This past year, I had a wonderful opportunity. As part of my study leave from the Edmonton Public School Board to pursue my doctorate in education, I worked with Jim Parsons, director of Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI) at the University of Alberta.
This work entailed speaking to educators, administrators, Alberta Teachers’ Association leaders and teacher educators from across Canada and the United States. Through my contacts, I learned that the improvement of schools by teachers in schools meant that many educators experienced a steep learning curve. Empowered to address their challenges, teachers engaged in professional learning activities that required them to hone their research skills, become critical analyzers of multiple data sources and direct their gaze toward unexplored areas in their practice and philosophies. Schools that work well are fearless in their commitment to asking tough questions and paying attention to what is working and why in order to engage learning. They have also become adept at communicating their insights and understanding.
I returned to university motivated in part by my teaching colleagues’ ability to address the challenges of teaching and of improving their classrooms. It seemed to me, from my experience working with beginning teachers, that the skills, knowledge and self-efficacy teachers gained from directing school improvement projects needed to become part of teacher preparation. I wondered what kind of influence school improvement leadership would have on new teachers. How would this involvement in naming, claiming and fixing some aspect of their work in school address issues such as isolation, alienation and feeling powerless in the system, which leads to beginning teacher attrition? AISI has changed the learning field and flattened its hierarchical shape so that information flows in many directions. Stakeholders have become partners. So where do the educational institutions fit into the information flow?
After three and a half cycles of AISI, Alberta’s teachers exemplify praxis—informed action—and the subsequent effect that informed action has had on student achievement warrants that those insights be shared—specifically with teacher educators responsible for education students. As I watch hundreds of students move through the faculty of education building on the University of Alberta campus, I can’t help but consider how positioning teachers as research leaders and problem solvers could become part of the education faculty’s curriculum. Given our AISI findings (Parsons and Harding 2010), how should we educate our young teachers? What might their coursework look like to encourage the kinds of learning that AISI supports? Featured here are some suggestions:
- During coursework, instruct and engage education students (hereafter called students) in action research processes, ethics and methods. Field experience provides a lens through which students can focus on specific and relevant issues that they will be challenged to address after they graduate and enter the classroom. In research conducted with first-year teachers, one common theme emerges: they do not feel prepared to deal with many of the demands in contemporary classrooms. Feeling confident in identifying and tackling classroom-specific problems empowers beginning educators and ensures a positive and effective learning space for students.
- Create and engage in research that explores diverse learner abilities, language delays or deficiencies, multicultural populations, mixed socioeconomic communities, the external pressures of high-stakes testing and so on. Empower students to seek information they can use to mitigate these realities; assign presentations of findings both within the classroom and outside. Position your education students as idea leaders. Show them the processes of critical reflection: identify challenges, research the field, make informed decisions, engage in those ideas and solutions, try them out, keep track of the data, come back to discuss what you saw. What worked? What didn’t work? What can be changed?
- Spend time engaging students in collaborative work. Explaining an idea, agreeing on a problem’s root causes, determining a plan of action, agreeing on resources and task responsibilities, inspiring colleagues, taking risks, negotiating different personalities, building peers’ abilities, overcoming barriers or unforeseen complications—this is the real work occurring in successful schools.
- Much of this work reflects the core beliefs and philosophies of the school’s teachers and its culture. Teacher education activities should clarify the processes of translating teaching philosophies into actual classroom activities that match and underscore those beliefs.
- Teachers often use pedagogies similar to their own learning experiences. If we want classrooms to be collaborative, innovative and creative spaces where critical thinking and thoughtful reflection are the norm, then our future teachers must learn collaboratively in creative spaces where innovation, critical thinking and thoughtful reflection are the norm and are modelled and expected by professors.
- Build classroom cultures that support community, agency and service. This might mean community-based projects outside the university classroom that help young teacher candidates believe they are capable of making a difference. There are extensive alternative arenas for learning how to teach. Every encounter can become a new space where students consider their beliefs about what teachers do, and how, as teachers, they will be. The reality in many schools is such that thoroughly ensuring the well-being of vast student populations and being knowledgeable about external organizations and the support they provide is essential curriculum for beginning teachers. The sense of powerlessness many beginning teachers experience in the face of social inequity and injustice can be countered by connections and networks within and throughout the community. While this work falls outside the typical institutional vision of education curriculum, it can introduce new educators to an ethic of stewardship and service that can transcend daily challenges. Model equity pedagogy.
- Work on real classroom issues, and do this work openly. Allow students to see the considerations and bigger-picture expectations that dictate classroom planning. Openly discuss teaching and assessment, teaching and learning responses to conflict or learning struggles, and so on. Model and explain the reflective and mindful attributes of effective teachers. Make the classroom a teaching lab. Invite students to comprehend their learning and to explore the various ways such learning can be revealed. This requires a tight/loose course syllabus; it requires the opposite yet complementary attributes of flexibility and unwavering commitment to the mission, or telos, of the course. Make that mission clear from day one and go back to it constantly.
- Allow students to develop individual skills and interests. Celebrate diversity. Not all teachers need the same skills, so encourage students to become more comfortable with their own abilities and give them opportunities to employ those skills in the classroom. This might mean allowing differentiated instruction—even different major assignments—but it mirrors an essential instructional strategy and pedagogical orientation for modern classrooms. Show students the richness in diversity, whether in ideas, cultures, experiences, strengths or interests. Such pedagogy can become the source from which course instructors can build student-led workshops. Explain how lifelong development of educational skills is part of professional growth.
- Allow young teachers to discuss the kinds of cultures they hope to build in their classrooms and schools. Discuss practical ways those cultures might be built. Link this process to beginning teacher identity. Who students are as people, what they value and what they believe about children are questions that need to be explored—as much as can be done without an actual classroom—in specific relation to what their classroom environment will feel like for learners. Too often, new teachers express dismay that their first experiences are not what they imagined. Take time to explore those visions, ideals and expectations. What are the roots/mythologies of those stories? Challenge them to identify specific choices, behaviours and attitudes they anticipate encountering in their careers, then use that information to build processes that ensure confident teacher identities and the positive classroom environment they have envisioned for themselves.
Becoming a great teacher is a dynamic, ongoing and ever-evolving process. Great teachers never stop learning about themselves, their students or their craft. AISI research supports teachers as learning leaders. It positions educators as capable, dedicated and committed to improving learning for all of Alberta’s students—even those students learning to be teachers. AISI research findings provide a treasure chest of practices, activities and processes teacher educators might want to consider as they prepare tomorrow’s educators for tomorrow’s schools.
Parsons, J., and K. Harding. 2010. Little Bits of Goodness: How the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement Inspires Educators to Explore, Challenge, Inquire and Imagine Better Schools. Edmonton, Alta.: School Improvement Press.