The idea for this post has been taken wholesale from Old Andrew’s excellent posts on his dream school, here and here
I’m visiting the University Of Newchesterpool’s School Of Education, one of the UK’s largest teacher training institutions, located within a large northern redbrick University.
I’m greeted by the School’s director, Professor Julia Expert, and en route to her office we spend a few minutes dropping in on a lecture for the PGCE English students. A professor from the University’s English faculty is leading the trainees through an in depth analysis of the threads running through Shakespeare’s tragedies, with a particular emphasis on Hamlet and Macbeth.
We arrive at her office. I ask why the trainees were spending their time on such a technical discussion of Shakespeare, and why one of the PGCE tutors wasn’t leading the lecture.
“Well, we’re sending these people into the world as English teachers. They’re going to be the experts in the room, and some will be teaching students only a year away from enrolling on English Literature degrees. We’re fortunate to be a part of a University which is very highly regarded for the quality of our English faculty, and so it made sense for that particular session to be led by Professor Angle, who is well renowned as a Shakespearian scholar.”
Professor Expert tells me that in the next door lecture theatre students are engaged in a discussion with one of the University’s Psychology professors. “We set them Practice Perfect by Willingham and Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel as required reading texts. I’m not an authority on cognitive psychology, so I figured a discussion on a book written by a cognitive psychologist was best led by someone who knows the field well.”
It’s clear that there are regular lectures on subject-specific content. There are lectures on cognitive psychology. How often do the trainees get lectures on how to teach?
“Well… what do you mean by lectures on how to teach? We focus very heavily on classroom management and behaviour, especially in the early weeks.”
I tell her I mean teaching activities. The nuts and bolts of a lesson.
“I disagree that activities are the nuts and bolts of a lesson. The knowledge that’s being imparted, the security of the expertise of the teacher – the expert in the room – that’s the background of a lesson. Remember that for years, centuries, teachers responsible for secondary age students would deliver knowledge in a pretty didactic way, and students still learned.”
I tell Professor Expert that she’s betrayed something about herself there. I ask her opinion of progressive teaching methods.
“I’m not a huge fan, if I’m honest.”
Isn’t she being hypocritical? I thought advocating a certain type of teaching was out of vogue? Shouldn’t students at least know about progressive educational methods of instruction? What if they want to teach that way?
“Well, sure. I don’t force my views down anyone’s throats. We don’t tell the trainees to teach in any particular way at all, we just try to make sure they know how to control the room and that they’re clear on what the information they want to get across in that lesson is. Our trainees are interested people, and plenty of them turn up on the first day having already gone into the educational section of Waterstones and bought a copy of Teacher Toolkit, or Dancing about Architecture. If they want to try something out that they’ve read in one of those books, I tell them, ‘sure… if you think the kids are going to learn the core knowledge you’re trying to impart, then try what you like.’ I also tell them that I think there are simpler and more effective ways to get that knowledge across, and to be careful not to burn themselves out with over-work, but nothing is verboten. They can do as they please.”
We stand up and she takes me into a seminar room. The trainees are discussing the effects of the 1944 Butler reforms with the ‘associate tutor’ running the class. They all seem knowledgeable, but I’m unsure how relevant the discussion is to their life in the classroom.
On our way back to Expert’s office, we drop in on a room shared by three of the School’s associate tutors. Above each desk are three framed certificates: the tutor’s PGCE certificate, their QTS certificate and their NQT Induction certificate. I almost laugh.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone frame their QTS certificate!”
One of them answers. “If you go into the office of a doctor, or solicitor, or architect, you’ll often see their professional credentials framed behind their desk. We’re part of a profession too. Why shouldn’t we be proud of it?”
Fair enough. Back at Expert’s office I quiz her on a couple of things. Firstly, why are the students talking about Rab Butler?
“Part of our course is a module on the history of education, all the way from Socrates to the present day. All doctors know who Hippocrates was. All architects know who Vitrivus was. In the same way, all of our trainees leave knowing who Socrates and Aristotle were, and what they thought. Ours is a noble profession with a long history. We want our trainees to be aware of it, and proud of their professional heritage.”
I also have to mention the age of the tutors. I’ve seen one teaching a session, and met three in their office just now. All were in their thirties or early forties. Aren’t PGCE tutors usually slightly older? I mean, they’re people who’ve retired from teaching generally, aren’t they? And doesn’t that make them more credible – and certainly more experienced – than the 30-year-old I’ve just seen discussing the Butler reforms in the seminar room?
“We made a decision that we wanted all our tutors to be practicing teachers. That means that the reality of teaching today, with the constant flux in policy and expectation, is real to them. Of course it means that all of our tutors are part time, which is why we call them associate tutors. As for credibility, most of our students appreciate being taught by people who are living the reality of what they’re teaching the trainees. Plus, all of our associates publish papers and most are studying, or have graduated, from part time Masters and Doctoral programmes.”
They’re all part time? Doesn’t that mean you have to hire more of them? It must be expensive? Also, who has time to teach in school, tutor at University and write papers?
“It’s not really that expensive. We pay £10,000 per year for a two days per week tutoring commitment. They still receive two thirds of their teacher’s salary for the three days they’re in school, and we pay a £5,000 bonus if they write a book or publish more than five peer reviewed papers in a year. We let them enrol on our part-time MA and M.Ed courses for free, which is a benefit-in-kind but doesn’t really cost us additional money. They do it because they love it, and if you’ve passed threshold, which most of our associates have, you could be on £38,000 a year and studying for a free M.Ed. Not too bad.”
Before I leave I take time to talk with some of the trainees. I ask them what they enjoy about the course. Most appreciate the intensive focus on behaviour in the early days, and say that it has made them feel more secure as they enter the classroom. They appreciate being told that they’re professionals, studying for a professional post-graduate degree, and they feel a sense of pride in the in the career choice they’ve made.
They appreciate that their observations are purely formative, and none feel stage-fright the night before an observation as they know that their places on the course aren’t riding on the outcome: observations are just input for a coaching conversation.
They are grateful that they are exposed to a number of contrasting schools. During their year here, they’ll spend at least a fortnight in a school with a high FSM roll, a school with a high EAL roll, and at the other end of the spectrum, the prestigious Newchesterpool Grammar.
They’re also happy that their tutors are currently teaching, and that their tutors tell them how adrift they sometimes feel themselves, and how they’re still learning. The School of Education provides a good start, but it’s only a beginning. Luckily, the graduates of Newchesterpool know that.