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Coordinators supporting pre-service teachers and school-university partnerships

Rosie Le Cornu
Associate Professor School of Education, University of South Australia


The article is adapted from a paper presented by the author at the 2011 ATEA Conference, subsequently published as 'School Co-ordinators: Leaders of Learning in Professional Experience' in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education Volume 37 Issue 3, 2012.


It is widely accepted that professional experience, or practicum, is a key part of teacher education courses, highly valued by student teachers. In Australia and overseas there is a growing emphasis on teacher educators working in partnership with schools to maximise the benefits of the practicum experience (Parliament of Australia, 2007). This in turn has generated new forms of school-university collaboration, focused on reciprocal learning relationships that unite student teachers with school and university staff, in learning communities (Le Cornu & Ewing, 2008; Kruger et al, 2009; Zeichner, 2010).

In the School of Education at the University of South Australia, attempts are being made to reconceptualise professional experience around the notion of learning communities. This model of professional experience has a commitment to encouraging student teacher agency and providing more opportunities for them to engage with their peers and mentors in collegial ways. Changes have been made to how professional experience is structured and to the roles of the various participants involved. For example, learning circles (Le Cornu, 2007) have been introduced, establishing peer mentoring among student teachers. Evaluation of the range of initiatives is ongoing (see Le Cornu, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010). Changes have also been made to the nomenclature to describe the various roles, hence student teachers are known as Pre-service Teachers (PSTs), supervising teachers as Mentor Teachers and supervising lecturers as University Mentors.

One persistent finding across all the evaluations has been the importance of the school coordinator (usually the principal or deputy principal) to the successful implementation of the learning communities. Traditionally the coordinator's role has been seen as purely managerial and administrative, but the evaluations' findings are consistent with those from other recent research. Martinez & Coombs found that the coordinator's administrative role was only one of a diverse range of practices that were 'crucial in ensuring that practicum is an occasion for quality learning' (2001, p2). A study in Britain found that coordinators helped to monitor and assess PSTs' practicum experiences, and provided pedagogical and pastoral support (Mutton & Butcher 2007, p51–52). 

These findings inspired a further study, exploring the contribution of the coordinator as a key factor in the transformation of school-university partnerships. This article presents findings from the study, concentrating on the coordinator's pedagogical role. It highlights what a small group of coordinators in South Australia learnt about their role and identifies the key elements of high-quality professional experiences.


The Study

The study focused on six coordinators who were involved with the University's Master of Teaching Program – three principals and three deputy principals. The coordinators were highly experienced, both in the role itself (each had held the post of coordinator for over five years) and as teachers/leaders in general (each had been teaching for more than 20 years). The participants had all been identified in the earlier studies as having an impact on PSTs' learning.

The specific aims of the study were to identify the coordinators' perceptions of their role and to capture and document their exemplary practices. Individual semi-structured interviews were conducted initially. Each interview took approximately 60 minutes and these were taped and transcribed. A focus group was then conducted with the coordinators to further explore emerging themes. The transcripts and meeting notes were analysed using a process of coding and categorising which led to key themes being identified.


F
indings

The coordinators were obviously very committed to initial teacher education given their ongoing involvement in hosting PSTs in their schools. Therefore it is not surprising that every coordinator recognised the central role that professional experiences play in learning to teach, as ways to link theory and practice in a school context and at the same time test PSTs' commitment to teaching. Whilst they acknowledged the learning that comes from being in classrooms, they particularly emphasised the learning for PSTs beyond the classroom. This is where they placed their emphasis when working with the PSTs; for example, leading discussions with the PSTs on school-wide issues such as NAPLAN and professional learning for teachers. They wanted them to learn about the whole role of a teacher. 

A number of the coordinators acknowledged that their view of professional experiences differed from some of their teachers' views. As one coordinator said, 'there is a commonly held view that classroom-based work is the most critical, therefore there is tension between classroom time and wider school/educational issues'. 

The coordinators identified four key elements necessary for high-quality professional experiences. The quality of mentor teachers was mentioned as of first importance by all six coordinators. They wanted mentor teachers who were prepared to share their classrooms, spend time with the PSTs and provide authentic feedback.

