• A
  • A
Switch colours to view the site as you prefer!

Learning to be a teacher

“On-the-job” learning in teacher education continues almost unquestioned but what are aspiring teachers learning in the staffroom?

One of the undisputed ‘truths’ of teacher education is that learning to be a teacher requires the learner to do the work of a teacher. Regardless of the length of the teacher education element of a teacher’s education (be it one year or five years) there is an expectation that work in schools allows the aspiring teacher to experience life in schools from a teacher’s perspective. Put more simply, most teacher education programmes consists “almost entirely of doing the work of a teacher”. There is an assumption that what happens in schools is high quality and that learning from experienced peers is always a good thing. What this assumption doesn’t take account of is the full range of experiences that learner teachers might gain from working in schools. After all we all know that good and bad things occur in schools.

Programmes, indeed whole countries, structure learning around concepts such as the “professional-in-training” and consider workplace craft ‘practising’ as a non-negotiable aspect of teacher education. Time in schools is seen as a “rite of passage” and “the only or the best way of learning how to be a teacher”. Worryingly, despite the almost unchanging and unchallenged idea that working as a teacher is the best way to learn to be a teacher, education itself is constantly referred to as being in need of “revision and reform”. This is an equation that simply doesn’t seem to balance.

Teachers are consistently criticised, or so it seems, and yet they are trusted (meritoriously in many cases) to teach the new teachers. Their “personal literacy levels, subject matter knowledge and pedagogical skills” are the subject of calls for improvement and yet little changes in terms of our expectations around the school-based element of teacher education. It would seem that policy and practice around teacher education are founded on “customs and traditions” rather than evidence. In contrast, while teacher education seems unchanging wider society is increasingly engaging in an information and knowledge rich world. We live in what Rossi and colleagues call “a pedagogized society”. This doesn’t mean that we live in a world full of qualified teachers it is more that ‘everyone’ now has a platform to offer advice. Significantly “the opportunities to learn are more widely distributed that ever before”. People seek advice on injury concerns, they self-diagnose, and they go to the Internet before seeking professional help and yet, despite the apparent “ubiquity of pedagogy”, this new “pedagogized society” hasn’t changed the way in which people become educated and qualified professionally.

In many ways rather than changing teacher education this pedagogized society has simply created a “globalization of knowledge” about teaching and teacher education. The concerns over teachers’ subject matter knowledge, for example, in the USA have quickly become an issue in many other countries and yet professional learning – the very structures that created these apparent deficiencies - has not changed much. Teachers are still taught in the same way i.e. through workplace learning, and Governments increasingly seek to remove universities from the equation. It is as if what goes on in schools is real and what happens in universities is hypothetical.

While universities, and the teacher educators who work and research there, believe that aspiring teachers need to develop their “technical skills, competence and subject matter knowledge” they might also argue that such principles are “insignificant [on their own] for the preparation of teachers to meet the needs of twenty-first century schoolchildren”.

Rather than challenging the traditions we are repeatedly faced with “an education minister with a reform agenda” and a desire to right the errors of previous administrations: with the exception of the school-based element of teacher education. This ‘righting of wrongs’ occurs in policy statements but does not seek to change, or challenge, some of the ways we educate teachers. It would be easy at this point to demonise schools and laud the achievements of universities and yet both play their part in teacher education. That is not the point of this blog and I do not (and nor do the authors) place university-based teacher education on a pedestal. What we (they and now I) do, however, is challenge the uncontested notion that ‘workplace learning’ and ‘work’ readiness are always good.

Increasingly (and historically) there is support for the “training on the job model” and for the production of, and adherence to, “an intimidating list of standards and levels of performance by which a teacher may be ‘judged’”. Globally, working as teachers in schools during teacher education has been “retained, legislated for, and minimum time standard (i.e. number of days) established.” The truth is though there are “few if any definitive answers about how best to educate teachers for working in classrooms of the twenty-first century”.

