Surveys of beginning teachers by the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association in the middle years of the last decade provided conclusive data that teacher trainees valued very highly their experiences in schools prior to graduation, in many cases finding this more useful than some of the experiences in their tertiary institutions. So, principals have a significant responsibility in making this experience as valuable as possible, especially as we want high quality teachers in every classroom in every school.
I have had the opportunity since retiring to do some liaison work with an education faculty in one of our metropolitan universities, working to improve the coordination between the faculty and schools. As well as enjoying the time visiting schools and getting the ideas of principals and practicum coordinators, I was able to make some considered recommendations to the university so that it could enhance the effectiveness of the professional experience programs for their preservice teachers.
Having made those recommendations, I realised that this was very much a shared responsibility, and that schools also had a responsibility to enhance these programs and to do their best in preparing the next generation of teachers. So following are some recommendations for principals to consider, and these are compatible with the direction of the recommendations I suggested to the particular education faculty.
First, principals must be positive in their schools about the practicum or professional experience program. In recent years, I have heard a number of negative comments from schools that indicate a reluctance to support strongly the preservice teachers. Comments have included: “we don’t have time to do this as it interferes with our teaching programs”, “parents are paying a lot in fees and don’t want trainees teaching their children”, “there isn’t enough space in the staffroom to accommodate anyone else”, “the supervisors aren’t paid enough for the responsibility involved”, “the universities just dump their students on us and expect us to teach them everything”, “you don’t see anyone from the university during the program – why don’t they support it more?”.
Many of these comments may be based on real or anecdotal experiences, but a strong educational leader in a school will set the tone and expectations of the whole school for the practicum. A principal can address the importance of providing real teaching experiences in a supportive environment, and can stress that the reputation of a school can be enhanced by all staff being positive and helpful. After all, the preservice teacher will speak with her or his colleagues when back at the university, and lecturers and tutors will also be alert to positive comments about schools. Principals should also be positive about the value of the program when communicating with parents and guardians/caregivers so that they will be supportive and understanding – don’t make it a surprise for them when their kids come home and tell them about their new teacher.
Second, principals could contact the education faculties in advance of receiving information and requests for placements, and express their willingness to take on student teachers, specifying the subject areas where they can give the most support. I would also suggest informing the universities of the time slots that would be optimal for the school and which would provide the best learning experiences for the trainees. This will always be a compromise but it might assist the universities in their own planning if principals can provide this kind of advice, and it might also encourage them to have more flexible approaches to this important program.
Third, principals should build relationships with the appropriate people in the education faculties; they should not just delegate this role to a staff member, no matter how busy he or she is as a principal. The principal playing an active part in working with the faculties sends an important message to the school, the faculty and the preservice teachers, showing that they value the relationship. A clever principal will keep an eye on the possibilities of the university providing valuable professional learning opportunities for staff on a friendly basis, or on the university using the school for research purposes and making the evaluation of programs easier as well as externally validated.
Fourth, principals should work with faculty or program leaders in the school to do the proper preparation and groundwork. Principals should disseminate and discuss the material they receive from education faculties, and seek advice from the faculty heads on sound ways of supporting preservice teachers in their areas. The faculty heads can also advise on the most suitable staff to support and supervise the trainees; some teachers are much better than others in this role. A supervising teacher will also have to have current teaching programs, a good knowledge of resources available, and be familiar with all school routines. Be conscious that there may be the odd teacher on staff who could be quite negative and discourage younger people from going into the profession; preservice teachers should be kept away from these types as far as possible!
Fifth, principals should consider taking a group of trainees at the one time rather than just one or two. This can have many benefits. The trainees will have a collegial group in the school, they can share ideas on their teaching and challenges with people having similar experiences, and they could feel empowered to discuss pedagogy with staff as well as sharing new learning and research with experienced teachers. These new people might be able to provide the latest on digital learning technologies, or they might enjoy learning about the school’s approach to the Digital Education Revolution so that they will be better able to use it when they graduate. Feedback from a group could be useful in moving a school forward or in reinforcing positive things that the school has done. Depending on location and timing, a university might be able to provide on-site tutorials for a larger number of preservice teachers, and school staff might be able to contribute to these. Once again, the relationship that the principal makes with the university could help determine this.
The sixth recommendation relates to the arrival of the preservice teachers. Principals should do their utmost to be present on that day, to give a personal welcome, and to outline their own ideas on the professional experience program in their school and what their expectations are. Principals can interrogate in a friendly way to learn a little about their trainees, and information on their interests and sports could enable them to participate in and assist with school programs and clubs. An in-school coordinator can then provide the guided tour of the school before handing over the probably apprehensive charges to the faculty head or program leader. All staff, including support staff, should be aware that the trainees will be arriving on that day, and helpful ones will make sure they wear their name badges and introduce themselves. If resources permit, name badges for the visitors will also make them feel more at home and make for better relationship building during their time in the school. Principals should involve them as far as possible in school activities such as staff meetings, professional learning opportunities, social programs and so on as these are all important aspects of being an effective teacher, as well as making them feel valued and wanted by the school.
The final recommendation is for principals to give informative and reliable feedback to the trainee and to the university. Sometimes this might be difficult but it is important for everyone, especially our future classes, that quality assurance occurs with the professional experience program. Feedback on a daily basis from supervising teachers will assist the trainee and can inform the principal and university, and can help with professional reflection. It is better for someone unsuited to teaching to find a valuable alternative career sooner rather than later. On the other hand, positive feedback can also provide the principal with the name of a future valuable member of staff!
Principal leadership has always been important in the development of our new teachers, and I hope these recommendations can assist principals in reflecting on their current practices and looking for even better ways to develop our future teachers and school leaders.
Jim McAlpine AM
Past President, NSW Secondary Principals’ Council
This article was originally published in Principal Matters, the journal of the Secondary Principals’ Associations of Australia