We observed World Teachers’ Day earlier this month — a day when we are called on to celebrate the contribution of teachers to society. But if we are to do justice to this celebration, we should do more than just sing teachers’ praises. Rather, we should see this as a day where we can support the teaching profession so that this contribution endures and is strengthened.
This leads us directly to questions about teacher education and how best to prepare new teachers for the future.
What does one need to know and be able to do to become a teacher? Such a question appears so obvious as to be almost trite. Yet, the notion of how best to prepare teachers has changed over time and continues to be a point of debate. Questions that linger include: how does one integrate the theory and the practice of teaching? What kind of theory is of most relevance to prospective teachers? How does one prepare teachers for the different social contexts of South African schools? Would new teachers be better prepared if they spent more time in schools and less time at university?
These are all complex questions, so let me address only the last one here. In recent times an internship model of teacher education has started to take root in South Africa. In such a model student teachers might spend up to four years full-time in a school, and study online for their degree, through either a public or private provider. In this way, their learning is predominantly school-based, with university courses providing the formal qualification.
At first glance, this model seems to offer many benefits to both students and the school. Schools receive an “extra pair of hands” from young people who can also contribute to sport and other extra-mural activities. Students become embedded in the life of the school, learning the rhythms and routines of the school year, and facing first-hand the daily duties of the workplace. Some internship students receive a stipend from the school, thus alleviating their financial pressures. Furthermore, universities are not bound by limitations of class size, as they are able to enroll more students than the maximum capacity of their lecture venues.
However, at the same time the apparent benefits of the internship model need to be offset by several operational, political and academic challenges. First, it is unlikely that novice teachers who are also full-time students will easily balance the demands of both school and university. A severe workload may lead to neglect of their studies, thereby undermining the academic base of their teacher preparation.
Secondly, this model is very dependent on the quality of mentorship received at the school. A good teacher is not always a good mentor, and most teachers are also hard-pressed to find the time for mentoring others. A third concern is that paid internships are likely to be based in schools that have governing body funds to pay the student teacher a stipend. The implication here is that students only receive exposure to more privileged schools, rather than spreading their contribution to the wider range of schools that could use the extra hands.
The theory-practice debate is also fundamental to this discussion. Part of enhancing respect for the teaching profession is to acknowledge that the practice of teaching is underpinned by deep conceptual issues and debates. Students who are immersed too quickly into learning “on the job” may find their thoughts filled with how to follow a prescribed curriculum or manage a class full of teenagers, thereby missing opportunities for reflection on issues that go beyond their daily experiences.
As future professionals, novice teachers need to do more than be assimilated into accepted school practices; they should also be able to participate in collective inquiry on innovative or research-based questions, something that is more easily attainable in the university lecture hall. How students bring together their work at school and their work at university thus becomes crucial.
From this perspective, more time in schools is not an obvious panacea to improving the quality of teacher preparation. In their book Teaching in the Flat World (2015), American academics Linda Darling-Hammond and Robert Rothman looked at a number of high-performing teacher education systems in different parts of the world. They found that the quality of teaching improved when students were supported to engage actively and regularly in teacher research, action research and other forms of practice-related inquiry during their teacher education programme.
The question then is not about how much time in school and how much time at university. Rather it is about what it takes to develop competent and thoughtful teachers, who are comfortable in the classroom, and at the same time conscious of what underpins their teaching strategies.
The recently celebrated World Teachers’ Day moves us implicitly in this direction. It reminds us that dialogue across the education sector is important, that the theory and practice of teaching can be mutually constitutive, and that universities and schools should always be learning from each other in preparing the next generation of teachers.