On teaching and practicing what we preach…

First of all, I need to admit that though I have both academic and professional experience as an early years and elementary school teacher, I have never taken a course on how to teach in higher ed. I think this is a shortcoming of most Masters and Phd programs, because even though there are courses on the subject offered in my department, they have always been optional, and I haven’t taken one yet. So I apologize if you have, or if higher ed is your area of study, and everything I say seems obvious to you. I am in the process of teaching my fourth course, and have also supervised students doing field placements in childcare centres.
Before beginning to teach in cegep (the 2 years between high school and university in Quebec, or 3 year technical courses leading to professional degrees), and at university, I provided professional development/learning workshops to early childhood educators, through a not-for-profit social economy organization. I also need to explain that I have taught two general groups of students: adults who have been early childhood educators (ECEs) for many years without any professional certification, and adults who are making a career switch later in life. I have never taught what I typically imagine as university students (although I have a sense that the demographics have changed, or have always been diverse) – young adults in their late teens/early twenties who are preparing for their first career.
Anyways, I have had good and less good experiences as an instructor. In general, about 10% of my students have loved me, and the rest hated me, or were too confused and insecure to appreciate what I was trying to do. This problem seems common among instructors who are just starting out, as one of my friends told me “I think I was too socio-constructivist for them, so I readjusted”. At least in my circle of friends,  as students we found it hypocritical to be taught to interact with children in a way that respects the children’s knowledge, respects their uniqueness and diversity, and to support their learning in an individualized way, and then to be lectured at by professors who would tell us the one (and only one) right way to do things, both in the classroom and in our assignments, and who would discourage us from thinking any other way (not all my professors have been like this, thankfully).
The thing is, I didn’t want to “readjust” like my friend because I believe that you learn through experience, not through being told. When we give workshops (www.casiope.org), we do something that we like to call Aikido – I am sure it has a more theoretical name somewhere, but like I said, I never took those classes. Basically, the idea is that you need to outline very clearly at the beginning of the workshop what the participants can expect to get out of the day. For example, “Based on your responses to the preliminary questionnaires, I know that you are worried about supporting children with special needs, children learning an additional language, and children with chronic health problems. Today we will be focusing on children with special needs. When I come back in a few weeks, we’ll talk about language learning. I won’t be discussing health problems because I’m not a medical specialist.” (This is just an example, in reality there would subtopics, and it would take much longer than a day to cover each of them). In workshops that approach is key (you can read my article about this here), but when you give a workshop you hope the participants are there to learn, and more specifically, to learn something that will help them in practice. They are also happy to be there because someone is paying them to take a break from their very demanding jobs (hopefully, sometimes they are at night, or on Saturdays, but that’s another story). When teaching, the problem is that the students are not always there to learn. Sad, but true. The system is so misaligned that often they are there because they need a piece of paper (the diploma), or because they want good marks so they can get a scholarship to continue studying. Often there is a sense that they are sacrificing their time and money for the course, so they want to make sure they get the education they feel they have a right to, which is of course different for each student.
Back to my aikido metaphor (it’s about preventing resistance, if you don’t know anything about martial arts, and I don’t!). What I decided to do this time round was explain to the students straight off the bat that this course was going to be different from most of the other courses they have taken, and that they should expect to feel insecure a lot because I don’t believe there are right or wrong answers, my goal is to get them to think critically and come up with their own answers. Then I went through the principles of the early childhood curriculum framework (which is the subject of the course), but switched all references from children to students – things like, each student is unique, the student is the primary agent of their own learning, etc. I explained that just like how ECE’s are constrained by an imperfect system (crappy hours, crappy pay, ratios too high, etc.), I have to teach within constraints that I don’t believe in – like a closed-book exam at the end and having to give them number grades, or the fact that I needed to have the course syllabus prepared before I meet them, and have little control over the content. (Have I mentioned I have a BA from Hampshire College where we got a one page narrative evaluation at the end of every class and no grades at all?, it was fantastic, there were also sheep wandering around campus, but that’s another story too!).
 I also can divide my students into 2 groups, those (10 of them) who already have their basic qualifications and are in the process of completing a series of 3 undergraduate certificates which are equivalent to a BA (often because they want to become cegep teachers, or want to go on and do an MA, or get a job as a director or pedagogical advisor), and those who are doing their initial training (30 of them). There are huge differences between the 2 groups and I thought it would be a challenge to not bore the ones who already knew the subject matter. At the end of the 2nd class, I met with the 10 who were already qualified and let them now they had the option of doing an optional assignment that would be more work, but more challenging than the one on the course outline. Also, that I respected their knowledge and experience and that they were welcome to contribute by bringing in examples or (if they spoke to me in advance) by getting more involved by planning activities for their classmates. They unanimously agreed that they didn’t have time to put in any extra work, but that they appreciated the recognition.
Finally, copying my supervisor’s example, I ended the first class by asking them to fill out a questionnaire so I could get to know them and their learning needs. The question that was the most important to me turned out not to be about their previous professional experience or their strengths and needs as a student, but about their personal goals for the class – were they interested in theory? inter-provincial and international comparisons? did they just want to pass or did they really care about their mark? did they want to reflect on their practice? improve their practice? This helped me gear parts of the course to preparing them for the exam, and other parts for solving practical problems, and still others for challenging and re-imagining the content of the curriculum framework that they are learning about. I haven’t received the course evaluations yet, but the classes go really well and I am amazed by the passionate discussions and how much better it seems to be going than my previous classes.
I actually hope that reading this, you say, yeah? so what? that’s not even half as socio-constructivist as the courses I teach! Because I really am working in an imperfect system and my little edge towards critical thinking is a tiny tip-toe. So let me know what you do in class, I would love to know!
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About joannelehrer

I am a PhD student attempting to critically engage with narrative research in early childhood education. My doctoral project focuses on family-educator and family-teacher relationships during the transition to kindergarten in marginalized communities. I created this blog to document the journey, and to reach out to others in the vague hope of creating an opportunity for exchange with other students or academics...kind of like a virtual message in a bottle.

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