Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Teacher Educators in FE

The challenges and rewards of teacher education

Nearly two million people study in English Further Education colleges each year (157 Group 2014) and over 640,000 of these students are 16-18 year olds. Compare this to the number of 16-18 year pupils who study in school sixth forms - just under 440,000 – and it is hard to fathom why recent governments have primarily cut funding to FE. 

From a teacher educator’s perspective, it is puzzling, to say the least, that most policy, research and government discourse centres around school teacher training, even though the average numbers of teacher trainees in Further Education (FE) has often been greater than the number of teacher trainees in primary and secondary schools combined (Crawley 2012). The recent Carter Review of initial teacher training did not focus on FE at all.

Given FE’s particular challenges, I wanted to find out what teacher educators themselves thought were the rewards of their role in English FE, especially as they were an under-represented and under-researched group in the literature (Boyd and Harris, 2010; Cochran-Smith, 2003; Koster et al., 2008; Lunenberg, Korthagen and Swennen, 2007; Murray, 2008; Swennen et al., 2008).  Despite the central importance of teacher education internationally (Korthagen, Loughran and Lunenberg, 2005; Koster and Dengerink, 2008; Koster et al., 2008; Lawy and Tedder, 2009; Loughran, 2006; Swennen et al., 2008) there are few studies of post-compulsory sector teacher educators themselves.  Yet many of the FE teacher educators’ experiences were also shared in schools and Universities, both locally and internationally.  

Four perspectives

The research originated from my role and practice as programme leader for a post-compulsory teacher education consortium and included concepts drawn from four broad theoretical perspectives: Lave and Wenger’s model of situated learning, proposing that learning involves a process of engagement in a community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991); and Fuller and Unwin’s (2010) interpretation of the use of the apprenticeship model to describe teacher training. Their work identified a continuum of professional development which was expansive or restrictive (Fuller and Unwin, 2004) and argued that the former can create a stronger and richer learning environment.  Teacher educators also need to develop practical wisdom, relating to Eisner’s (2002) use of the Greek concepts of episteme (true and certain knowledge) and phronesis (wise, practical reasoning) to explore the conditions for excellent practice.  Finally, Hodkinson et al (2008) used a theory of learning cultures to explore how and why situations influence learning, alongside a cultural theory of learning which explained how and why people learn in FE contexts. 

Ten experienced teacher educators were interviewed - five men and five women, half of whom taught or had taught in four different Higher Education Institutions and half of whom taught or had taught in five different colleges. Four of the interviewees have since retired and all names were anonymised.

The 70 survey participants were teacher educators from the South-East of England who were contacted through various ITE networks. Of the 64 survey participants who revealed how long they had been teacher educators, 27 (42.2%) were long-career participants; 25 (39.1%) were mid-career participants and 12 (18.7%) were early-career participants who worked in HE and in a variety of institutions in the FE system.

Is it really that bad? The challenges of educating teachers in Further Education

The greatest areas of tension within ITE appeared to emanate from the financial, contextual, bureaucratic and political landscape of the FE system in England.  A pressing concern seemed to be whether initial teacher education (ITE) would continue to exist in the future and if so, what pressures would emerge between, on the one hand, providing a desirable and effective ITE course; and on the other hand, meeting externally imposed requirements. Examples of pressures included, for instance, cuts in funding for Adult Learning Support; and lack of equipment in many adult and community education centres - despite the policy push to engage with new technology.

What came through strongly were the ways in which teacher educators and senior colleagues combat managerialism through a process of ‘strategic or creative compliance’ (Gleeson and Shain 1999) Teacher educators’ ability to use such strategies was bolstered by their gradual accumulation of experiential wisdom and judgement, usually developed through experiencing a variety of key professional roles, which, in addition, gave them credibility with both staff and managers. Teacher educators who also possess or develop certain dispositions, such as a desire for social justice, (Villegas, 2007) found that these helped them to maintain ‘strategic compliance’ (Gleeson and Shain, 1999) within an FE system suffering from continuous and rapid change.

Some of the financial issues identified in the research included the lack of funding for ITE in general; and the concerns that arose when employers did not give trainees remission from teaching, which cuts down on their study time.  Some participants said that their trainees’ subject mentors were often neither paid nor given remission. They also stated that hours for ITE teaching generally were under financial pressure and a few participants referred to the long hours that trainees were required to work, even though they were on a teacher education course as well. Many participants expressed concerns about the difficulties of supporting trainees with integrity within ‘a target culture’.

The nature of the relationship with their trainees, who were also colleagues, could pose problems. These might manifest themselves within the pastoral or tutorial role, or in terms of boundaries between colleagues, or tensions which may arise from being both the trainee’s line manager and an assessor or mentor within ITE. 

Training peers, especially experienced teachers, can be problematic. Also being caught in the 'middle' - torn between meeting the needs of the institution and the needs of the student e.g. when students are made redundant mid-course. Female, FE, long-career

Although the learners we teach are also teachers, they still behave like students, with lateness and poor attendance in some cases - the very thing we hear them complaining about with their own students. Female, FE, long-career

The tensions arising from the financial and political context of the FE system, with their attendant consequences for workload and curriculum design, also entail ethical dilemmas for teacher educators.

‘Hunting with the hare and the hounds’ – teacher educators’ ethical dilemmas

Several teacher educators said that they faced ethical dilemmas, for example, because they wanted to be realistic about the demands of the FE system, without being overly negative - but were torn between the demands of their institution and their ethics as a trainer. They lamented the confusion between quality observations and developmental observations and the need to educate managers about the differences between the two.

Employers did not always recognise the demanding nature of the teacher educator role in terms of career structure or increased pay. Teacher educators, even more than their colleagues, must keep up to date with scholarship; they have an increased marking load which must be assessed at different HE levels;  they spend a great deal of time just getting to and from observations and feedback sessions; and they spend time supporting participants in extra tutorials.

Challenge as opportunity: teacher education as a satisfying career

Despite contextual difficulties, most people taking part in the research stated that they enjoyed their work as teacher educators.  Nearly two-thirds cited as their prime motivation for remaining in Initial Teacher Education firstly, that they liked to watch trainees develop from nervous beginners to confident practitioners; and secondly, that they liked to see the increase in trainees’ skills and lively enjoyment of the course.

Thirteen per cent of those surveyed remarked that teacher education provided them with additional insights into their own practice, through observing their trainees. The role gave them leeway to be creative in order to inspire their trainees. Most of all, they enjoyed watching their trainees develop from ‘quivering wrecks’ to confident teachers.

In general, teacher educators who remain in FE ITE have decided that the rewards outweigh the challenges. Nonetheless, these practitioners should be recognised as possessing a discrete role for which a career path should exist within their institutions. There should be adequate remission for mentors and trainees as well as for teacher educators' scholarship and research and they should be encouraged to join collaborative networks in order firstly, to support their professional development; and secondly, to mitigate the effects of challenging work environments.

The lack of support, collaboration and networking opportunities is a substantial cause of challenge and tension within the teacher educator role.  Teacher educators in the FE system could join regional support groups, such as Teacher Educators in Lifelong Learning (TELL), to advance their own research and scholarship and could take part in research conferences such as the Association for Teacher Education in Europe (ATEE) or European Association for Practitioner Research on Improving Learning (EAPRIL) to gain opportunities for discussion and reflection on ITE in a wider context; and to gain support from international colleagues working in ITE.

©Dr Rebecca Eliahoo, Principal Lecturer (Lifelong Learning) University of Westminster


157 Group (2014) Future Colleges – Rising to the Skills Challenge,  London: 157 Group

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