Reforming teaching practice so that children learn more

With minor variations, teaching practice placements in Irish primary colleges of education are organised along similar lines. Students, individually or in pairs, are assigned to the classrooms of experienced teachers for periods of three or four weeks, where they teach the children at least two and up to six or seven lessons a day, covering most or all curriculum subjects over the period. College supervisors visit the student teachers to observe and assess their preparation and teaching. Although children and experienced teachers can benefit from the enthusiasm and new ideas of the student teachers, and although student teachers benefit from the guidance and support of the experienced teachers, this system has some flaws.

  1. Children in the classes are deprived of the teaching of the experienced teacher for some or all of the placement period.
  2. The placement can be disruptive for classroom teachers who have routines in place and a broad curriculum to teach.
  3. The student teacher can be constrained in their planning and teaching by the expectations or requirements of the class teacher in terms of teaching content, teaching methods, classroom management strategies and classroom displays.

An alternative model is possible. Teaching practice could be organised outside of normal school time and children could be invited to attend the classes. The practice would happen in regular school buildings for a week or two during the summer holidays, with permission from the school boards of management. Classrooms are generally empty at this time and so could be made available to colleges for teaching practice purposes. One or two members of the college staff (who are registered teachers) could be assigned to a school building and be responsible for the smooth administration of the placement. These members would provide the support and advice that is generally offered by the experienced classroom teacher. The proposal would work best with advanced student teachers who have already benefited from the support of experienced teachers on previous teaching practices.

This kind of placement would have the following benefits.

  1. Children who opt into the classes would benefit from having additional tuition because it would be outside regular school time.
  2. Student teachers would have almost full responsibility for the class (under supervision of the college lecturer) for the week or two of the placement and would get a more realistic idea of the kind of decisions a beginning teacher has to make.
  3. The school timetable could be planned around the specific requirements of the teaching practice. Therefore, colleges could be more explicit in setting down requirements for the placement (focusing on specific subjects on a practice, for example, or requiring specific topics to be taught).
  4. A session for reflection could be built into the day (after school), where student teachers would meet with the college supervisor.
  5. School buildings would be used at a time when they are usually closed.
  6. Practising teachers with suitable qualifications could be hired to supervise/mentor students.

The drawbacks are relatively few. You might think that children wouldn’t want to attend school over the summer? Well, I offer a maths summer school to children each July and the number of applicants always exceeds the places available. Colleges would have to reassure schools that the premises and equipment would be left as they were found after the placement. Holiday times of students and lecturers would need to be changed. The model could be used in schools all over the country but I’d begin somewhere on a pilot basis to iron out any teething issues.

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