At a time when physical education is in crisis and its purpose and relevance in children’s lives is repeatedly questioned what do we know about the experiences that young teachers ‘enjoy’ in schools. More specifically what do we know about what happens in the “departmental office or staffroom”? Indeed, as a field, education generally and physical education specifically lack a deep understanding of what is “actually going on, and where, in terms of the school as the place of work-based learning for teachers”. It can be argued (and has historically been argued) that workplace is a good place to learn. In many cases our stories, as teachers, may well be positive ones but it is naïve to assume that every story is the same. The idea that “the school is a simple, homogenous learning space is misleading”. While some spaces are conducive to learning others are “actually detrimental, even counter-productive to becoming a teacher.”

The truth is learning to be a teacher in a school doesn’t equate to working in one single space i.e. the school. It is not one space but multiple spaces that can (and do) impact on becoming a teacher. The department staffroom, or (using UK terminology) the ‘PE Office’ is “often little more that small room between the gym and the changing (or locker) rooms and showers where one could sit and gulp a cup of tea or coffee before the next lesson”. It is place where teachers (aspiring, new, and old alike) spend much of their non-teaching time and it is where they are socialised into the job of a teacher.

At the heart of this book (and the ten blogs that follow) are narratives from pre-service and newly qualified teachers about what goes on in these small spaces and its profound importance in becoming a teacher. Ultimately the book argues that “professional learning…both pre- and post-certification is something that could be done a great deal better”.

Rossi, T., lisahunter, Christensen, E. & Macdonald, D. (2015). Workplace learning in Physical Education: Emerging teachers’ stories from the staffroom and beyond. London: Routledge.

My journey as an educator is uniquely mine and just as a fingerprint, there are no two alike. Every educator has their own stories and experiences that they bring with them into the profession making their journey and perspective uniquely theirs. As I started out my own teaching career, I was looking for answers and felt as though my older, wiser, and more experienced colleagues were the ones who could provide me with the direction and guidance needed to become better at my craft. 

I would argue that what we think we are learning ‘on the job’ doesn’t only happen in the staffroom and department offices, but in every interaction (verbal and non-verbal) that we have with our colleagues throughout the day.  Looking back I can say that I was learning a lot from these interactions and observations, but I certainly wasn’t aware of it at the time. 

As a new teacher, it is easy to assume that others know best and to blindly believe without question. We are not taught to question early on in our careers. We are taught that practical experience and getting into the trenches is exactly how we will learn best and to become more competent and confident at what we do. Although I agree with this to a certain extent, I personally believe that there is so much more involved in developing ourselves and growing professionally. 

As stated in Ash’s summary ‘it is not one space but multiple spaces that can (and do) impact on becoming a teacher.’ In my opinion, it is these multiple spaces that impact the growth of all teachers, not just educators new to the profession. When looking back at some of these ‘small spaces’ in my own career, I have probably learned just as much what ‘not to do’ than ‘to do’ in regards to my own teaching practice. There is as much value in learning what not to do than what to do in regards to the way we professionally conduct ourselves inside and outside of our classrooms and gyms. 

New teachers should always proceed with caution and understand that what they hear and what they see done in non-teaching and teaching space has a powerful impact on their professional growth and development. Keeping their eyes and minds open to learning what ‘not to do’ and ‘to do’ is an important part of the socialization process of becoming a teacher. The art of truly listening and observing can play a powerful role in assisting young teachers along their unique journeys in education. Finding their own voice and place in the profession takes time, but can be a much more rewarding experience when they place trust in their own ability to identify what is worth believing and what is not.

