February 29, 2016, by educationguestblog

Celebrating Teaching – a teacher educator

As part of our celebrating teaching initiative, I would like to think about what it means to be a teacher educator and why I am proud of the role I have.

If I consider my route into teaching, my starting point was to have a love of, and be good at, my subject. This did not, however, make me a good teacher. A year of training helped me to begin to understand how to teach my subject, and all the other aspects of being a teacher, but it was several years down the line before I think I was a decent teacher. Many things happened in these years:

  • I taught a wide range of pupils of different ages, abilities and backgrounds
  • I taught all the topics in the curriculum several times, each time gaining a deeper understanding of my subject and how pupils learnt it
  • I discussed teaching, and teaching my subject, with different colleagues, seeing different perspectives, trying out ideas and inquiring into teaching and learning

Crucially, I understood that being good at my subject wasn’t enough and that teacher knowledge was something different to my subject knowledge.

Several years into my teaching career I became a head of department. The same process happened again, I wasn’t good to begin with and I had to learn a whole new set of skills:

  • how to lead other teachers and develop a shared vision
  • how to support staff who were struggling with an aspect of their teaching
  • how to mediate relationships between senior management and my department

Through these experiences I continued to learn more about my subject and how children learn it but also began to learn about how teachers develop professionally and how they can be supported. Perhaps this could be termed teacher educator knowledge?

When I undertook my Masters in Education I added another layer to my understanding. I revisited theoretical ideas I had explored as a trainee teacher and delved deeper into them, making sense of my experiences as a teacher and a head of department. I identified aspects of my practice I wanted to inquire into and, yet again, my knowledge and understanding of teaching and learning deepened.

One could argue that, by this stage, I would have made a good teacher educator and maybe this is true. I am not convinced though and I believe the same stages I went through in my early years of teaching, and again as a new head of department, needed to be travelled once more to make me a good teacher educator:

  • I  have now worked with many cohorts of beginning teacher. Each student is different, with different strengths and different needs. In the same way as I discovered this about pupils, I have learnt this about beginning teachers. This means, whilst we can have structures and processes built in to a teacher training year, we have to understand the journey a beginning teacher is taking and continually adapt and mould that journey for the individual.
  • I have taught classes of beginning teachers over many years and, again just like when learning to teach my subject, I have gained a deeper understanding of my new subject – learning to teach. I know what beginning teachers need to learn, what they are likely to struggle with, what questions I need to ask, how I need to differentiate and so on.
  • I have become part of a community of teacher educators. I constantly discuss teaching beginning teachers, try out ideas and inquire into teaching and learning in the context of teacher education.

To me the key here is to see learning to teach through the same lens as one would see learning any curriculum subject. For the learner to do well, the teacher needs to know their subject inside out, but they also need to know how to teach it.

It is obviously of paramount importance that beginning teachers work alongside good practitioners in school. Mentors and coordinators are fantastic role models for beginning teachers; they are great teachers of their subjects and they are essential in introducing beginning teachers to their new career. Through working with mentors and coordinators, beginning teachers learn how to teach in a practical context, they experience teaching and develop their skills under this expert guidance.

It is easy to question whether anything more is needed. Surely working with expert teachers is what I need to develop as a teacher? Yes, but isn’t there something missing?

An experienced teacher knows their subject well, and how to teach it to pupils, but do they (and should they be expected to) know the subject of teacher education in the same depth?

  • It is unlikely that mentors and coordinators will have spent many years analysing how someone learns to teach, what topics they should cover, where the stumbling blocks might be, etc. Why should they have? Their main priority is the teaching of their subject!
  • When a beginning teacher is working with a mentor or coordinator they are gaining one perspective and this perspective is routed in the context of the school they are working in.
  • A mentor or coordinator’s prime concern, quite rightly, is the progress of the pupils. However supportive of a beginning teacher they are, the pupils must come first.

And this is where a teacher educator, outside of the specific school’s context, comes in. They bring:

  • expert knowledge of teacher education
  • a broader perspective that is not context specific
  • a additional layer of support that protects the beginning teacher, the mentor and coordinator and the pupils

I recognise, and want to celebrate, our excellent mentors and coordinators. As a parent, and someone who cares about education, however, I want the main passion of these teachers to be teaching pupils, with supporting beginning teachers to be a secondary priority. For me, my main passion now is teaching beginning teachers, with teaching my subject running a close second. This is the role I am proud of and wish to celebrate!

Stef Sullivan
PGCE Course Leader

Posted in Celebrating Teaching