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Good teacher graduates emerge when their studies combine theory and reality

Teacher education institutions are often criticised because novice teachers “only know theory” and are not prepared for the complex world of practice. Teacher educators, in turn, are concerned by the expectation that recent graduates should be able to operate as experienced teachers.

Teacher education can only be responsible for the preparation of teachers. Further socialisation into the practices and habits of effective teachers should ideally take place through an induction programme at schools, under the direction of experienced teachers and school managers.

In addition, many critics claim that teacher educators do not prepare student teachers adequately for the reality of schools in South Africa. This raises a perennial question: Should we be preparing student teachers for schools that are or for schools that should be? The University of Johannesburg (UJ) believes it would be irresponsible of us to prepare student teachers only for the current reality in schools — thus, reproducing the status quo. We believe that we have to do both.

A good proportion of graduates struggle to make the transition from the university classroom to the school environment. Well-meaning people believe this problem would abate if student teachers had more experience of school during their pre-service education; thus, more time experiencing school equates to better-prepared teachers. We disagree with this stance.

First, it is flawed to assume that student teachers will somehow learn about being a teacher simply by experiencing school life. The eminent education scholar, John Dewey, cautioned in the 1930s that experience is not necessarily educative and can be miseducative. Many teacher educationists express the concern that extended school experience alone can have detrimental effects. Practising teachers are not all necessarily good role models. Exposing student teachers to poor or mediocre examples of teaching could entrench inadequate or unsuitable pedagogy and poor professional habits.

Are we arguing that school placement is not important? Not at all. Good teachers in schools have much to contribute to teacher education; they are excellent examples of pedagogical content knowledge-in-action, they know the school curriculum well and can guide and mentor student teachers in a way that university-based teacher educators cannot. Herein lies the dilemma: What is the best way to bring these two worlds together?

Research shows that successful teacher education programmes are based on models that integrate knowledge for teaching with knowledge of teaching. Such models are designed to counteract the perceived disjuncture between the world of theory and the world of practice and are premised on a close collaboration between teacher education institutions and schools as learning sites for student teachers.

UJ’s faculty of education founded a public primary school on its Soweto campus in 2010 for this purpose, in partnership with the Gauteng department of education. Some of the objectives of the school were that it should serve the education needs of children living near the UJ Soweto campus and serve as a teaching school — a learning and practicum (work-integrated learning) site for UJ student teachers. The vision was that the teachers would take on the role of teacher educators, working in tandem with UJ academic staff.

One of the initial challenges was the integration of university course work and teaching school practicum. We decided that a central organising principle, namely the learning and development of children, would guide our work in primary school teacher education. We argued that prospective primary school teachers need systematic study of the development of children to develop a solid understanding of how they learn and change over time.

We reasoned that student teachers’ involvement with the same children over four years would support the development of pedagogical learner knowledge of the primary school child. In the foundation phase teacher education programme, for instance, course work and practice learning are integrated at the teaching school.

First-year student teachers study a curriculum geared for grade R children and their practice learning takes place in those classes; in their second year they focus on grade 1 children; in their third year, students study the learning and the development of grade 3 children. In their final year, the various dimensions of their studies are integrated with the students also spending extended periods at other schools for school practicum.

The general observation of the children in the teaching school is amplified by assigning specific children to a group of student teachers in their first year of study. Students then follow these children closely for four years, paying particular attention to how they learn, what they struggle with and how teachers adjust their teaching to match the level of development of the children.

Research shows that student teachers experience this as extremely valuable learning opportunities.

Student teachers also present selected lessons in the school and they provide classroom assistance to the school teachers. A similar process is in place for intermediate-phase students in grades 4 to 7 classes.

It has taken five years of systematic cycles of planning, implementation, reflection and new planning, with assistance from our partners at the department of teacher education at the University of Helsinki, to establish a workable model.

After concerted effort by school teachers and university-based teacher educators, with the resources and financial support from UJ management and donor funders, the school-university partnership is now coming into its own.

The first group of foundation-phase teachers who started on this journey with us have learned to think, know, feel and act like teacher educators. We are so confident in their ability to supervise the practical component of the students’ university course work that they execute this task with minimal involvement from academic staff.

But much remains to be done to ensure that student teachers are consistently exposed to exemplary practice at the school; teacher development is thus ongoing.

The past five years’ experience working with this model leads us to claim that we are preparing students for existing classroom situations and for the schools that we want. In the teaching school, our students first observe the daily functioning of a well-managed public school, learn from good teachers, who serve as teacher educators, and have exemplary teacher models to emulate.

Combining this experience with later guided placement for work-integrated learning in a diversity of public and private schools ensures that our students are exposed to the varied conditions and challenges of the wider schooling system.

If we were to be asked to single out one aspect that could strengthen the quality of teacher education, it would be planned, purposeful collaborations between schools as learning sites for student teachers and teacher education institutions.

Sarah Gravett is dean of education and Nadine Petersen is head of the department of childhood education at the University of Johannesburg

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Sarah Gravett
Guest Author
Nadine Petersen
Nadine Petersen works from Bloemfontein, South Africa. I am Nadine Petersen and have an organization called Future Footsteps Foundation which provides help where it can, especially in the area of children and youth.

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