comment avatar
About me
On Tuesday 19 May at 09:03 Alan Thomson said
An excellent blog Ash, much of which links into my PHD! I would argue that teachers are always learning to teach, particularly in light of the changing (and challenging for PE teachers) performative agendas that most schools seem to be following. One aspect worth considering (see Christensen 2012 and 2015) is micropolitics, and micropolitical literacy that teachers, particularly aspiring and new teachers have to consider and negotiate. I am presenting  about the impact of this on PE teachers at BERA in Belfast. How many aspiring teachers are aware of the impact of performativity and fabrication (see Ball, 2003) as they negotiate 'learning to be a PE teacher'? Finally, do they think of PE teachers' bodies? What are the ideal bodies for teaching PE? What messages are they receiving and sending about PE teachers' bodies? These types of questions are just as important on PETE courses / physical education courses as teaching styles, lesson planning, behaviour management etc. Understanding issues such as micropolitics, performativity the body and power enhance 'learning to be a PE teacher', but how often are they considered - particularly while they are 'on-the-job'? Are they ever considered or even identified by teachers already in post? I would be interested to hear the different perspectives of those currently 'learning to teach'.
comment avatar
About me
On Tuesday 19 May at 09:43 Tony Rossi said
An astute account of the premise of the book Ashley, and Alan - a nice observation. Erin Christensen, one of the co-authors of the book wrote her Phd on micropolitics and micropolitical literacy - some of this is captured in the book. It was clear that many of the young people in this study were indeed caught up in the terrors of performativity as you identify Ball as stating it - but not at the level of governance or accountability  but at the more routine Departmental office level - Ashley will draw this out as the blog develops I am sure.  Alan your observation about PE teachers' bodies is also noteworthy - this was the focus of one of our PhD students (she was not connected to this project). Her findings related to 'perceptions of bodies' (including their own) of pre service PE teachers are worth having a look at. Her name is Valerea Varea and some of her work appeared in a recent edition of Sport Education and Society. Finally there are important words in Andy's response ... "New teachers should proceed with caution" ... good advice on any continent. Best wishes
comment avatar
About me
On Tuesday 19 May at 12:18 Alan Thomson said
Thanks for the kind words Tony. Your thinking about performativity at micro level did figure in my ethnographic study. An obvious example was that although the PE teachers were performing the Ofsted discourse (The school were due to undergo an imminent inspection to secure a fifth successive 'Outstanding'), the student teacher was being assessed under the QTS Teaching Standards. This was interesting to observe and discuss with her as certain PE staff  mentoring her were interpreting the QTS Standards through an Ofsted discourse lens - something that was evident in her praxis (depending upon who was observing her). This caused undoubted confusion with regards to her planning and delivery as she had her own constructions of PE and the Teaching Standards to deal with, along with those from her University. Ball's (2003) idea of 'ontological insecurity' was embodied in her praxis. Thanks for the advice on Valerea Varea - I have seen her paper with Richard Tinning, and will continue to look out for her work. The idea of how PE teachers' bodies change (or as some said don't) during their careers, and their perceptions of this is also something my study touches upon.  Your book filled a much needed gap in the knowledge - from my experience there are too many graduates who love the idea of being a physical education teacher, but when they actually get a job, they have no concept of the reality, and find that the reality is not what they signed up to do. I look forward to Ashley dealing with this in due course.
comment avatar
About me
On Tuesday 19 May at 13:38 Toni O'Donovan said
Ash/Andy,  Firstly thanks for this new series of blogs as I'm really looking forward to them.  While reading this first blog I was struck by the frequency with which we discuss how teachers learn from other teachers, what to do and what not to do.  Yet we pay little attention to how teachers are shaped by their pupils' expectations for how a teacher should teach and behave.  Indeed interaction patterns between teachers and pupils in the changing room, corridors and classroom are not easy to disrupt and as such prior pupil learning probably plays a very significant role in the wash out effect. I also find the advice to 'proceed with caution' interesting as there is some dissonance with what we teach at University (do not be afraid to try new things, new pedagogical practices etc...).  Yet I do not think the caution that Andy describes here is being cautious with your pedagogic practices but to take time to find your voice and the place from which you can try new things.  With the terrors of performativity and pressure to 'perform' in line with pupil, school and ofsted expectations finding this place must indeed be challenging.
