Educations' beginners

March 2010


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STUART MIDDLETON considers parallels between the experiences of new teachers and new entrants

Starting school should not be something that is only for the young. I was reminded at the start of this year that there are two clear groups that start school each year – those off to school at age five and beginning teachers. I wondered if they shared some similar feelings and experiences.

There are two clear groups of five-year-olds, those who progress to school from early childhood education of one kind or another and those who enter school directly. Teachers enter teaching either directly, through Limited Authority to Teach (LAT) or perhaps with provisional entry after arrival from overseas, or from a pre-service teacher education programme. So there are similarities.

Now, the little ones who arrive at school either directly or indirectly have no idea whether they are ready for school. In New Zealand we have no clear statement of the skills and behaviours that are required in order to be successful at school. There seems to be no reason for this other than it hasn’t been done. Or is it that we simply don’t know what they might be? Such a statement would be helpful to many parents and be a useful guide to early childhood education programmes.

For those graduating from early childhood education the list would be confirmation of time well-spent in the programme. For those who enter directly it provides a guide to parents. It might also have the effect of making even more explicit the need to achieve real universal access to quality early childhood education.

What such a list might bring about would be a reconsideration of whether or not the fifth birthday is the right starting point for schooling. I love the idea of little ones going to school on their fifth birthday and think it very much better than the practice in some systems of taking in two intakes a year. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers for some interesting implications of such a system. Some children might benefit from starting school earlier and others later.

But thank goodness children do turn up on the school’s doorstep on their fifth birthday, otherwise those denied access to early childhood education might never get there. I will not dwell on access issues here – but be reminded that we have little to be proud of in the unequal access for different communities.

Similarly with teachers arriving in the school, statements of expected skills and knowledge are helpful. The Teachers Council statement on Graduating Teacher Standards is one attempt to provide such a statement but to what extent is it understood by graduating teachers and what audit process ensures that such a list actually impacts on pre-service programmes? But let’s accept that a genuine effort is made. If I had a criticism of the list, it is that it is too cerebral – teaching isn’t the complex process the list paints – it is rooted in a physical environment that must be managed and deals with learners who must be managed and programmes that must be managed and professional relationships with colleagues and parents that must be managed. But I find the word “manage” nowhere – is it a dirty word? Where is the list of skills that teachers can be expected to have at the point of entry?

What about teachers who enter the profession through LAT or immigration? Well, there is the Good Character and Fit to be a Teacher policy but I suspect that this statement operates effectively only when a teacher shows him or herself to be a person not of good character and therefore not fit to teach. What rigour is brought to checks for LAT and immigrant teachers? What rigour can be brought, short of formal interviews and detailed background checks? The list that would be helpful for the beginning teacher might also serve a useful purpose for the LAT or immigrant teacher.

It is likely that both groups – new five-year-old students and new teachers – ‘start school’ with some degree of apprehension. What is required of them? For both groups there is comfort in the fact that not everyone will be starting at the same point. Both will be surrounded by others who have been there longer. Where there is a mix of experience and learners at different stages there is at least the possibility of a profitable learning environment. And this applies at any age.

Both school new entrants and beginning teachers learn best when they do so with help – Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development and all that! Putting someone alongside a learner at any age and at any stage who can bring greater experience and knowledge will allow the novice to make greater progress, to learn more and enjoy more.

But perhaps the most significant shared part of starting school for new entrants and for new teachers might be what happens after that first day. My first day at school has faded into a foggy past but I do remember my first day as a teacher. Going home excited, wanting to talk about it and looking forward to the next day. I remember also the exhaustion, the feeling of drained energy.

From observing little ones starting school, they are much the same – full of stories of the events of the day, full of wonderment at what they have seen and experienced. All of this is related in a torrent of conversation prior to falling to sleep at an unexpectedly early time to sleep the sleep of the quenched learner.

But both have taken that first step toward a different future. The similarities of the shared experience of the new teacher and new entrant perhaps tell us about education generally.

We can face educational challenges best if we know what is required of us. Being explicit about this to a new entrant and those who care for them is as important as being clear to the new teacher and those who prepare them. Both should not approach this major step through the door with any apprehension generated by the darkness of not knowing what will be expected of them.

People working in groups that are not all at the same point in experience or level of skill provide a rich environment for learning. Sometimes this can work in age-related cohorts, it certainly can work in a setting that involves a mix of ages.

Related to this is the fact that we all learn best at the limits of our knowledge and skill, provided that we do so with help. Putting a novice learner (and we can all be that in certain settings and at different times) alongside someone advanced in their knowledge, experience and skills will provide a context for purposeful learning.

There are a few simple principles that underpin all learning, for new entrants and new teachers, formal and informal, and for people both young and old. u

Stuart Middleton is director external relations at Manukau Institute of Technology. He writes a weekly blog, EDTalkNZ at