Does equity exist in initial teacher education?

Sara Murray

Equity has supposedly been the legislated foundation of Aotearoa New Zealand’s education system since the 1989 Education Act came into force. As an early childhood lecturer, it’s been what I’ve been teaching my undergraduate students for years. Sometimes it takes them a while to make the conceptual shift from equity to equality, but when they do get it, a whole new world of advocacy and authentic practice opens up to them. It’s a joy to behold.

However, my recently completed Ed.D research has called into question my rather naïve faith in this principle, especially when it comes to the sector that I myself operate within. I realised that, within initial teacher education (ITE) programmes, teachers from minority ethnic backgrounds had different needs and experiences in relation to their practicum. However, these needs did not seem to always be accommodated within the systems and structures of our programmes. But I think I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how I’ve come to this conclusion.

My experience

Several years ago, I was a kindergarten teacher in Christchurch. Because of the multicultural nature of the kindergarten I worked in, it was common that local ITE institutions would send international students to my centre for the practicum component of their course. As an associate teacher, I tried incredibly hard to support these international students into a new way of educational understanding in order to pass the necessary levels of competency needed. Sometimes these attempts would leave me physically exhausted, and the students would depart the centre having failed their practicum requirements, probably also feeling upset and disgruntled.

Reading this, it would be easy to assume I was a terrible mentor. Perhaps I was. However, in my defence, by far the majority of the students I supported during practicum rose to the challenge, and their practice developed incredibly during their time with me. But, too often, such students were those who had been born and raised here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Immigrant students, whose educational experiences were vastly different to what they would encounter here, seemed to be less likely to succeed. Often these students were from countries like China, Taiwan, Korea or India.

When I moved into ITE and became a visiting lecturer myself, I was witness to the same phenomenon time and again in other centres and with other associate teachers. Some international students flew in their burgeoning pedagogical understanding, being able to integrate new experiences with existing values in their practice. Others struggled to make the same transition. So trying to understand what made for a successful practicum for international Asian students from these countries, and their associate teachers, became the core focus of my doctoral research.

What I found

I’ve just come to the end of this journey, but in reality as many questions are left unanswered than those that were. You can read more about my journey here and here, or if you’re really keen, look at my thesis here.

Basically, what I found is this. Both immigrant Asian early childhood teaching students and their New Zealand European associate teachers needed to understand how their own cultural identities impacted on their practice, in order for the associate teacher to be able to closely support the teaching student into developing an authentic professional identity. Simply passing the learning outcomes was not enough for the practicum to be deemed successful by either party. There was an internal dimension to success – it involved the teaching student feeling good about themselves, and developing a personal sense of agency. All this took a more focussed and direct supervision style by the associate. And this meant that more time was needed in the practicum to allow the student to integrate their existing and new understandings of appropriate pedagogical practice, rather than simply complying with what they were told to do.

So what?

The implications of my findings have called into question a number of underlying factors within ITE that may be hindering the success of immigrant students coming into a new educational system. These factors all call into question the degree of equity that ITE institutions demonstrate in their programmes for immigrant students.

  • The first issue is the length of practicum. Usually, these are a set length of time within an ITE programme. However, my research suggests that programmes need to reflect that some students may take longer than others to work through their understandings of pedagogical requirements. So a more flexible approach is required.
  • The second implication is around the support structures offered to immigrant students to allow them the maximum opportunity to succeed. Their preparation before, and support during, practicum needs to be much more consciously offered. This could comprise of online support, bridging courses, peer support, or online journals. Basically, they need to be able to understand the reasons behind the pedagogy they may witness on practicum, and develop their own pedagogical practices that align with their own values.
  • Next, there is an obligation for ITE institutions to specifically support associate teachers to be able to effectively mentor immigrant students. I recommend closer collaboration between ITE institutions and their associate teachers in order to focus on intercultural supervision skills and reflective work on how their own values impact on their expectations of appropriate pedagogical practice. Support could include both professional development sessions, as well as online support forums.
  • Finally, I question the sole focus on summative assessment measures that, at the moment, are predominantly used by ITE institutions during practicum. Ongoing formative or emotive measures of success (such as whether the student felt good about themselves and their progress, or had that sense of agency or ‘success’ associated with their practicum experiences) were not considered. The emphasis in assessing ITE practicum is often only on observable behaviour, rather than assessing how professional identity is developing. I believe a more holistic approach to assessment needs to be considered.

My research adds to other recent calls for equity within ITE programmes (see here for a recent New Zealand example). But the underlying perception of education in an economically-based, market-driven ideology is at odds with the responsibility and morality which should underlie the teaching profession, and training for it. Extra support costs money and time. So it’s easier for ITE institutions to simply focus on compliance with standardised criteria, rather than focussing on student wellbeing and individual development.

I challenge those in charge of the development of our ITE qualifications to consider how they can better support the increasing diversity of population being represented in the teaching profession. I also challenge those working with international students every day to consider how they support them to succeed: not just in achieving compliance, but in developing an authentic professional identity that is true to their own beliefs.

Sara square.jpgWith a background in teaching in the kindergarten sector, Sara Murray has been a lecturer in early childhood initial teacher education for the past five years. She is passionate about authentic intercultural practice in the early childhood sector, with a particular focus on the practicum experience. She recently completed her Ed.D through the University of Otago.

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