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Partnerships to support the development of fully professional teachers

I am very pleased to be able to welcome readers to the second volume of JoTTER: the Journal of Trainee Teacher Education Research. At the time of writing, the ‘landscape’ of teacher education in this country faces challenges and – potentially – major changes. For those of us who have been heavily involved in teacher education, there must be concern about the risk of losing much that is effective in current approaches to preparing new schoolteachers, and certainly facilitating the type of trainee teacher inquiry reported in JoTTER. However, before considering such weighty matters, I should first thank all those who have helped make JoTTER possible: the support staffing in the Faculty who set up the website, and administer the day-to-day running of the journal, the academic staff who support student work and recommend student work for submission, the former trainee teachers who have helped with peer-review, and especially those trainee teachers who have found time at the end of their intense PGCE year to organise the submission of their work for consideration by the journal. As with any such venture, JoTTER is made possibly by effective cooperation between these different contributors, each participating in terms of their own particular skills.

The ‘Gold Standard’ in teacher education

Teacher education is much like this as well: a partnership between a range of contributors each bringing something special ‘to the table’, to the benefit of those preparing to qualify. That is certainly my view reflecting back upon my own various experiences of teacher education over the years!

In my own school years, I was taught by some excellent teachers, but also by some who had very limited classroom skills. My secondary education in a large comprehensive school in outer London during the 1970s was a time when some schools had difficulty attracting a full complement of well-qualified staff. In lower secondary school I remember a Craft, Design and Technology (CDT) teacher who would repeatedly stop the class to tell vulgar ‘jokes’ that would nowadays be considered politically incorrect. I also remember CDT lessons spent in the Library when there was insufficient staffing in that department. I also seem to recall that I spent all my Geography lessons during my second year (i.e. Y8 now) doing a project on national flags. Some years later I saw my ‘geography’ teacher from that period being interviewed on the television, and discovered he was actually a special educational needs expert, who presumably had been used to plug a timetable gap. I also remember a period spent in a first aid room making a papier-mâché model of a volcano, for what from what I recall was no adequately explained reason!

In upper secondary school I recall the technical drawing lessons that largely involved avoiding the various pieces of equipment being thrown around the room. Senior staff were aware that the teacher had absolutely no authority, but seemed powerless to do anything about it – apart from taking it in terms to undermine any semblance of authority left by interrupting his lessons at random to discipline pupils. I also recall the chemistry teacher who only had two teaching methods: copying passages from a book onto the chalkboard, or reading out from the same book to write down. ‘Chemistry’, by John O. E. Clark was not even meant as a school textbook: I’d read it years before. Being taught by a teacher unable to answer any questions about chemistry was not ideal for an aspiring scientist! The head of science was aware of the problem, but it was not unusual for advertised science posts to attract only one nominally qualified candidate. I remember the new physics teacher who began the lesson by asking the A level class one very vague question, and then spent twenty minutes staring at his shoes whilst the students waited for some clarification or an alternative request. He was never going to win that stand-off, and I always wondered what happened when was put in front of a more typical teaching group. (Perhaps those students considered less academic, and channelled to take ‘community service’ and ‘leisure pursuits’ as two of their subject options).

My point here is that I think some of the very weak teaching which was routine during my own schooling would not be tolerated in state schools today. Part of the reason is the considerable improvements in teacher preparation we have seen. My own PGCE course a few years later included many of the elements found in courses today, courses on subject pedagogy, more general aspects of educational theory, and opportunities to work with real classes in schools. The university-based components were very strong, and I enjoyed the course a great deal. However, there were not the active partnerships between schools and higher education institutions that have become the basis of effective teacher education today, due to the seminal work of such leaders in teacher education as the late Professor Donald McIntyre (McIntyre & Hagger, 1992). My own teaching ‘practices’ were blocks of time working in City comprehensive schools that involved me taking over a class (that I might have previously observed once, if I was lucky) whilst the teacher took the opportunity to be elsewhere and get on with some other work. The expression ‘sink or swim’ could describe these ‘practices’. Teachers were certainly helpful with suggestions and advice when asked, but otherwise left the ‘student teacher’ to get on with the job of planning and executing the sequence of several weeks of lessons. Later, when I was the schoolteacher handing over my classes to student teachers, I always tried to be more involved; but the system did not expect or facilitate school staff taking on any strong mentorship role for a visitor who would pass through the school in a few weeks before disappearing back off to the University. By the time I later became the science curriculum mentor in a further education college, there was a much greater expectation that the teaching staff took an active role in the learning of the trainees who came to the college, and I found I could make a real difference in supporting the progress of trainees.

