachers to share tips about what has worked in the classroom and said it is a powerful medium. He also uses the internet to find examples of good teaching, believing that it’s a great source of ideas and a space where effective practice can be shared.

He argued for the need for an online repository of good teaching practice, with video material that teachers and learners can share, download and watch. “We need to work together as young teachers,” he said, “and technology can help us. A lot.”

Barbara Dale-Jones is chief executive of the Bridge education network. The Teachers Upfront series of seminars is hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of Witwatersrand’s school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education

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Barbara Dale Jones
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