Becoming a teacher, virtually

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The last month has brought changes to our world that none of us could have envisaged when we set off in September on the endeavour of training beginning teachers.  Our minds were preoccupied with the usual concerns – how do we move students through the plateau, how do we get our perfectionists managing workload and how do we get student teachers to move beyond behaviour management to grapple with pupil understanding of subject? Now, we face a strange and unusual reality of needing to finish the training of our teachers away from the classroom. 

At the University of Nottingham we take great pride in our partnership that has been built with local schools over decades.  We know that training high-quality teachers is dependent upon collaboration, between tutors and mentors, and the strong integration of the reflective and theoretical aspects of the course and classroom-based practice and school experiences.  All this leaves us, as teacher educators, facing a conundrum.  How can we help our students to become teachers virtually?

Different providers will no doubt be taking different approaches.  Our partnership context, as well as an awareness of the different circumstances of our students, has informed our virtual PGCE planning (for example we know that those with caring responsibilities require a significant degree of flexibility around the way they participate in virtual courses and teaching sessions).  As a History ITE Team we have spent the past 3 weeks reading, thinking, and planning, for our new virtual curriculum.  We have tried to avoid simply reacting to the situation and jumping in with something to ‘fill the gap’.  Rather, we have taken the time to conceive a programme which we believe will genuinely support the students’ ongoing development, spiralling back to already considered themes at a deeper level and introducing new themes to stretch and enhance their experience. As always, we pay regard to the teacher standards but consider them holistically when planning for our training teachers development.  To prepare for this we have reflected upon our school observation visits, mentor feedback around trainee progress, weekly mentor meeting records and student reflections, the knowledge our tutors hold about their tutees’ development needs from their frequent interactions, and have consulted the students themselves as to their perceptions of their development priorities.  In this context, our approach has been to build virtual training opportunities around the following principles for our history ITE trainees:

1.       Collaboration with colleagues

Creating opportunities for our cohort to gather virtually in several small groups, collaborating with a range of peers from the course throughout the week. 

In this way we hope to create opportunities for community, pastoral support, and also intellectual stimulation as they engage, with course tutors working alongside them, in academic debate and problematising. 

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2.       Subject Knowledge enhancement

In history, subject knowledge enhancement is a never-ending endeavour.  What an opportunity this period offers for our beginning teachers to work on their subject knowledge in a more focused way with a greater understanding of how developed subject knowledge can transform, for example, the questioning phase of a lesson. 

Making this a collaborative endeavour will, we hope, help our students to build on the subject experience of their colleagues and provide a level of professional accountability.

3.       Pedagogical engagement

Designing a programme for the students which draws on their experiences so far in the classroom, encourages them to reflect, but makes the most of the opportunity to explore history pedagogy more deeply now they have an experience in which to place the theory. Through directed reading our beginning teachers are able to engage with the debates within the history teaching community and draw on a wide range of experiences as they grapple with how this can help inform their planning.

Doing this collaboratively also ensures opportunities to share from across their many varied school experiences, broadening their understanding of how context can impact our understanding of pedagogical approaches.

4.       Lesson planning practise

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Making the theoretical practical, by ensuring training teachers continue to plan lessons and consider how their subject knowledge enhancement and pedagogical thinking might be implemented in the classroom. 

Pinning their planning of lesson sequences to the curriculum, and the actual groups they would have been teaching at this point, provides opportunities to design historical enquiries which have value and purpose, and allows them to continue translating the theoretical into the practical sphere.  It may also allow them to contribute to the departments in which they have been nurtured over the past few months, whilst also gaining a greater insight into how their colleagues utilise similar substantive or disciplinary themes as they plan for different contexts.   

5.       Professional growth and understanding

Providing an opportunity to continue growing in their understanding of creating purposeful classrooms, managing behaviour, communicating with parents and colleagues and developing their professional values.

In many ways this is a little harder because so much of it is dependent upon the practical experience of school.  In utilising the experience of the tutor team, mentors, alumni of the course, filmed resources, and the collaboration of their peers’ experiences of a variety of schools, we aim to get our students to continue thinking about and preparing for their future within the classroom and school life as best we can. 

Preparing for the Future

These unusual times are exceptional.  Come the new academic year, our currently transformed schools will still require beginning teachers to educate the amazing young people of this country.  They will employ these beginning teachers in full knowledge that they will need to be nurtured and supported in ways that they might previously have assumed would have already been fulfilled through their training and classroom experience – mentoring in this context will be key, and we will seek to support our partnership schools.  Our aim is to ensure that our students are ready and receptive to this nurture and able to utilise the support provided to make the rapid progress their trajectories suggested was possible before the lockdown.  Our hope is that our plan will indeed enable our beginning teachers to build on all their experience in the classroom, the expertise of their mentors, and our partnership schools, to complete their journey to become a teacher virtually.

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