comment avatar
About me
On Wednesday 20 May at 01:24 Brendan Jones said
There's a lot to consider here, no least the idea of "nature v nuture" when it comes to being teacher. What is most important in the initial stages of teacher training? The desire to be a teacher (internally driven) or the willingness to grow and evolve into a teacher (internally and externally influenced nurturing) ? In this sense I would suggest a radical plan - internship before tertiary education so that prospective candidates get their taste of school communities before undertaking the career journey. That was the cultural phenomenons they observe in a school setting could be challenged at university, and with that in mind preparation for teaching has a context. I have to go - I'm hurriedly smashing this out at school and the bell has gone. Time for my next class. Happy to revisit this at a later, more relaxed time :-) Jonesy
comment avatar
About me
On Wednesday 20 May at 01:30 Tony Rossi said
Thanks Alan and Toni for your comment and observations - I agree Toni - the caution Andy talks about is not around intended practice or pedagogical risk taking - we probably do not want our pre-service teachers to be risk averse ... however the conditions of 'performance' can be, as you identify oppressive, and the shaping of practice that ensues ends up being in spite of us rather than because of us in the university sector. I am not sure this is akin to  Zeichner and Tabachnick's ideas around washout  - we have observed how pre-service teachers retain their ideas, commitments and creative flair but perform a different identity when on teaching practice - we found this troubling.... yep caution in seeking the space for risk taking.  Alan, you can pick Ball's ideas around ontological security up in Giddens 1991 - he talks about 'ontological security' and 'existential anxiety' when performing identity  - might be worth a look. BTW loved the narrative around OFSTED Alan ... I read with dismay yet not surprise ... we don't have inspections in Australia (yet) - but we have league tables (based on standardized tests) which are allegedly not for comparative purposes .....  
Ashley Casey
About me
On Wednesday 20 May at 12:21 Ashley Casey said
Thanks to Andy for his very thoughtful response and to Alan, Tony, Toni and Brendan for their responses to date.  I recall my student teacher experiences, and indeed my internship (to use Brendan’s term) as an unqualified teacher over a two-year period. I learnt as much about how to be a teacher as how not be one. I learnt from good colleagues and not so good colleagues but what I learnt most was how to ‘be’ a PE teacher first and a teacher second. I learnt what was valued and what wasn’t. I learnt how to dress, act and talk.  That’s said, and in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, I also “heard what I wanted to hear and disregarded the rest”. What I mean is I filtered some of the messages I heard and made them fit my expectations of what I, a PE teacher, should be. I feel that I was always learning to teach but what I found out as I changed my teaching (which has been well-documented elsewhere) was that the PE Office was not as accepting of my desire to change as I was or the student were (although both resisted change). I was lucky I guess, because I started this change process long after my apprenticeship was over and I was established in the field, in the office, and in the school. This would have been much harder in either my PGCE schools or in my internship. I find myself drawn to Brendan’s idea of nature vs. nurture. I did become the type of teacher I wanted to be but, in the beginning at least, this was because I think I became the teacher I set out to become. This, in turn, was the type of teacher I was surrounded by. I fitted in rather than stood out and I was happy with this. I meet everyone’s expectations and therefore I had an easy ride. Except when I questioned the decisions made by a colleague and then my teacher education and subsequent career nearly ended overnight.  This colleague/superior (who went on to be a head of Department) didn’t like it when I told him that his lesson wasn’t great. That wasn’t my place and this is, perhaps, one of the problems with school-based practice. Pre-service teachers are there to learn how to ‘be’ a good teacher and serve their apprenticeship. That said different people have different expectation of teaching and young/new teacher often get mixed messages. While my mentor would have listen to my comments, this other member of staff saw me and positioned me in a certain way i.e. new. Then I went and stepped away from beginner’s role and challenged him. I was quickly put in my place and I stopped challenging anything that I saw. I became compliant. I was nurtured into my role as listener (with a metaphorical ‘big foot’ in my case) and, truth be told, I nearly didn’t become a teacher.  These spaces are universally acceptable as places of learning and yet how often do we challenge the type of learning that occurs – on an individual basis? It is good to hear some of these stories and I look forward to exploring them as this blog develops. 
comment avatar
About me
On Sunday 24 May at 08:00 @ImSporticus said