The second element was commitment from the principal/leadership team. The coordinators acknowledged that teachers would be more willing to accept PSTs into the school community if there were explicit/clear support from the principal and the leadership team. (In South Australian public schools the leadership team consists of the principal, deputy or assistant principal and Key Teachers or Learning Coordinators.) Interestingly, all participants stressed the importance of the coordinator role being adopted by a member of the leadership team, to send a message to the PSTs and the mentor teachers about the value their school placed on the practicum experience. The coordinators saw the role as having three main interrelated components: supporting PSTs, supporting MTs and being the link between their school and the university.   

The third key element in high-quality professional experiences was the role of the university mentor. The coordinators valued the reconceptualised role of the university mentor in this program, which enabled support to be given to themselves as coordinators, as well as the mentor teachers and PSTs. Ongoing shared dialogue, during school visits and meetings, was a feature of the university mentor's work which was particularly appreciated. The coordinators had all been working with the university mentor for at least two years and in some cases, four or five years, so that a respectful, trusting relationship had been developed.

The final element was the Master Teacher Program's commitment to the development of a learning community. The coordinators valued the program's commitments to reflection, collaboration and reciprocity. All of the coordinators unreservedly saw their role as supporting the program's explicit commitments to reflection and collaboration, and they all implemented strategies to support these foci.

Three of the coordinators also mentioned the quality of the PSTs themselves as a key factor in determining the quality of professional experiences. These coordinators wanted and expected PSTs 'to be learners'.

Several also commented on how their perceptions of the role had changed since they had become more involved in the program. For example, one said, 'When we started I saw it mainly as an organising role…I have learned that it is no different to the role that you have as an education leader with your own staff'. The coordinators were clear that their own beliefs about teaching and learning had a strong influence on the work they did in their role as coordinators. They implemented strategies which were consistent with these beliefs. Most prominent were their beliefs about the importance of relationships, critical reflection and being a learner. 


Conclusion

The coordinators in this study supported PSTs in direct terms by implementing strategies to maximise the value of the practicum experience. They also offered indirect support through their close collaboration with mentor teachers and the university mentor, and also by their work within their schools to establish the right conditions for teachers' learning. Helping to explore different ways of 'doing prac', school coordinators can make a difference at school level and also at the macro level, by contributing to the reform of the PST professional experience reform and facilitating effective school-university partnerships for initial teacher education.


Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge the six coordinators involved in this study for their expertise, passion and support: Rob Harkin, Neil Piggott, Andrew Plastow, Deb Pryor, Carol Williams and Len Williams.


References

Kruger, T., Davies, A., Eckersley, B., Newell, F. & Cherednichenko, B. (2009). Effective and Sustainable University-School Partnerships, Beyond determined efforts by inspired individuals, Teaching Australia, Canberra.

Le Cornu, R. (1999). The 3Rs of Practicum Reform, 3rd National Cross Faculty Practicum Conference Proceedings Booklet, Adelaide, 1997.

Le Cornu, R. (2007). Learning Circles in the practicum: an initiative in peer mentoring, Refereed paper presented at the Australian Teacher Education Conference, Wollongong, 3rd – 6th July.

Le Cornu, R. (2008). The changing role of the 'university supervisor' in professional experiences, Paper presented at the ATEA conference, Sunshine Coast, 8th – 11th July.

Le Cornu, R. (2009). Building resilience in pre-service teachers, Teaching and Teacher Education, 25, 717–723.

Le Cornu, R. (2010). Changing roles, relationships and responsibilities in changing times, Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 38 (3), 195–206.

Le Cornu, R. & Ewing, R. (2008). Reconceptualising professional experiences in pre service teacher education…reconstructing the past to embrace the future, Teaching and Teacher Education, 24 (7), 1799–1812.

Martinez, K. & Coombs, G. (2001). Unsung Heroes: exploring the roles of school-based professional experience coordinators in Australian preservice teacher education, Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 29 (3), 275–288.

Mutton, T. & Butcher, J. (2007). More than managing? The role of the Initial Teacher Training Coordinator in schools in England, Teacher Development, 11 (3), 245–261.

Parliament of Australia (2007). Top of the Class: Report on the Inquiry into Teacher Education, Canberra: House of Representative Standing Committee on Education and Vocational Training.

Zeichner, K.(1999). Action Research and the Preparation of Reflective Practitioners During the Professional Practicum, a keynote address, Association of PEPE Conference, Christchurch, NZ, January.

KLA

Subject Headings

School leadership
School principals
Teacher training
South Australia