So my own school experiences during my training were very different to the experiences of PGCE students on a partnership course, such as that taken by the students whose work is reported in JoTTER. In effect, these new teachers undergo a form of preparation that really offers the ‘best of both worlds’: workplace-based learning in schools, and academic learning in the university. It is the ‘best’, because of the strong integration of these features. The partnership PGCE is planned and taught by a team of subject experts and leading educational thinkers, from across the university and school sides of the partnership. The ‘trainee’ has leading scholars and excellent current classroom practitioners to support them throughout the course – and these people are working to a common agreed plan to support the individual development of that new professional. The specific school-based mentor and faculty supervisor are each nested in an experienced team, and support is provided by experts in various areas from within those teams as indicated, as the new teacher moves through the integrated curriculum.

The recent government statements about shifting initial teacher education to schools seem to me to ignore the reality of this current situation, where trainees ARE already spending a great deal of their time in schools (certainly on secondary courses trainees are in school virtually, if not every, week of their course). Moreover, because trainees are made members of the school staff without being on the payroll they are able to make progress at an optimum rate without compromising a school’s resources or efficiency. There is not pressure for these new teachers to take on aspects of the teacher’s role before they are ready: there is always a fully qualified, experienced teacher present who is paid to be responsible for that class. We know that other routes into teaching that are seen as ‘school-based’ have sometimes fallen well short of school-university partnership routes in that regard. This is why, for many, University-School partnership courses are the ‘gold standard’  for initial teacher education.

Preparing fully professional teachers

Perhaps the Government’s plan to expand so called ‘school-based’ (i.e. exclusively school-based) teacher training is underwritten by an intention to support schools with sufficient resources to allow the approach currently taken during PGCE courses, such as the Cambridge partnership course, to be adopted within schools. Leaving aside the difficulty of schools asked to take sole responsibility for passing or failing new teachers on their payroll (especially in shortage subject areas), such training experience are surely likely to be impoverished compared with the PGCE route.

Although new teachers will still have access to expert practitioners, familiar with their specific teaching context, they will lose regular access to the world-class scholars undertaking seminal research into teaching and learning in their subjects. Moreover, they will lose access to a resource that many trainees appreciate at least as much: a peer group of others taking the same journey from graduate to teacher in their discipline. Almost certainly, routes with no, or minimal, involvement from university faculty, will also lack the key feature of the PGCE celebrated in JoTTER: being supported to become an effective researcher into their own classroom work. This is so important in education, where every classroom context is somewhat unique (so research findings reported elsewhere cannot be adopted uncritically), and where teachers are expected to respond to a constantly shifting backdrop of policies, and priorities, with their accompanying ‘strategies’ and ‘frameworks’.

There are different levels of understanding what it means to be a ‘professional’ teacher, but arguably the highest levels of professionalism are attained by those who have the confidence, skills and propensity to constantly seek to problematise and improve their own work through effective practitioner inquiry (Taber, 2010). The partnership PGCE experience facilitates the development of fully professional teachers who appreciate the value of being teacher-researchers; and understand how this enables them to not only develop their own teaching, and also contribute to the work of a community by reporting their work to, and opening it to critique by, fellow professionals. It is the importance of this aspect of teacher education and development that JoTTER recognises, and is something that is vital to teaching as a genuine profession.

Keith S Taber,br /> Cambridge, 2011


McIntyre, D., and Hagger, H. (1992). Professional Development through the Oxford Internship Model. British Journal of Educational Studies, 40(3), 264-283.

Taber, K. S. (2010). Preparing teachers for a research-based profession. In M. V. Zuljan & J. Vogrinc (Eds.), Facilitating effective student learning through teacher research and innovation (pp. 19-47). Ljubljana: Faculty of Education, University of Ljubljana.