Experience and exploration in learning to teach

Sonika Parashar

I began my journey as a teacher with a pre-service teacher education undergraduate programme. As part of this programme, I experienced a radical and innovative curriculum, at least according to those years. With a background in science education in school, I was now encouraged to widen my perspective and think from a variety of philosophical, sociological and psychological lenses in education. Theatre, drama, arts, children’s literature, physical education, craft, activities, pottery, creative writing, all became an important part of life just the way developing conceptual understanding in science, mathematics, languages and social sciences was considered important. For someone who had never imagined herself as a teacher, the programme did an amazing job of luring her into the complex life of a teacher for good. I entered the profession as a primary teacher. Life took its many turns, and with further explorations, degrees and work in the field of education, I recognize myself as a teacher educator today. Having taught courses to pre-service teachers for the last three years, the academic year 2021-22 is my first year mentoring them when they run their final lap of internship in a school to graduate to be teachers. It is in this context that I look back at my life as a pre-service teacher and how experiences are positively different for my current mentees when they work together during their internship.

As the programme I was part of was offered by a central university, it followed the assessment guidelines and processes of the university. We had a numerical marking system where we were assigned marks for our work and not grades. For every theoretical course we did, 70 per cent of the marks came from the examination at the end of the year and 30 per cent from internal assessments or assignments.

I always looked forward to the assignments as they gave us enough time to work on a theme and explore it in depth. Sometimes these were individual assignments and at other times, group assignments. I enjoyed both for different reasons. Individual assignments were my responsibility, and therefore, allowed me enough scope to do things my way. Group assignments became tricky when some group members would not work equally or responsibly like other members. Yet, they were fun as they provided us time to socialize with each other when usually we were too engrossed in work to meet and chill otherwise. There are moments even today when I miss sprawling on the green lawns of the college with books and reading material spread all around, lunch-boxes in hand, animatedly discussing even as we scribbled on sheet after sheet, a day before submission. Peer-learning, ability to work in tandem with others, navigating relationships and quality of work, were some of the by-products of group assignments that we did not recognize at the time.

Examinations were fun too. Our teachers expected us to connect, reflect, and express, which would take away the anxiety of memorizing and forgetting details. Thus, I enjoyed examinations also as they gave me a sense of closure and provided another platform for me to express what I had made sense of so far.

There were other kinds of practicums as well where we were assessed entirely on a formative basis and had no examinations. We had projects, reports, group work, essays, portfolio, etc., as ways of being assessed. We would receive marks here as well that would contribute to our final mark sheet. Some of the best learning for me has happened through these practicums when I could experience something for a long time, engage with it fully, and reflect on it as part of my assignment.

All these interesting experiences though wouldn’t mean much the day the results were announced. All the laughter and jokes cracked on the green lawns would be forgotten. Consciously or unconsciously everybody would be curious to know whether they had scored better than the others and who the university topper was. Public declaration of results in the first year had immediately labelled us all in different ways. Some were toppers, some average students, some had failed.

This had immediate implications on group work in the following years, including internships, where groups had to work closely in schools. We either wanted to be with the toppers to gain the best possible marks, or ignore them as they seemed snobbish and self-centered. Wherever teachers made groups of us all, subconsciously we figured who we could benefit most from and in what ways. For the most part, friendships continued and a general sense of togetherness flourished. Yet, once in a while the head of competition would rise up from slumber, restricting our otherwise open sharing, cooperativeness, and a sense of collegiality.

Fast forwarding to the current year, where I am teaching pre-service teachers. The assessments experienced by my current students have been different in some ways and similar in others to my experience as a pre-service teacher. The similarities come from the kind of assessments done. The differences come from the way they are done and their implications. The university where I teach is a private one and follows a different assessment system. It believes in continuous and comprehensive evaluation in the true sense. There are no end-term examinations but assignments spread throughout a semester; no one high-stake assessment but several medium to low-stake ones; no aggregate numerical marks but cumulative letter-grades; no rankings but individual assessments; no public announcements of results but individual intimation.

Being a teacher-education programme, the design and courses heavily bank on peer learning through group work. Group work is done not only for assignments but also in-class during teaching-learning sessions. The group work strategies of reciprocal teaching, cooperative teaching, collaborative teaching, think-pair-share, etc., are all experienced by students themselves before they are expected to teach using these strategies. There is an effort to balance individual and group work in such a way that these students go on to become self-sufficient as well as collegial teachers. During their internship as well, students have been placed in groups in a particular school. There too they have different individual, pair and group tasks to be done as part of their final assessments.