Perhaps the issue is not with initial teacher training provision but with the ongoing professional development of a PE Teacher. Once qualified many PE teachers are left to their own devices to build learning capacity, and in the relentless day to day job of teaching this can be difficult to achieve. Is it any wonder then that all PE Teachers, not just the new, turn to their colleagues for advice, support and knowledge? Whilst this has the advantage of ensuring the advice given relates to the context of the school it also breeds conformity. The culture and environment of the school is a strong driver of professional development. Therefore some teachers are 'lucky' whilst others might not be so depending on the environment of the school and social dynamics of the PE Department. Obviously both the formal and informal aspects of initial teacher training have a big socialising influence on new teachers. I would probably say that the informal socialisation of school placements is probably more powerful than University, especially in terms of what makes 'good' PE teaching. How many providers of PE ITT spend time checking the quality of teaching of PE in placement schools, the departments philosophy and the support network they have in place not just for the trainee teacher but for the full time staff? I have now worked with 3 different Universities as a PE Subject Mentor and my individual teaching, my personal beliefs of PE or the department I work in has never been assessed by the provider. Perhaps this is something to consider improving in the future through a system of creditation? There is also very little transfer from University to School Based Placement for example if students are learning about different models based practices at Uni, then they should have the opportunity within school to use this approach, no matter what beliefs the Department has about it. However this gives way to lesson planning, behaviour management and improving basic sport specific knowledge. I agree with Brendan's idea of a 'internship' before starting teacher training. With PE Teacher Training being oversubscribed every year, this is now an unwritten rule, considering how competitive it is to not only get on a course but actually get a job in the UK education system. It would also have the chance of ensuring a good level of lesson planning and behaviour management before starting ITT, which could allow more time in placement schools to allow the implementation of learning theory into practice. Back to my initial statement. The real difficulty I think for PE Teachers is making the connection between theory and practice. They tend to teach how they are taught, and after a few years the knowledge that was built at university has all but gone. How can you be truly critical and reflective of practice when this is not based on learning theories, and the cause and effect of their teaching? Teachers once qualified need TIME to reflect. They  need to go back to university, to engage with current thinking and theories, to talk to researchers. Taking this knowledge back into school they can the continue to question their own and their departments practices and whether they suit the context of their school, the pupils within it and whether it meets the overall aims of Physical Education. Perhaps we need to move the mindset of PE Teachers away from passers on of knowledge and skills to one of being a learner themselves. To model learning to students, by themselves engaging in continuous learning throughout their professional career.
comment avatar
About me
On Sunday 24 May at 13:40 Alan Thomson said
An interesting point about reflection '@ImSporticus'. When being asked to consider 'reflection', students will generally only reflect on the immediacy of a 'teaching scenario' - ie what has just happened and why (planning / pupil behaviour / ability / weather etc). Rarely will they examine their own place within the reflection in terms of their beliefs and thoughts about PE, and within the wider picture of where their beliefs and thoughts about PE are philosophically situated. In turn, would they also consider where the mentor's beliefs, the department and school's beliefs, and those others that also make up the socially constructed aims and purpose of PE? As you said '@ImSporticus', this takes time, and it needs the support of someone who understands this bigger picture to be able to provide it - this means mentors having time (and the inclination) to provide that support. How many mentors in physical education have the understanding or the time to scaffold philosophical support? Does this put the onus back onto universities and researchers to provide mentors with greater philosophical understanding as part of mentor training?
comment avatar
About me
On Monday 01 June at 10:26 michelle flemons said
