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Walking the Talk

Creating positive, future orientated learning spaces in schools and staffrooms is vital if the practices of physical education are to be similarly future orientated.

The sense (one I share with authors) on concluding this book is one of disappointment. Not overriding disappointment because I can see that some of the participants had positives experiences but certainly enduring disappointment given how few of the participants are still (at the time the book went to press) in teaching. This haemorrhaging of future teachers can’t simply be attributed to poor quality candidates. The simple fact is they all ‘passed the course’ and qualified as teachers. Instead it can be attributed to poor quality experiences. It would be easy to attribute this loss of beginning teacher to their experiences of work-based or work-integrated learning – indeed that is what the evidence of this study (and the authors I feel) suggest. The full extent of their teacher education experiences, however, need to be considered if we are to better understand ‘what went wrong’.

What we do learn form this book, however, is that for many of the pre-service and beginning teachers in this study the staffroom specifically and the practicum more generally were not seen as positive learning spaces. These places did not provide opportunities to transform practice and make a difference but were, instead, places where new teachers engaged in self-preservation and image management. They were not places in which new teachers could take chances and try out new ideas. Indeed, innovations that, at the very least, intrigued them in their University classes had little chance to survive and prosper in the real world. Instead, these were places where they learnt the established script and played their pre-defined role. While we learn nothing of their university-based teacher education experiences we learn a lot, and not much of it good, about their school-based experiences. 

The narratives presented throughout this book speak of a ‘mixed bag’ when it came to the practicum. They speak of the ability of these teachers to ‘live up’ to the standards but not ‘live down’ the practices of teaching. They speak loudly of vastly different experiences (which is to be expected and celebrated) and vastly different standards of care (which shouldn’t). 

Rossi and colleagues hold that “we have a profession that (like most others) provides opportunities for work-placed or work-integrated learning that will vary across the many sites where such learning takes place. At the same time we have a set of centralized measures (or ways of making a judgement) to assess, first, the suitability of teachers to enter the profession, and second, the quality of the teacher once she or he is part of the system”. So, on the one hand, we have different experiences and, on the other, we have standardized expectations of what pre-service and beginning teachers can achieve in these spaces. There is, as the authors suggest, a certain incompatibility between the freedoms afforded to schools and the centralized control imposed by governments. What’s more it also imagines the staffroom as a benevolent society in which the greater good is always prioritized – which this book would suggest is very far from the truth.

What emerges from this concluding chapter – indeed from the whole book – is a very real sense that we need to question the social space that exists in the staffroom. We need to see, identify and the re-condemn the condemned practices that seem to survive there. We need to create spaces where discussions – safe discussions – can occur about the purpose of this space. We need to acknowledge that such spaces call for compliance and the maintenance of the status quo. We need to see these as places in which new teachers aren't required to match our ‘ideals’ around teaching and where they need perform this identity (at the cost perhaps of their true identity) so convincingly that they can pass the course. We need to see that it doesn't have be a space that is supportive of obsolete practice and which positions many of these as unchallengeable facets of practice. In short, the staffroom is often a place that grants power through conformity.

Instead of accepting these norms as unchallengeable we need to ask ourselves what we ‘identify as’. Do we accept that we are the gatekeepers of practice with the power to either sanction or marginalise new ideas? Do we hold that it is the job of new teachers to read the social space of the staffroom, to decipher or decode its practices or are we there to help pre-service and beginning teachers evolve the subject? Rossi and colleagues ask ‘what spaces do we have?’ and ‘ want spaces to we want?’ before asking us to see the difference.

‘What spaces do we have?’ and ‘ Want spaces to we want?’

What clearly emerges from this chapter and this book is the need for high quality induction for pre-service and beginning teachers. Such experiences would challenge not only the formal and planned learning spaces in the school and classroom but also the non-formal and unplanned learning spaces found in the staffroom. Such an induction would start in teacher education programmes and focus on preparing new teachers for the staffroom before moving into the school. Fundamentally such an induction would provide and support all leaners (old and new) to establish identities that would allow them to meaningfully participate in induction. 

The question I am left with is “who are the standard setters?” Who decides what is acceptable and what isn’t? Is it the ‘legendary teachers’ we meet last week or is it a collective effort? Whoever it is they needed to be collectively “guided by a vision of good teaching” and they need to be willing to re-analyse taken for granted truths. Rossi and colleagues hold that “the field must be able to justify what they consider represents good practices” and “practice being the type of citizen expected within teaching”.