Currently, I am mentoring four students who are placed as a group in a school. After a wait of three years, they have finally donned the hats of student-teachers to slowly take full responsibility of a class as a teacher. This journey has not been easy at all for any of them. While their sound content knowledge is taken for granted, they are being challenged for their professional skills as teachers. Their communication skills, presence in a classroom, ability to relate with students, lead them towards learning through careful use of questions, dialogue and discussion are all being put on spot to help them become effective teachers. While my mentees navigate through these challenges, I have been trying to find ways in which they can hone their skills and do justice to their experience as intern-teachers.

In addition to identifying different voice and communication exercises as strategies to cope with the challenge, one thing we have all agreed upon is micro-teaching each other. Thus, my mentees prepare individual micro-lessons and each teaches the group before they teach in the school where they are interning. They pick up different topics, stories, ideas, experiments, mediums and strategies and present them to each other as if they are teaching their young students. After each session, they receive specific and detailed feedback from each other which further helps them in practicing skills of giving and receiving feedback.

I have been watching my mentees closely for the last three years, and more so now in the last few months. When we started doing voice and communication exercises as a group, nobody felt shy in front of the others. If one felt conscious, others reassured that it was ok to feel so. One of them has been learning music for several years. Others genuinely looked up to her as someone who could help them out with ways to project their voice better. When I proposed the idea of micro-teaching, I was not sure if they would agree to it looking at the workload they had. They surprised me by meeting every evening for an hour at least only because they felt some of the group members really depended on these interactions to improve their teaching. Slowly they recognized the benefits of the same and now everyone takes turns to practice while the others act as students.

I notice their interactions with each other. I notice how they are worried if a group member is struggling with something, how they go out of their way to help that member, how they divide responsibilities, how they stand up for each other; how they trust each other to feel comfortable in teaching and receiving feedback, how they share materials unhesitatingly with each other, how they praise each other openly, how they point out ways that could help others. I notice their laughter during group meetings and meal times, their distracted faces when they try to find a cab for the group while standing at the bus stand, their inside jokes when they sit together to work on group tasks. And I am reminded of my college green lawns.

In them, I also notice no care for how one is doing in comparison to the other; no worries of whether they are in a better situation as compared to their peers in different schools; no struggle to get more marks than the other. What I do notice is their eagerness to know how they are doing with respect to the expectations laid out for them; how they are doing individually according to their individual capabilities; how they are doing as a group; what they can do to help other group members; and at the end of the day what they can do to be effective teachers.

In my personal understanding, as a teacher it is more important to ask the latter set of questions rather than the questions that lead to comparison as this is what is going to reflect in one’s teaching and classroom culture. While these questions over time nullify the aim of individual achievement over others, I feel it is worth losing a sense of competition as a factor of growth in teachers over developing a sense of cooperation and collegiality. When I share these thoughts, I should also clarify that a lack of focus on individual achievement does not mean a lack of insight into personal growth and self-development. When student-teachers ask questions such as ‘How am I doing according to the criteria of being an effective teacher?’ instead of ‘How am I doing in comparison to my peers?’, it is clearly indicative of the focus on individual growth rather than being ahead of others.

I wonder what may have led to these interactions and relationships. Is it the lack of a ranking system? Is it the lack of a public comparison based on numerical marks with decimal differences? Has criterion-based assessment practice instead of norm-based had an impact? Is it a result of consciously including the development of the ability to relate with each other as one of the objectives of a teacher education programme? Is it a result of conscious emphasis by teacher-educators on developing collegial relationships? Have consistent group tasks as part of pedagogy of teacher-educators over the years fed this behaviour? Does the overarching focus on cooperation instead of competition play a role here? Is it the culture that we have created over the past few years through these mechanisms – a culture of care ethics – that has resulted in this? Are there also certain individual student-based factors leading to the collegiality I notice in my mentees?

Based on my experience as a pre-service teacher, I feel it is all of this. There are moments when I catch myself falling into the competition trap. And it is in these moments specifically that I look up to my student-teachers, silently imbibing the values they have been modelling for me. These become the moments when I tell myself that a teacher is always a learner; part of a group from which there is always something to learn.

The author is a teacher educator at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. She teaches courses in language education, curriculum, and pedagogy, and enjoys exploring different cuisines, dancing and travelling. The article is a moment from her memorable journey with her student-teachers who graduated as teachers in June 2022. She can be reached at sonika.parashar02@gmail.com.

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