Embracing the space: A journey into training to be a teacher virtually

Photo by Ingo Joseph on Pexels.com

Before I begin this blog it is important to establish that I am utterly convinced of the importance of partnership in Initial Teacher Education.  Training teachers ‘outside’ the classroom environment in a purely theoretical realm is just not possible; theoretical knowledge cannot be easily interpreted by teachers into effective classroom practice unless they are specifically supported to do so by colleagues in school placements, in our case, working with an HEI partner (Smith et. al. 2006).  Theory is vital in developing specialised teacher knowledge, but the value and importance of it can only be truly unlocked when beginning teachers are able to put it into the context of relationships forged with pupils in classrooms and an understanding of the ways theory interplays with the practical considerations of teaching and learning (Shulman and Shulman, 2004).

However, in a world in lockdown due to Covid-19 quarantine measures, a mentor supported classroom based teaching practice just isn’t possible.  In my last blog I explained how we set about planning a virtual curriculum for our PGCE History students, to support them in achieving QTS, based on the following five principles:

  1. Collaboration with colleagues
  2. Subject Knowledge enhancement
  3. Pedagogical engagement
  4. Lesson planning practise
  5. Professional growth and understanding

Now three weeks in, I offer a few initial observations on how these beginning teachers are responding to our programme, and reflections upon how these unique circumstances are actually allowing our beginning teachers to grow in ways not usually available to them at this point in the course.

The story so far…

Over the past three weeks I have participated in nearly 60 online video conferencing seminars with our cohort.  During their small-group seminars I have ‘listened in’ (and interrupted with comments and focus questions) as our PGCE history students have:

  • critically examined history specific pedagogy and delved into the disciplinary underpinnings of their subject.
  • revelled in the opportunity to engage with historical subject knowledge from a range of periods as they have presented to each other their latest explorations into scholarship, and shared some amazing book, podcast and documentary recommendations.
  • been excited to watch their lesson planning approaches develop as they have increasingly grasped the value of planning rigorous historical enquiries in sequence, implementing their weekly disciplinary and pedagogical focus in their planning, whilst honing their critical evaluation and reflection skills.

During their whole-group seminar it has been a joy, along with my colleagues, to get them ‘Thinking about’ different aspects of their teacher identity and understanding of teaching and learning and classroom practice, as we have:

  • enjoyed hearing them grapple (both within the seminar and afterwards in our discussion forum) with theories of learning and teaching, including learning sciences, as they continue to identify their own position on learning in history and their philosophy of teaching. 

Alongside these programmes they also engage with our ‘Conversations from the Classroom’ series with teachers from our partnership and alumni of the course.  In coming weeks, they will also have the opportunity to undertake virtual alternative professional experiences in a range of different educational settings, and we will also ensure that classroom practice issues, such as behaviour management, are also explored.   Additionally they have also been encouraged to tap into the many amazing history specific and more generic pedagogical courses being offered by other providers and organisations, for example the History Curricularium virtual ‘conference’.    

What are we seeing in terms of our beginning teachers’ development?

Photo by Vikas Sawant on Pexels.com

So far, our beginning teachers are thriving in the virtual space.

Most of our students came into this period just as they were getting into their stride in the classroom, getting to grips with the workload and day in day out demands of teaching.  Most were on the precipice of having built sufficient confidence with groups to begin taking risks in their teaching approaches.  All came equipped with a secure understanding of their groups and, I’m happy to report, a concern for the well-being and historical progress of those young people.  This has been invaluable.  They may not be physically in the classroom, but their mindsets most definitely reside in their placement school classrooms. 

When I ‘listen in’ I hear these beginning teachers explaining with clarity why they have made specific decisions and choices in their lesson planning because of the needs of the group for whom they are planning.  I see moments of revelation as they make a connection between an article on history pedagogy and a classroom-based lesson enquiry problem with which they have been grappling.  I can see them growing in their subject knowledge confidence, as they use the space and opportunity to engage with scholarship and share in the expertise of their peers, and can recognise the way this is playing out in their planning of more historical rigorous enquiry questions which will intrigue pupils but with a firm foundation of historical value underpinning their lesson sequences.  I also observe their  planning process becoming more time-efficient. And then I read their reflections and see how they are setting themselves really clear, practice-based targets for when they finally get their feet back in the classroom.

Moreover they are also reflecting on how their understanding of the practice they were undertaking in the classroom day in day out is being given space, away from the ‘treadmill of school life’, to grow and develop in new ways.  All of them wish they were back in the classroom with the pupils and colleagues they have grown to care about and value (something I am both thankful and relieved about), but it is clear that the virtual space is providing opportunities which would be hard to come by in the necessarily time-pressured environment of a full-time school based placement. 

Moving forward

It would be tempting to draw all sorts of conclusions about what this might mean for PGCE/ ITT courses moving forward.  The experience is certainly raising all sorts of questions – can the virtual learning opportunities, being developed out of necessity, be employed into a future which has returned to ‘normal’? But it really is too soon to make any proclamations of this nature.

For now, all I can say is that I’m incredibly proud of my UoN History PGCE Cohort 2019/20 for their engagement, enthusiasm, willingness to get on board and desire to be the very best teachers they can despite the circumstances thrust upon us.  And I echo the promise I have made to those schools who have already employed many of them as NQTs for next year – we will do all we can in the virtual space to get them ready to do a good job under your careful and generous mentorship.  This cohort will be uniquely trained beginning teachers, but they will deserve their qualified teacher status.


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