Pre-service teacher internships, which use the flexibility of distance learning education qualifications offered by universities such as Unisa and North-West University, place aspiring teachers in primary and secondary schools during their studies. Doing so allows them to spend considerable time as classroom teaching assistants, to receive mentorship from experienced teachers and to build a professional practice integrated with theory of their university coursework.
Creating a national teacher internship model — the current one is only available to about 500 of the 100 000 student teachers throughout the country — would open up opportunities for student teachers.
It would also enable schools to become sites of professional practice by formalising co-operation and collaboration between universities, schools and the departments of higher education and basic education.
Such an initiative may sound expensive, but it would integrate several existing elements already within the teacher education system responsible for producing high-quality teachers. This could resolve certain inefficiencies.
Universities have difficulty in effectively facilitating the teaching practice and work-integrated learning components of education degrees, and primary and secondary schools are hampered by shortages of qualified and capable teachers.
The basic education department, through its Funza Lushaka bursary programme for aspiring teachers, has since 2007 been successful in attracting greater numbers to the profession in high-need areas.
However, it does not have the capacity to monitor and support the nearly 15 000 bursary holders during and after their studies.
A 2015 study found that young teachers lack pedagogical, conceptual and content knowledge, especially in mathematics, English, science and technology.
Higher education reviews have found that the classroom component is lacking in current university curricula. This has led to the introduction of a policy setting out the minimum requirements for teacher education qualifications, which is a South African Council of Educators initiative.
These standards not only emphasise the need for work-based training but also the link between content and pedagogy.
Students are required to spend between 16 and 24 weeks on supervised school-based practice while studying for a four-year bachelor of education degree, and six to eight weeks for a one-year postgraduate education certificate.
Students and school managers alike believe this is insufficient time to bridge the theory-practice divide.
In addition, Hendrik van Broekhuizen’s 2015 research on teacher education found that, in South Africa, university and distance learning programmes have both experienced low pass rates.
Although pass rates are lower in distance learning programmes, half the country’s newly qualified teachers study through such institutions. This suggests that strengthening distance learning models is not only valuable, but also essential.
The freedom and flexibility that distance learning provides could be leveraged into a considerable asset, by using time that would otherwise be filled with self-study or a job possibly unrelated to teaching to place budding teachers in an internship.
Teacher internships make financial sense.
Umcebisi25 is a fund that was recently developed to strengthen integrated learning in teacher education by reaching 25% of distance learning student teachers and 2 500 schools over the next five years.
Those behind the fund have suggested that the cost of training teachers with an internship model is lower than what is spent on average by Funza Lushaka for student teachers studying at a residential university. This is largely because distance degrees are cheaper, and because teacher interns live at home and travel to schools nearby.
Although internship programmes are still relatively young, if they can improve graduation rates there would be considerable savings and have a shorter throughput time.
Umcebisi25 has calculated that a student studying for a BEd using this proposed model will cost about R38 000 less than what the basic education department is currently paying. In addition, the fund works to leverage private finance for support costs, to ensure that there is no additional public spend.
Placing student teachers in schools with experienced teachers as mentors and integrating initial teacher education into the process of regular schooling is more than just an efficient use of resources and an effective pedagogical decision.
Inherent in this model is the belief that, despite the crisis in education, qualified teachers can be trusted to mentor aspiring teachers.
Instead of such schools being disregarded, Professor Maureen Robinson writes that “many schools in poor and rural areas provide important insights into issues like community-school linkages [and] offer opportunities for student teachers to learn important lessons like resilience and agency, something that they might not learn in better-resourced contexts”.
The internships have the capacity not just to train new teachers but also to catalyse a culture shift that will recognise schools for the value they possess.
Involving schools and teachers in the process of developing new teachers is important to improve the quality of new teachers. It also signifies to qualified teachers that they have something valuable to offer — entrenching an important narrative that teachers already in the system are relevant.
A national teacher internship model would provide an opportunity for creating a cohort of teachers grounded in practice, equipped and capable of providing quality instruction.
Such a construct would serve as a culture-shifting opportunity in the profession as waves of capable teachers collaborate with their more
experienced mentor-teachers, serving as the tipping point the sector requires.
As educationists, parents, policymakers — in fact, anyone invested in the success of children and who believes in the capacity of education to heal, build and transform society — it is important we do not lose sight of all that is possible in the face of the great challenges the country faces.
Addressing the depth of educational difficulties requires of us to be imaginative, bold and persistent and to explore high-impact innovations that not only deserve a try but, given the circumstances, also demand it.
How to set up a national internship model
- Allocate a percentage of Funza Lushaka bursaries to internship programmes. There is already considerable spend going towards funding students pursuing teaching. No additional spending would be required. Instead, earmark a certain number of the nearly 4 000 bursaries awarded each year to teacher internships. This could be done by making bursaries available through organisations that run internship programmes, or through universities.
- Deepen partnerships between schools, universities, the government and nongovernmental organisations. All the necessary pieces are in play; they must just be integrated. Research shows schools are willing to host student teachers if they are supported and coached. A number of NGOs are already working in schools, with interns, mentors or in-service teacher training that could be tapped into.
- Leverage private funding through corporate social investment, trusts and foundations to cover the overhead support costs. Using a public-private partnership model, the direct student costs covered by Funza Lushaka and the basic education department would be supplemented by the private sector. Funds like Umcebisi25 can serve as vehicles to disburse funds from multiple funders to multiple teacher internship providers. Government and higher education institutions remain responsible for fulfilling their public responsibilities; private funding would go towards additional elements.
- Research and study the model. Academic research and rigour will need to be brought to the emerging teacher internship sector to improve programmes and to determine if such an approach can achieve its intended impact. Colleges and universities are well positioned as research institutions and as sites of teacher training to contribute to the body of knowledge necessary to support and critique such a model.
Nigel Richard is the managing director of the Global Teachers Institute, which works to strengthen teacher capacity by transforming the way teachers are taught. Follow him on Twitter @nigelbrichard