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Teaching Teachers

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach teaching.”

So began An industry of mediocrity, a recent article in the New York Times about the current state of teacher training in the USA.

It took me back some years – 30 to be precise. My first experience in charge of a classroom was at the age of 21. I was in my honours year at Victoria University in Wellington.

Having decided at some stage during my Bachelor of Arts programme that I wanted to be a secondary school teacher, I took up a government scholarship. In those days it helped to pay our way through university and into a one year post-graduate teacher training programme in Auckland or Christchurch. A condition of that scholarship was to undertake a week of classroom observation at a secondary school in Wellington, presumably to check that I knew what I was letting myself in for.

In the old days

I was sent to Onslow College for the week. It was then a large co-educational school with generally highly motivated students and a liberal approach to education that included no uniform – relatively rare even today. Against regulations I was left in sole charge of a music class on my last day there – the relieving teacher obviously wanted a break. I had one evening’s notice to prepare something – and remember at that stage I hadn’t even started teacher training – and so there I was, at age 21, with 50 minutes to fill with a class of kids only a few years younger than me. I came from a teaching family though – how hard could this be?

The first 30 minutes went well – I kept them busy and the class hated their relieving teacher so I briefly benefited from a honeymoon period. The next ten minutes were harder – I had no idea how to time a lesson so I basically ran out of work for them. Ten minutes before the bell, I ran out of ideas and in desperation told them “do anything you like, as long as it’s quiet.” That was my mistake. One of the boys at the back put his hand up with a sly grin on his face. “Please miss!” he said. The rest of the class waited in anticipation. “Yes?” I asked. “If we’re allowed to do anything we like as long as it’s quiet, can I have a wank?”

Ten years later I would have batted that question away effortlessly and with enough wit for both parties to emerge unscathed from the moment. At 21, I had absolutely no idea how to respond and stood gaping while the class erupted around me. It was a memorable welcome to the occasionally bizarre world of teaching.

My actual teacher training year was much better, but still far from ideal. In response to some flak about trainees having far too little to do, the Auckland College of Education where I spent my post-graduate year upped the theory workload with a ridiculous number of weekly assignments that kept us busy. Unfortunately, classroom practice stayed the same – three blocks of time at three different schools where we were paired up with staff who looked after us and gave us opportunities to teach, sometimes observed and sometimes on our own.

I’m forever grateful to those people, some of whom did a fantastic job mentoring me on top of being incredibly busy themselves. But at four weeks each, these practicum experiences did little to prepare us for the real world of the classroom because of the small amount of time that we actually spent in the teacher role.

So in hindsight, the title of the New York Times article – An industry of mediocrity – is probably not far off the mark. That article focuses on the current state of teacher education in America, noting that the monopoly previously held by universities in training teachers is now under threat from a new model being delivered by non-university organisations.

The leaders of this model are turning the teacher education world on its head by focusing on a number of areas to improve teacher capability in the States. These include selecting only the best and brightest as trainees; introducing long periods (in some cases up to a full year) of classroom practice for the trainees, with ‘master’ teachers instructing, modelling and supporting; and three years of post-graduate mentoring in the classroom.

EIT steps up

The good news is, Hawke’s Bay is already onto this.

After Massey withdrew its face-to-face primary teaching programme from Hawke’s Bay, EIT responded to community demand by launching New Zealand’s first undergraduate practice-based degree in 2013, the first Institute of Technology to deliver a Bachelor of Teaching (Primary).

The impetus for a Hawke’s Bay-based degree came from four local principals, who approached EIT with the proposal. Widespread consultation with the sector, iwi and Pacific groups followed.

Twenty-nine trainee teachers are enrolled in the first intake for the full-time three-year programme, which is modelled on best practice research from New Zealand and overseas. The students spend two days a week, every week, at designated schools in Napier, Hastings and Havelock North and two days at EIT. They also undertake school-based block practicums.

In 2013 six local schools partnered with EIT to deliver the programme. Next year seven more will join. Interest in the programme is high, with applications being received from throughout New Zealand as well as Hawke’s Bay. An intake of 35 new trainees is expected in 2014.

Local principals have described the degree as an outstanding opportunity for Hawke’s Bay, which “sets the platform for other training institutions.” They see that linking trainees to host schools for the full year, with close support from EIT supervisors and teachers, is a model that should produce quality new teachers for the profession … and the emphasis on putting theory into practice is the key to that improvement.

So primary teacher training seems to be in good heart in Hawke’s Bay. As always – the key will be the availability of jobs at the end, but the active partnership with local schools makes regional employment more likely, and advice from our local principals suggests the skills gained by the trainees in this practice-based degree should generate a competitive edge in the wider national job market.

As I discovered at Onslow College in 1983, teaching isn’t for the faint-hearted, and mediocrity should have no place in the teacher training world. Our kids, with the challenges many of them face, deserve only the best teachers trained by highly effective people and programmes. If the results for our children show clearly the benefits of this new approach, I look forward to seeing practice-based teacher education continue to flourish here in Hawke’s Bay.

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