In concluding this blog and this series of blogs I’m left to acknowledge that while “there is unpredictability and messiness in the reality of schools and staffrooms” this shouldn’t be allowed to impact on the quality of the educative experiences of our students (be they in school or in university/practicum). Fundamentally, and drawing on the words of Rossi and colleagues, “we consider it to be non-negotiable that the learning made available through the workplace and, in the specific case of this study the departmental office or staffroom, must be of higher quality. It needs to conform to all decent ethical standards and should be comparable as a professional learning space across all sites and participants”. 

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

This blog is right on mark when it comes to the affect of the staffroom on the development of a novice teacher. This development isn’t just limited to content knowledge, but also in the professional responsibilities a teacher must develop in order to be successful in their career. To me, these responsibilities are in some sense, more important than the content knowledge a teacher possesses. Without the ability to  act with professionalism, a teacher lacks vital skills such as perseverance, resourcefulness, and the ability to communicate. These can be aided by a strong staffroom committed to developing a young teacher.

Teachers just out of university are anxious to fit in with their new colleagues. As a twenty-two year old teacher in a school full of veterans, I had personal experience with the staffroom dilemma. Do I participate in conversation or actions that may not be the best for my development? Or do I find my own way with the risk of standing out? Why does a teacher have to consider either choice? There should be a system in place to ensure the staff room stays positive and ideal for learning and development.

I also like the point of having University give prospective teachers effective strategies on how to thrive in the staffroom environment. However, I am not optimistic about this solution. University fails to instruct prospective teachers about many things that are not related to pedagogy. Consequently, I would like to see universities provide instruction on important teacher skills such as parent communication, dealing with coworkers, and developing relationships with students.    

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On Wednesday 05 August at 20:47 Matt Polnow said

It was incredible having a chance to briefly speak with Dr. Ash Casey at #PEinstitute15.  I couldn't agree more with this article and response from Jonathan Jones.


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On Tuesday 18 August at 14:04 Mel Hamada said

Another interesting topic - the dreaded staffroom.  I am not quite sure that I understand the quote that imsporticus has on his blog about the very cutting comment made to him as the new PE teacher - "On the first day in my current school I sat down next to a colleague and began to introduce myself as the new Teacher of PE. She kindly smiled at me, pointed to the opposite side of the common room, and said sweetly ‘I know. The shallow side is over there.’ I’ve been drowning ever since." but I do know that this is not uncommon for the new PE person in the room.  I do wonder if it is just PE teachers that face this or if it is the iniatition that all new teachers face as they penetrate the new school social spaces.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I had lots of people give me advice. Lots. It seems that we feel that we have the right to impart our views and our experiences with others regardless of whether we think that they want them or not - and then you have to decide which advice or wisdom is well intended or you agree with and which you are going to disregard as soon as you peel away.  Gossip magazines and Guides to How to books or other are other examples - there are so many you could choose to read or ignore based on who you are and what you believe.  But I know that I am lucky.  I have a higher education and I have a pretty good idea of what is going on and what I believe in and with more experience I am able to filter and choose which staff align with the philosophy I buy into and who to steer clear of.

However, a new teacher with limited support or exposure to this situation is in danger of being put off by the people they are trusting with their new career.  Who is responsible for these new teachers?  Is it the University? Or  is it the school who should provide a mentor?  Or is it that teachers are being asked to take on too much without proper guidance or follow up sessions to check their mental state?  I think it has to be all three if we can.  If a teacher is on a University placement for practical teaching then the University checks in on them and the mentor teacher should be working to check on that person.  I don't see that this should be so different for a first year teacher, particularly in a performace subject like PE.  I would think that a University that graduates PE teachers would want to know the percentage of their graduates who have jobs and who retain their jobs after the first year, 2 years, 5 years to track what is going on and to find out if the course they offer is actually preparing their graduates for work life.

The International schools I have worked at all have a large staff turn over - one school had 1/4 of the teachers leave each year, and my current school has about 6 leave each year - one year only 2.  It seems that this transient ensures that people are ensuring that you are welcome, sorted out and checked in on in your first year.  I wonder if some of the teachers in the book are actually working in schools with very limited turn over and so working with teachers who are not happy in their spaces and don't leave.  I also wonder if this is a very British issue or if it is something that is very problematic in other countries too.

I also agree with Andy Vasily that the way in which people treat others affects new teachers and so I believe must be watched over by the Admin of the school to ensure that the open spaces (cafeteria, staff rooms etc) are safe places for all staff as well as students.  I found I was ill prepared for how to work with the office staff when I graduated - I had no idea how to work the photocopier or who to ask for keys and how important the relationships were between the PE teacher and the cleaning and maintenance staff - invaluable people to have onside.

Thanks for sharing Ash.

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