The purpose of this response is to address and comment on the issues highlighted in Ashley’s blog. I aim to give insight into the importance of having a balanced combination of PETE in schools and university. This will be examined from a teacher socialisation perspective underpinned by the occupational socialisation framework as well as the significance of teacher beliefs on creating change and moving physical education forward. As Ashley has already discussed, there is a notion that the best place for beginner teachers to learn their role is within the school environment. Although this may have its benefits with regards to practical hands on experience, this practise, as it were has already occurred for many years leading up to entering teacher education during the anticipatory phase of occupational socialisation. Potential recruits will have experienced what Lortie (1975) described as an ‘apprenticeship of observation’ as well as trying out their ‘surgeons hands’ through their involvement in supporting their teacher and coaching sporting activities. It can be argued that teacher socialisation starts well before they enter the profession. Green (2002) argues that physical education is based on ideology as opposed to philosophy, and that we as humans are interdependent between and within each generation. This notion gives offers explanation as to why physical education struggles to move forward; old ideologies are recycled and reused which results in a limited promotion of positive change. The interdependent and intergenerational links within the profession and the wider field resonates with Andy Vasily’s comment regarding every day interactions. As part of the growth and development of students in teacher education, being able to manage these relationships effectively is paramount if they are to find their own position and voice within the profession. Intergenerational and interdependent links have a significant impact on teacher beliefs; a significant consideration given that one’s belief system impacts on how receptive they are to teacher training and what experience they will give their pupils in the classroom. Teacher beliefs will inform action within teachers’ professional lives. Beliefs that are developed from early experiences in physical education often act as filters during teacher training given their reluctance to change. New ideas need to be embedded within or replace the existing beliefs (assimilation and accommodation). A trainee teachers’ idealised perception of teaching physical education will be influenced by their own past experiences. This notion compliments Toni’s call to consider the children and how they A) impact on the assimilation and accommodation of beliefs during the professional phase and B) how the trainee teachers will impact on the developing beliefs of the children that could potentially hold the next generation of physical education teachers (intergenerational links). University plays an important and significant role in effective teacher training. We need to not only give student teachers the tools of the trade but also the ability , confidence and skill set to implement new ideas and overcome wash out effectively and efficiently by understanding and managing the power relationships within departments. School experience and university Teacher Education needs to work together harmoniously to move physical education forwards. Students need an impartial and environment to examine their experiences in more depth. Value can be added to school experience by allowing students to question their ‘apprenticeship of observation’ safe in the knowledge that power relationships will not impact or influence this process of drawing conclusions from what they have seen and explored in school. From experience, I have seen good students with ‘bully’ mentors forcing a traditional ideology for teaching physical education by adopting a ‘my way or no way’ approach to mentoring. This experience could and has potentially led to students leaving the teaching profession before they have even started. University, in these situations, has provided them with a safety net by acting as a catalyst to rebuild confidence and self belief that they are indeed more than capable of entering the profession and qualifying as a teacher. It can be argued that the quality of in- school only teacher training will only be as good as the mentor and relationship between him/ her and the student teacher. It is more likely that in these circumstances Tinning’s (1988) pedagogy of necessity will be adopted. Even with PETE that has a good balance between experience in school and university learning, it has been noted in my current study by teachers that have been in the profession for five years or more, there is still a reality shock. A teacher’s job actually involves far more than teaching itself. Teachers are social workers, statisticians, events managers, the list goes on. In the words of one of my participants,’ I love teaching; I don’t like being a teacher anymore’. In reality according to the initial finding of my study, physical education teachers in particular find that observations completed by school senior leadership teams are comparable to that of a less ‘kinaesthetic’ lesson such as maths or English. The current obsession over having a paper trail and evidence for every learning experience is actually viewed as a hindrance. Performance related pay has a direct impact on how teachers teach. They will teach to tick the boxes, and in some cases are reluctant to try new ideas. The subjectivity of what an outstanding lesson should look like means that there is less emphasis on what learning is actually going on within the lesson. Are we preparing our student teachers for this and giving them ways to deal with it effectively so that they can grow confidently into the teacher they want to be?

In order to add your comments, you must login or register as a member

You can login or register here