Montag, 25. August 2014

Connecting Theory and Practice

This is one of my favorite teacher-education related questions, because most of the time, it seems like this is what it's all about (or at least, what is should be about, and also what a lot of people want it to be). It often feels like certain issues already arise during teacher training, and instead of them being worked out, they just foster and later come out when the teachers are in school. The problem with that is - if they aren't fixed right away, they will be really tough to iron out when it becomes a real issue. New teachers have a lot to worry about, they can't just take some time off and think about their mistakes and try to fix them. Usually, there is also no time for lengthy consultation, not that there is no help and support available, but rarely can every party involved actually take time for that.

For me personally, there are two examples of how theory can be connected to practice seamlessly. Although I was regularly made aware of it during the last couple of years, it got me thinking again a couple of days ago. I might have written about this topic while I was in Sweden, but it randomly came up again this week. I was talking about someone who apparently did some sort of mediation course as an addition to his regular studies. The point was, that this person really enjoyed that course, just like I did when I attended a conflict handling seminar at the university. He talked about how he could use it more and more for his regular work. Although the demand for that specific help wasn't that high, it kept getting better and better, but that is not the point. 

The point for me was simple. He talked about how much this course actually helped him in his private life. This is where I remembered the time in Sweden, where I was attending this course pretty much simultaneously to working at a couple of schools. The combination of these two happening if you will, was the best experience I could have asked for. One day, I heard about all this stuff at the university. (This is especially interesting, because it was a course designed for teachers, it was conflict handling in pre-school and school.) And the next day, I could, or to be more precise, I had to use the techniques I was taught the day before, in real-life situations. I crack a smile to this day thinking about how it all came together, it couldn't have been any better. As someone who wants to become a teacher, nothing is better than getting to know some techniques and being able to immediately use them in a real-life. Before I get into this connectivity more, I'd like to share another experience.

The second example is also nothing new or surprising. In my experience, schools and/or countries have different approaches when it comes to substitute teaching. I can't say which one I think is better, I can only compare the two forms that I know of. I assume the more common way for substitute teaching (at least in Austria), is that if one of the teachers can't make it, somebody else from the teacher group has to step in. That obviously means that whenever somebody has an open spot, and still a few hours "left to spend", that teacher gets (has) to take that lesson. 
Now a different approach is to have 'external' substitute teachers coming in and replacing the missing teachers. It is basically an on-call situation, where if someone can't make it, they give a substitute a call and ask him or her to come in and take that one, or possibly even more lessons. I was lucky enough to experience the latter, not only that, I got to experience it in a different country. I must admit, being a student-teacher and always looking for additional ways to gain experience at that time, I was more than excited to being able to do that, even though the age groups were not really the ones I was studying for. Upon coming back, I had a chat with one of my colleagues, who, similar to my story, started teaching a couple of hours at a school in his second year (out of three). We agreed on quite a few things. 
Mainly that there is nothing more valuable than being thrust into the fire. Compared to "teaching practice", being a substitute teacher means that you are on your own, and that it is REAL. There is no mentor or guide who will help you if you get stuck during a lesson,  you have be quick to adjust and think on your feet. The responsibility is all on ones shoulder. And since reflection is the basic tool for any student-teacher, not even that is lost, because, and I say this from experience, you really WANT to reflect about the lessons you had.

In thinking more and more about these stories, the question for me became about how a real connection can be made between the two, without turning the whole system upside down, especially because there are a lot of efforts to improve the educational system, on every level. Lower secondary schools in Austria have started to incorporate more and more team-teaching in the main subjects. I really like this approach, and it offers a lot of possibilities to make life better for student-teachers. 

The way it is set up now, it could very well stay the same. For the first term, all student-teachers are only observers in the classroom. Starting with the second, they take on more and more responsibilities. The biggest difference would actually be from the universities side. The teaching student-teachers receive should change, so that it really reflects what they are already experiencing at school. 

Like I already mentioned above, the connection has to be made at a different stage in the process. Now with the help of team-teaching, there is room for a different approach. Student-teachers could learn very specific practical things in their own education, and with the support structure of another teacher, who would just keep going with their own teaching, the student-teachers could work on their own. That way the up and coming teachers could try out stuff and have an experience similar to what a substitute teacher would go through. Maybe the idea would be to incorporate many different methods and ideas into the practical teacher education. It would mean that student-teachers take part in mostly seminars, where there is constant communication and collaboration. There is no need for old-timey lectures where student-teachers sit and listen for hours on end, because that is not what they will need in school. The most important thing they should be able to do is communicate. With communication comes collaboration. In my opinion, there can never be enough seminars. The need for smaller groups is there, and makes it easier to connect with each other. It would help with the practical training as well, in seminars there is the possibility to work out things together. The groups get a topic they should teach the next day, but since not everyone is in the same situation, there has to be some change in the method and the approach. The best way to figure out what to do, is talk to somebody else and get their opinion, in the end maybe they can use this method in their own teaching. 

The good thing is, both issues are relevant. There is already something in place for both, the intriguing thing would be find out how they really work, and if there are means to improve upon them. There are many opportunities out there for change, and the easiest way to improve the educational system is by improving its teacher.

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