In this OFSTED era many of us don’t remember a time when schools were not routinely assessed, graded and league-tabled. Nowadays this is a fundamental part of the business of school management. Teachers have to enter into the workplace prepared to be scrutinised by fellow teachers, inspectors and even their own pupils. Pupil power is on the increase as the inspection process places more value on students’ opinions regarding the suitability of their teaching professionals. At the same time, the dawn of the information age, the collapse of the ideal of universal higher education, the increasing popularity of collaborative working processes and the shift in public service thinking towards the needs of the ‘user’ – all pose significant questions about the design of our educational institutions; questions that today’s trainee teachers need to be prepared to answer.
These different demands require a different type of training. Thankfully there are PGCE courses which have adapted to prepare the next generation of teachers for this changing context – teaching them to be flexible, challenging and dynamic, and constantly reflecting on their practice and the varying needs of the children in their class. The Institute of Education, at the University of Warwick, offers one such Secondary PGCE course, renowned for producing outstanding teachers. For them, this year of formal training is just the beginning of their professional development. They learn how to reflect and critically enage with challenging questions such as: “What makes an effective teacher? How do I move beyond the standards to become outstanding in my field? How is the classroom changing me and my practice?”
This kind of self-enquiry can be emotionally taxing, but experienced course providers manage and control the process. The result is an incredibly bonded cohort of people who, just three months in, are already tearful that their time together has to end. PGCE students make formative relationships with each other whilst their relationship with themselves is undergoing its own revolution. They are constantly talking, learning and thinking about how to establish productive relationships in the classroom and beyond. Their tutors say that they can see a physical difference in the students as they mature throughout the year and make huge leaps in understanding about the role of a teacher and its importance.
“For us it is all about relationships,” Rachel Dickinson, Course Leader for the Secondary PGCE, explains. “Relationships for learning, planning, behaviour, assessment. The relationships between the trainee teacher and their mentor, the university and the placement school, the relationships between children and the curriculum – the list is extensive. Classrooms are very complex, a microcosm of society, and therefore the way in which we work together is critical to what we can achieve.”
Rachel’s academic background is in drama and theatre education and she works closely with Cheryl Cane who runs the course for trainees who specialise in English with drama. They admit that this background informs the way they frame the training, but Cheryl is quick to point out that the focus on drama is not soley as a discrete body of knowledge but as a medium for learning, and a powerful one at that. “Performance allows people to be playful and experimental,” explains Cheryl. “It forces collaboration and helps people to become comfortable with interaction. A lot comes out of that.”
There is no reason why drama cannot be used by other subject teachers. Currently the trainees are coming together as a year group to discuss the idea of a ‘connected curriculum’. Cheryl continues: “Traditionally the school day is carved up – an hour of maths, an hour of science – what is the responsibility of schools to demonstrate that there are meaningful links between the subjects and how can that be communicated to the pupils?” Everything is up for debate on this course since everything about the school environment is synthetic. The classroom, the size of year groups, the design of school buildings – they could all, theoretically, be re-organised or better still, re-imagined.
Whilst this is a part of the taught programme, PGCE students are also going into schools where, as they are pressed to remember, they are guests. The trainees are invited into an environment to work and learn alongside professionals – it is not the time or place to launch into management consultation about how things could be done better. Their time will come when they join their own schools and start building working relationships that, over time, will become the vehicle for effecting long-term, modernisation and perhaps, radical change.
In this context, what is an outstanding teacher? The term ‘teacher’ has taken on different resonances as pedagogical trends have come and gone. Understanding the concept of an outstanding teacher involves being able to handle the tension between different interpretations. There are numerous separable roles that teachers perform. An outstanding teacher understands these and is able to move between them, diligently assessing the constantly varying needs of different learners first and foremost. Rachel explains: “We use metaphors a lot to explore these ideas. For example we might talk about teacher training as a journey into and through the forest – there are times where the path will become unclear, when the light will fade. Who we might meet on the path? Who is the wolf? When we might find the path again. The stories take on a different meaning for each teacher; and be therapeutic, creating a critical distance between their work as a teacher and that which makes them human.”
At the same time as employing the trainees’ imagination, Rachel and Cheryl are also conscious of connecting the training to the real-world, providing authentic contexts for learning, just as the teachers should provide similar contexts for pupils as they study maths, English and science. At the moment the whole purpose of education is a matter of national debate – is education valuable for its own sake or should it primarily lead to economic gain? “Working within a university reminds you that the schools are not really set up to establish an authentic relationship between learners and their knowledge. Why is that? Higher education is better but not everyone goes to university – should we deny school students this and if so, why?”
Teachers are bound by the curriculum and exam results but the hope is that if they help establish a robust relationship between the pupil and their learning, good exam results necessarily follow. In the same way, immersing trainee teachers in theoretical thinking makes them more capable, not less, of ticking whatever boxes feature on the latest list of defining an outstanding teacher.