Lorna Shires, Programme Lead for ITE at Oxford Brookes University

‘I remembered what you said in our behaviour session and I didn’t chase the runner’

How do you teach teachers when schools are closed? Of course University teacher training has had to develop flexibility to adapt to an ever changing national picture. At Oxford Brookes I feel that we have done this remarkably well.

As a senior lecturer I lead the Professional Studies module for PGCE primary students. Having recently arrived in Higher Education from a primary school deputy headship I feel that this is an important module which treads the line between the practical side of being a teacher and the theory of why we do what we do. Teaching is a highly skilled and reflective profession and the module links these two aspects. Our student teachers develop knowledge of the National Curriculum and cognitive load theory but also skills such as planning and behaviour management which will help them to be successful when in school: the ‘learning that’ and ‘learning how to’ elements of the Core Content Framework (2019). Just as importantly, the module aims to open students’ eyes to how small decisions made in the classroom can have a big impact on learning, self-belief and ultimately life chances of individual children. As Rita Pierson eloquently states ‘Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be’ (2013, 6:52).

This year, blending campus and school practice has been an interesting challenge. ‘You’re on mute’ is a phrase which must resonate with everyone who has had to get to grips with the joys of online learning. Alongside preparing students for entering the teaching profession in turbulent times it has also been important to create a sense of belonging within taught groups. As we tell students ‘teaching is a team sport’ and this approach reflected in the course design for the year.

During the autumn term our PGCE students have been fortunate to be taught on campus within set groups of fifteen. Seeing the same students every week from September until December meant that Sue and Jo, fellow professional studies teachers, and myself, could create dynamic and enjoyable sessions. It also built a sense of belonging within our groups and meant more regular and meaningful contact with individual students. To start, we modelled the experience of getting to know a new class and creating presence through socially distanced games and student led presentations. As tutors, we became creative to help students to experience what they would have seen in school, creating video clips to model how not to talk in front of a class. Jo’s video showed her looking as if she couldn’t be bothered and Sue was tasked with avoiding eye contact, these were great fun to make but also provided valuable discussion points. This approach stemmed from previous maths consultancy experience where examples of both ‘what it is’ and ‘what it is not’ are used to develop understanding of a concept (Rosenberg, 2019).

Knowing that students were not able to draw upon placement experience until after Christmas, ‘Squirrels Class’ were born – a virtual class with assessment, SEN, pupil premium and background lockdown information used to contextualise teaching material. These imaginary children became a shared experience with phrases such as ‘What would Michael do?’ occurring with impressive regularity. These sessions provided space to practice and reflect together before taking experiences into school, moving from a focus on the procedures of teaching towards a focus on how teaching choices impact on learning.

A real bonus to working with students on campus in a more condensed way has been the time available to develop planning skills in depth. Students worked collaboratively to critique each other’s plans and this was further developed within other modules, in maths for example where students shared videos of micro teaching sessions. Seeing a student demonstrating expanded addition with handmade place value counters on a kitchen unit, and paying clear attention to precision of language, was heart-warming. An experience which will have prepared him well for dynamic online and in person teaching this term.

In groups we pored over and debated aspects of a good lesson, planned together, pulled apart different elements, discussed learning objectives, investigated how the NC worked and considered how best to use ‘Mr Mustard’ and ‘Mrs Baker’ – our imaginary teaching assistants, both with their own back stories. This was invaluable when deciding how best to respond to behaviour scenarios – would it be better for Mr Mustard to stay with the class whilst you go after the ‘runner’ or would it be better to stay with the class and direct Mr Mustard to observe the runner from a safe distance? (We decided on the second choice but also considered the complexity of decision making in these situations).

But what of the impact on actual teaching, would they forget all of the theory once in the classroom? Comments such as ‘I remembered what you said in our behaviour session and I didn’t chase the runner’ suggest not. Students are now, thanks to our amazing placement team, on placement in primary schools.  They have weekly contact with tutors and are continuing to put into practice what was discussed in professional studies.

What have we learnt from this experience so far?

Continued human contact has proved vital both on campus and on placement, especially in a period of uncertainty. The lines between campus based and school based work have become intertwined as students continue to access teaching opportunities whilst on placement through planning conferences, inclusion input and support with job applications.

I also feel that during a year unlike any other, professional studies has served as a link between campus and school based learning in all its forms. Intensive face to face sessions built around group work, and time spent practicing crucial skills before going into schools has created a sense of belonging, community, and the confidence of a strong support network.