“Was it Good, Sir?” Thinking Deeply About Teacher Education

I was even more amazed to have been accepted into York’s then-new Concurrent teacher education program than I was to have been admitted to the university at all. I had, after all, dropped out of school at 15 (well, “left” would be more accurate; one could not drop out legally until 16, after all…) to pursue a career in rock and roll. I would learn the educational value of my life in the music business in many ways over the years that followed it—some great bands with students, for instance—but it was in what would be the first year of my last position as a secondary teacher that really brought it home.

I was teaching students who, by the simple fact of their presence before me in our senior English class, were demonstrating that they were managing to do something I had never done—complete high school—and this had become the current topic of their queries about my background. How I lost sight of their qualifications relative to mine—even for the moment that was about to grab me—I cannot explain. But it was Mike, a smart and compellingly irreverent student (and, by the way, a fine drummer in his own right) who created a standout moment for what Schön calls “reflection-in-action.”

“Was it good, sir?”

Certainly, I felt the gravity of his question in that moment, as I did the honest answer. I hesitated, the cowardice of which I felt keenly, even then, but I knew what I had to do.

“Yes,” I said, partly in terror, imagining the conversations likely to occur around dinner tables that evening. “It was great. I loved it.”

The truth is that my experience also provided some helpful back-up: although I had, in fact, dropped out of high school to play music, I would learn in my 20s that a good ear and the ability to pick up fast could all but guarantee work, particularly if you were the same suit size as the player you were replacing. It paid my way through university, so I can report with authority that rock and roll quite literally made me the teacher I became; I knew it then, as I did anew in the Schönesque moment that Mike created.

Once again, Stephen has posed some fine questions to frame the thinking he seeks to inspire in us. In a recent “guest post,” both here  and on http://teachingoutloud.org/, I considered the value of being a kind of “visitor” in the context of serving on secondments to a variety of teacher education programs in Canada. In the interests of serving—and being served by—the various constituencies they share, each of the faculties of education has taken clear steps to engage teachers in deliberate professional thinking and experience, within and across pre- and in-service programs, as well as in undergraduate, graduate, and professional studies. Whether the pre-service programs were concurrent or consecutive, the relations between the various constituencies were always rich, in part because of the value each places on the work of others involved. It is these “relations between” that I want to explore here.

For my part, I enjoyed my work in all of the faculties where I was seconded. In very general ways, the concurrent programs captured more of the “in-progress,” if I may put it that way, nature of learning about learning and teaching practice in the emerging contexts of one’s own academic studies. I particularly appreciated this dimension of my own pre- service experience in York’s Concurrent program: by Christmas of my first year in the elementary B. Ed. stream, I knew that my academic program, Honours English, although great, simply wasn’t going to sustain my aspirations. The revision would take two years, and involve willing participants in the Faculties of Arts, Fine Arts, and Education, but eventually, I switched to, and graduated with, a General Honours degree in Fine Arts (Theatre, Film and Video) with enough English courses to qualify for Honour Specialist certification at the secondary level. The whole enterprise added a year to my undergraduate program, but it also sustained the opportunity to volunteer in the school where I would work upon graduation, alongside my regular practicum placement.

I very much appreciated the value of what York called the “principle of concurrency” at the time, expressed, as it was, in somewhat broader ways than requirements defined by my program. But the value of concurrency—maturation, over time, in context—was rich, to be sure. I would see this again in my role as a faculty member at York in the 90s.

The consecutive programs offered by institutions to which I was seconded—Simon Fraser; OISE—benefited from the experience of teacher candidates who, in general, had more academic grounding, at least when compared to those enrolled in the earlier years of concurrent programs, but, in general, my sense is that the experience of graduates in concurrent programs was richer over all.

For my part, the opportunities to participate in areas that become possible when organizations contribute to, and draw upon, constituencies and areas of shared interest and activity—such as we see in, say, university-based pre-service programs, and district- based professional programs—are probably among the richest and most professionally sustaining I have seen.

But they are not the only ones.

As I noted here earlier (please see my guest post “Surprise!” ), my work in the Writers in Electronic Residence (WiER) program has provided multiple points of entry into the influence of engagement in areas of shared purpose—in this case, writing—on the professional insights and practices of the constituencies involved—in this case, writers, teachers, and, yes, students. In WiER, it is really because of the interests each constituency shares, more than the similarity of those interests, that matters. It is the more catalytic dimensions that develop within and across constituencies engaged in the context of mentorship that emerges to meet the particular—and differing —needs and aspirations of those involved in shared work with one another.

It is true that WiER was not conceived as a program of teacher professional development —and, indeed, its primary focus is on linking students and professional writers in areas that are important to them, namely, creative writing and considered response—but there is little question that the program serves the professional interests of participants, including teachers. In WiER’s case, though, the “credential” is not provided by the program; rather, it is provided by the schools, which operate WiER in their English and writing classes, creative writing clubs, and the like, and occasionally by faculties of education in the form of graduate courses and theses on mentorship, learning with technology, engagement and the like, or in various facets of pre-service and professional teacher education.

