Ahead of World Teachers Day marked in Australia on Friday 29 October, Ms Heather Campbell Associate Lecturer in the Charles Sturt School of Education reflects on the extraordinary resilience and capacity of our education students, and the way they have met the promise of their profession with care, diligence and creativity.
Final professional experience in a school is an exciting time for a student teacher. It is the culmination of all the years of study and practice that has gone before; a chance to demonstrate everything that has been learned, and to prove to the profession that you are ready to enter it.
COVID-19: a new reality
But since COVID-19 brought the first lockdown, student teachers have been faced with new challenges far beyond those they could have expected in the past.
Suddenly, definite placement places and dates have vanished, as schools deal with their own issues in providing at-home learning.
Some education students were lucky enough to have a week with their classes before going to online teaching, and so had begun to make the relationships with the students that they could build on through Zoom.
Others had never met their students face-to-face and so had to somehow cobble together a connection with children who rarely showed their faces onscreen, if indeed they logged on at all.
New assessment methods
These challenges coincided with the introduction to Charles Sturt University of the Graduate Teacher Performance Assessment (GTPA) as their capstone final assessment task.
The GTPA was first instituted by the Australian Catholic University and since has grown to include 18 higher education institutions.
One of its key points of difference is that moderation of results for submitted final tasks is done across institutions to ensure quality of marking, meaning that the teaching of the capstone task’s requirements is particularly exacting.
This task asks student teachers to create a 5,000-word document that records, explains, and critically reflects upon their teaching choices – from the planning, teaching and assessment phases through to reflection and appraising of choices taken.
This is a rigorous, comprehensive assessment task that requires the collection of evidence by student teachers from their students as proof of the efficacy of their teaching practice.
Rising to the challenge
The academic team at Charles Sturt knew that this would be extremely difficult for our students.
We offered to run an extra workshop and debrief session each Friday at 4pm to allow students to drop in with their end of week stories and ask questions regarding how best to complete the final task.
We presumed that some student teachers might like the opportunity to talk to others going through the same things they were.
What we found was that this meeting became crucial as a way for students to connect and share their ideas, fears, disappointments, challenges, and successes.
The questions that were raised in these Friday sessions were complex, and were only exceeded by the solutions and support that the student teachers offered each other.
One education student teaching a kindergarten class shared the videos she was filming of herself enacting fairy stories. Others used gaming approaches with students who were reluctant to come online. Another student created home videos, practical tasks and diagrams in order to give students some sense of preparation and planning for working at home.
Students showed each other how to use the various programs available to them: Jigsaw, Google classroom, MS Teams, SeeSaw, Stile, Quizziz.
Again and again they problem-solved with each other, as one student would offer a dilemma and others provide possible solutions.
So many students had good ideas that one of the workshops became a showpiece session, recorded so that all could see it, where they shared examples of the creative, ingenious work they were doing.
Despair, worry, anger, loss, strength, determination and resilience
Some students came to share their despair. There were tears as they described one child out of thirty turning up regularly to the Zoom class.
The gathering of evidence for their final assessment task became a huge hurdle when few children submitted work.
The reflection period of each class often dropped away as pupils left during the call. The education students worried, every week, about the quality of experience their school students were having, and whether they were achieving anything in helping their students develop.
There was anger from some, as they felt that they were not being supported by their placement school staff – overworked, overwhelmed school staff who were dealing with families and children, and who struggled to find time to meet the needs of flailing final-year teacher education students.
At heart, there was grief for the loss of a rite of passage that many had looked forward to for years.
Their imagined final placement, one of happy industry and connection in a place full of energy and laughter was lost to a series of small black boxes on a screen.
They grieved the loss of the thing that inspires teachers the most – the positive and regenerative relationships with children and adolescents.
Coming together for the Friday session meant that they didn’t grieve alone. For my colleague Dr Clare Power and I the session has become a highlight of the week.
Sometimes we stay back and talk with a student long after everyone else has gone, hearing their worries and affirming that they are going to get through.
We marvel at the strength and determination they have shown to overcome these obstacles with ingenuity and strong pedagogical knowledge.
The first assessment tasks are arriving now, and they reflect the trials of this strange and troubling year.
But they also demonstrate the extraordinary resilience and capacity of our education students, and the way they have met the promise of their profession with care, diligence and creativity.
I like to think our Friday night sessions had a significant impact on seeing our students through.