Next week we start the interesting process of looking at our teacher education program. This is the unique time in the year when staff have a chance to suggest changes for the next academic year. This year, after three years of working with new teachers, I have a few ideas on how we might be able to make things more meaningful for people starting out in the profession.
First, Canadian universities need to make a strong commitment to doing their very best to develop innovative teacher education programs. This is such an important role for the academy. We have a collective responsibility to present a program that challenges, trains and inspires people who may be involved in the education of young Canadians for the next 30 years. It should go without saying, but there are powerful competing interests in the academy that work against this notion.
Universities value scholarship and research. In many faculties across the country, teaching excellence is not a requirement they are looking for. For faculty of education programs, there has to be a shift in emphasis. While educational research is an important component, we must also model teaching excellence in all the courses we teach. We only have two years to work with new teachers and there needs to be a new consideration of the balance between the academic and the practical.
I can’t offer a systematic review of what is needed to develop innovative programming, but I would love to see examples of how this is being done well in Canada. Has this been studied? Do we know what the components of an excellent program are? Is this knowledge shared and discussed throughout the academic community?
If this information exists, why are we not reading this material before we meet to discuss changes to the program? I think we are going in unprepared for the task.
Teacher education is grounded in the academic and the practical. There are other areas that have this mix where the academy is developing professionals. Medicine and law come to mind. In all cases where professional training is involved, there is a constant need to assess how effective these programs are at preparing new professionals for the working world. While the Ontario College of Teachers regularly certifies teacher training programs in the province, what role does the OTC play in the years between reviews?
How can we best strike a balance between teaching theory and practice? At the university, the teaching staff is made up of full-time professors – experts in their fields of study, seconded teachers who teach up to three semesters in their subject areas, part-time professors and graduate students and faculty advisors. Faculty advisors act as a liaison between the university and the practicum schools. In non-Covid years, these faculty advisors visit the schools on a regular basis to connect with the associate teacher and the teacher candidate.
The key staff position is the associate teacher. This is the person who volunteers (there is a small stipend) to take on one or more student teachers for the year. They are responsible for overseeing the practice of the student teacher and they assess the success and areas of growth of their students throughout the year.
This is the essential component of training that takes place over the two years of teacher education. Associate teachers are given no time off to do this important work; it is one of the many add-ons that society depends on teachers to assume to keep education moving in the province. Associate teachers have no say in what is taught at the university and do not play any role in the program review process we are going through right now.
There is another group of volunteers that receive even less attention. A small collection of university professors coordinate the in-university practicum programs over the two-year period. They play crucial roles in developing connections and partnerships with schools, associate teachers and administrators and they play an important role in fashioning the student teacher reflective component of the practicum experience.
Because the coordinating role does not count as part of their academic load, these educators take this on as part of their extra duties apart from the research they are expected to do and their academic teaching load.
The two most important roles in teacher education are being conducted by volunteers. I don’t think many people think or write about this, but volunteer associate teachers and university coordinators give their own precious professional time to nurture the next generation of teachers in this province. Both groups have little say in the structure and content of the teacher education program.
Universities, like other large institutions, move very slowly. There is little incentive to make changes that would give volunteers a voice in the development of new teachers. Like many institutions, the paid permanent staff hold almost all the reins of control and power and see little need to change a situation that in their minds, works very well.
Some people – academic advisors, professional staff, full-time professors are doing very well in this current system. They are protected by seniority and tenure, structural program components that guarantee complacency. Academic advisors are kept in their jobs well beyond their best before date. Some advisors have not seen the inside of a classroom in 20 years. Student teachers, associate teachers and volunteer academic staff have no voice in program design even though they represent the essential stakeholders in teacher education.
I don’t know if this has been studied in Canada. There is a problem although it is not in the interest of the academy to do anything about this. Earlier this year we read The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (Henry et. al., 2017). This is an excellent study of the inequities around race and indigeneity that exist in Canadian universities. While the problems in teacher education are different many of the same elements that block reform are similar. It is a stunning rebuke to the academic system here in Canada.
These are discouraging situations, all the more important to write about them. Solutions do exist, this is not hopeless, but we have to start asking the right people the important questions.