For its part, WiER offers a program known as “The Virtual Practicum,” in which pre- service teacher education candidates participate in WiER as part of their initial teacher education. To date, WiER has operated these programs at the former FEUT, SFU, and York, and currently offers it each May at OISE in their “Internship Program.” Interested readers can learn more about this program at WiER’s web site , and interested institutions are invited to make contact as well.

WAS IT GOOD, SIR?

That class with Mike was a dozen or so years ago, and if my terror at unleashing parental horror had any unhappy consequences, I can report that I am not aware of any.

But I did hear from Mike’s mum.

It turns out that, in addition to being Mike’s mum, she is something of an activist. I saw her at one of Mike’s gigs (and a wedding or two) “back in the day,” as they say, and these days, I hear from her a few times each year, mobilizing people, and nurturing more thinking in areas she is passionate about. I can see—and have learned more about—that nurturing and passion in her son, too, so I did eventually realize that he already knew the answer to his question when he asked it of me in our class, even if I didn’t, and that its lasting value would be to me.

And that, I think, is very good. Sir.

About Trevor Owen


Founder and Program Director Writers in Electronic Residence (WiER) http://www.wier.ca

2 Comments

  1. Trevor, it was wonderful re-reading your post early this morning–meandering in and out of your personal and professional stories over a cup of coffee, wondering where the personal ends and the professional ends.

    I love the conversation about constituencies and concurrency. Both of these ideas, I sense, have some powerful implications for our conversations here and elsewhere. In particular, I find myself thinking of “constitutencies”.

    Until now, I’ve mainly known this term as it is used to refer to geographical regions that form representative regions on the political landscape. You’ve broadened the perspective here to refer to (I think) the various other “territories” that are represented on the educational landscape.

    School districts as a constituency; faculties of education as another. Am I correct?

    Teacher education straddles more than one constituency which offers the whole enterprise a sense of richness but, at the same time, a sense of tension. You reference the idea of shared constituencies and (here I’m reading into what you’re saying) shared constituents.

    If I have it right, then this is an interesting lens with which to examine the current state of (and vision for) teacher education.

    But I’m going to pause before proceeding in the hopes that you might be able to say more about your concept of constituency.

  2. Many thanks for your thoughtful insights and questions, Stephen.

    My response to your query regarding constituencies is “yes.”

    I have organized my thoughts in response to your query in three contexts: Secondments, WiER , and Learning Relationships, below.

    SECONDMENTS
    Last July, in a “guest post” , I considered the notion of “constituencies” in the context of secondments to faculties of education, and of “being a kind of visitor” in that role. Secondments offer both participants in the relationship—i.e., the seconding institution and the secondee—opportunities to work together where otherwise they might not. Indeed, my sense is that this is really the purpose for secondments—a chance to bridge the distinctions that might normally exist between, say, faculty members in universities, on the one hand, and practitioners in schools, on the other—and, just as each of these groups forms its own, distinct constituency, once the relationship between them is formed, they, in turn, form others, which operate in the service of shared aspirations and work.

    When I began to see what became possible when one constituency—say, in a faculty of education—intended to consider and explore the interests and work of another constituency—say, practicing teachers—I saw it everywhere.

    WiER
    Taken together, those involved in the work of education comprise several constituencies, typically, people who are teachers, and people who are students. In my work with the Writers in Electronic Residence (WiER) program, I saw how the introduction of the writers to the existing relationships between teachers and students changed them both, as well as how they saw each other. Their learning relationships were changed.

    What I consider to be key to my understanding of this came when I saw how these relationships, once changed, didn’t change back when the writers’ residencies were over. Indeed, who students and teachers had become to each other—as learners, or, I suppose, participants in shared learning, even though the nature of that learning was different for each constituency—changed, in part, because of the involvement of the writers in their learning relationship. (So, for instance, when course work returned to Fern Hill or “The Scottish Play,” as they say, the relationships between students and teachers had evolved.)

    LEARNING RELATIONSHIPS
    If those involved in WiER could be understood to be in a learning relationship comprising separate constituencies, namely, students, teachers and writers, what would the influence be on each one? And what would the influence be on the new shared constituency they had formed? This thinking also applied to the classroom, where two constituencies—the students, and the teacher—were also engaged in shared work, but also individual work in a shared context.

    This is where that notion I raised of “learning colleagues” comes from . In it, all participants engage in learning sustained in a shared context, but what that learning is can vary widely, and have quite different purposes.

    I heard a news report recently—television, I think, but perhaps radio—in which the teacher being profiled for what sounded like exciting and productive work, described his role as the “lead learner” in his classroom. I feel certain I know what he means, although there is a certain positionality to that description that doesn’t quite sit right with me. Who’s is “leading” shifts, and it is, I think, that this happens in the full view of all participants that underscores and advances the value of this sort of engagement in the classroom.

    Just a thought.

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