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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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The Classmates teacher education initiative

Margaret Vickers
Tania Ferfolja

Margaret Vickers is Professor of Education and Dr Tania Ferfolja is Lecturer, Social and Cultural Diversity and Coordinator, Classmates Program, at the School of Education, University of Western Sydney.

Classmates is an initiative designed to prepare pre-service teachers for work in demanding, hard-to-staff schools. It is being trialled for the first time this year, as an option within the Bachelor of Teaching (Secondary) at the University of Western Sydney (UWS). A collaboration between UWS and the New South Wales Department of Education and Training, South Western Sydney region, Classmates involves intensive exposure to classroom teaching and school practices in the early stages of pre-service teacher education.

Disadvantaged schools, serving communities characterised by family poverty, low levels of parental education, family mobility, and sometimes also by recent migration, are typically hard to staff. They tend to receive disproportionate numbers of beginning teachers and experience high rates of teacher turnover. Recent research in the USA indicates that beginning and early career teachers will remain in hard-to-staff schools only if their initial preparation is well matched to the complexities of the contexts they enter; if they have sufficient knowledge and skills to help all students learn; and if expert teachers are available to serve as leaders and mentors (Glennie, Coble & Allen, 2004). A specific recommendation made in this study was that teacher education courses should provide well-supervised field experiences that demonstrate how effective teaching practices can be carried out in this type of school.

The NSW Public Education Council (PEC) Report (2005) identified 85 schools in the State that received a disproportionate number of the beginning teachers who were appointed in 2004. More than half (47 out of 85) were in western and south western Sydney. In these schools, beginning teachers typically comprise between 10 and 20 per cent of the teaching staff. Because this pattern is repeated year after year, the schools often have only a small minority of teachers with more than five years of experience and very few who have remained in the same school consistently for a long period of time. The report notes that 3 per cent of the government schools in the State are responsible for inducting about 30 per cent of beginning teachers. Thus, the high schools of the west and south west play a key role in ‘making or breaking’ beginning teachers.

The needs of this type of school have been addressed by the New South Wales Department of Education and Training through its Priority Action Schools (PAS) program. An evaluation of the PAS program found that the greatest gains in student literacy and numeracy were made in the schools that promoted professional development that is related to productive pedagogies and to explicit and systematic teaching (Groundwater-Smith & Kemmis, 2004). This finding indicates that the problems faced by students in disadvantaged schools can be countered if their teachers are appropriately prepared.

The PEC report recommended the creation of professional practice schools as centres for nurturing new teachers, giving them the time and attention they need to develop their skills. These schools can build on the successful strategies of the New South Wales Teacher Mentor Program and apply some of the successful features of the PAS program. Professional practice schools should develop strong and focused partnerships with universities or other outside experts.

The recommendations of the PEC report are consistent with the Classmates program.


Implementing Classmates

At the beginning of 2006, a small cohort of UWS teacher education students were selected for positions in Classmates. They came from the three curriculum methods of Mathematics, English or Science. The participants were placed in four PAS schools in the metropolitan south west region of Sydney: Punchbowl Boys, Belmore Boys High School, Merrylands High School, Holroyd High School. Some participants were placed in Concord High School, which shares many characteristics with PAS schools. A total of 19 students commenced the Classmates program. During Term 1, four re-located to the mainstream Bachelor of Teaching course. The remaining 15 fulfilled their practicum requirements by the end of Term 2.

The Classmates students are located in the schools for two to three days per week (depending on the semester’s timetable), with volunteer supervising teachers. The program progressively introduces them to teaching practices, policies and pedagogies in a school-based context over three school terms. Classmates students begin their professional experience by observing teaching practices, then working with individuals and/or small student groups, then team teaching and eventually developing the confidence and expertise to teach whole classes.

They attend university lectures/tutorials at Bankstown campus for approximately one to two days per week depending on the semester and the requirements of the units they are undertaking. At times, the students are expected to attend ‘intensives’ (concentrated comprehensive university sessions), usually during school/university holidays or on Saturdays. Attendance at the lectures/tutorials and intensives enables the students to complete the formal instructional component of the B. Teach (Secondary) degree. The students also participate in some of the professional learning in-services conducted by DET and/or UWS in the region.

Classmates involves the pre-service teachers and supervising teachers in systematic reflection on professional practice designed to identify and codify the experiences and intuitive understandings developed informally by existing teachers. It is hoped that over time these insights will be published and made available more broadly to other schools within the public system.


The benefits of the program

Classmates is a demanding but potentially very satisfying way to learn secondary teaching. Successful Classmates students complete the formal in-school professional experience component of their degree by the end of university Semester 1 in the one school. This provides them with the opportunity to develop and reinforce their skills within the supportive environment of their host school. If all academic and professional experience requirements are fulfilled, Classmates students may begin their teaching careers in school Term 4.

Classmates students are immersed within the south west region, potentially opening doors to various employment opportunities. They have a chance to become ‘part of the furniture’ in their host school, enabling them to develop sound relationships with students, colleagues and the broader school community.

They also have excellent opportunities to form professional relationships with schools in a region that offers the greatest opportunity for casual, temporary and permanent employment. Being immersed in one particular school and being able to attend some regional professional learning activities mean that Classmates students have the opportunity to network with other beginning and early career teachers located in other schools in the region. Classmates offers sound opportunities for developing strong professional relationships and support networks with other students, which may extend beyond the duration of the course.


References

Glennie, E, Coble, C & Allen, M  2004, Teacher Perceptions of the Work Environment in Hard-to-Staff Schools (available online as a Word document), US Education Commission of the States, Denver.
Groundwater-Smith, S & Kemmis, S 2004, Knowing makes the difference: Learnings from the NSW priority action schools program, NSW Department of Education and Training, Sydney.
NSW Public Education Council (PEC) Report 2005, Building on strong foundations (available online as a Word document), NSW Department of Education and Training, Sydney.

KLA

Subject Headings

Teacher training
Teaching profession
Socially disadvantaged
New South Wales (NSW)