Walking into the ‘Spider’s Parlour’: Effective spaces for student teacher – associate teacher relationships

Claire Wilson, Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand

The teaching practicum is an extraordinary space. It can provide some of the best and also some of the worst experiences for student (trainee) teachers as they journey towards becoming qualified practitioners. Looking back to our own teaching practica, we can all recall the tense feeling of nervous expectation, the lost feeling of not belonging in a particular space, and the sweaty anticipation of moving into the unfamiliar and the unknown.

Think for a second here …. Who holds the power in this sometimes awkward pairing of experienced teacher and student teacher? Similar to the fly walking into the spider’s parlour – will a sticky predicament await the student? Or will the experienced teacher’s parlour become a nurturing space where new learning and ‘web-weaving’ can occur?

As if this wasn’t complex enough, when teaching practica occur in low socio-economic settings, there are further ‘webs’ to be negotiated. Student teachers from middle-class backgrounds may find that low socio-economic settings challenge their own socio-cultural beliefs and value system. This may lead to student teachers feeling a lack of confidence and competence in these particular teaching spaces, making it difficult for them to be able to connect and function effectively with others during the practicum. Finding ways in which this discomfort or dissonance can be overcome is essential for the practicum to be successful for both the student and the associate (mentor) teacher.

My study

My recent Master’s thesis research sought to investigate factors that enhance and create more effective spaces for the inter-relationships between associate (mentor) teachers and student (trainee) teachers during practica within low socio-economic early childhood settings. The drive for this topic was a personal and passionate one for me, as I have spent the majority of my teaching career working in the low socio-economic early childhood locus, and I have found these settings to be the most rewarding and stimulating for my own practice. I am also a strong advocate for encouraging, attracting, and retaining a high level of culturally competent teachers in this particular learning setting – our mokopuna (youngest children) are worth it!

For my study, I conducted in-depth interviews with six associate teachers who were current and active mentors of teacher education students. This was a real privilege. These associate teachers shared with me their most cherished and intimate practices for working alongside student teachers. They bared their souls, sharing how they ‘roll’ in their unique learning settings to meet the best interests and needs of tamariki (children), whānau (families), and the whole learning community.

The practices that these teachers used in their low socio-economic early childhood settings are approaches that may be considered ‘teaching from the heart’ or ‘wisdom teaching’. Despite these approaches being highly effective in these contexts, student teachers who have not been exposed to diverse and different ways of living, interacting, and looking at the world may find themselves challenged. (Cue the student teacher trying to back out of the ‘spider’s parlour’ – but, too late, your wings are stuck to the web now … What to do?).

So, what did I learn from those experienced associate teachers?

The importance of trust

My research confirmed that the associate teacher’s role is absolutely pivotal in growing and supporting student teachers’ culturally responsive practice. However, creating a space that invites this growth and learning relies heavily on the development of trust between the associate teacher and the student teacher. This trust is built through the mutual sharing of identities, beliefs and values. Being strong in your own identity and being willing to share this with others helps you to be open to welcoming, understanding, and celebrating identities that are different from that of your own. So, a reciprocal responsibility is highlighted here for both associate teachers and student teachers in terms of actively working to create this effective trusting space during practica. The associate teachers in my study made comments that showed how trust needed to flow both from the associate to the student teacher:

Telling [student teachers] the back story is crucial to the deeper understandings of our children, whānau and community. We have a lot going on in our day to day running here so trusting the student teacher with this information is important” (Tania – pseudonym).

… and from the student to the associate teacher:

“They’ve [student teachers] just got to acknowledge that this is the community they’re working in for now and they’ve got to take what’s going on here” (Adrien – pseudonym).

The importance of articulating practice

My research further identified the importance of associate teachers explicitly articulating their practice – that is, talking with student teachers about what they are doing (or did) and why. This articulation of practice was a key factor in allowing student teachers to grow their understandings through learning about why their associate teachers practice and respond in certain ways. One associate teacher in my study explained her expectation that her team:

“clearly articulate why we do what we do here to grow understandings” (Tania – pseudonym).

For experienced teachers, practice is often innate or instinctive. Our immersion in these soft knowledge aspects may mean that we are not sufficiently explicit in articulating our practice for those we are mentoring. This can lead to the potential of ‘mis-understanding’ rearing her ugly head and making an appearance in our ‘parlour’.

The associate teacher – student teacher relationship as an ‘anchor’ amid challenging circumstances

From the findings of my research, I developed a visual metaphor to help articulate and link the many dynamic and complex components of the practica landscape, and the inter-relationship that associate teachers and student teachers share during practica.  This metaphor is represented in the following whakataukī (Māori proverb):

Kia hora te marino, kia whakapapa pounamu te moana, kia tere te kārohirohi i mua i tou huarahi

‘May the calm be widespread, may the ocean glisten as greenstone, may the shimmer of light ever dance across your pathway’

In this whakataukī, the calm refers to the peacefulness and equity that can be created through an effective invited space.  The glistening of the ocean as greenstone refers to the special privilege and treasures that we can gain from working with and alongside others. The shimmer of light, refers to the seeking of knowledge with others and the hope, enlightenment and unknown understandings that one may attain (P. Kawana, personal communication, 9 July 2016).

The visual metaphor itself looks like this:

Claire visual metaphor.jpg

The Invited Space (Wilson, 2017). Adapted from Rogoff (1998).

In this visual metaphor:

  • The buoy represents the associate teacher and the student teacher on the personal plane where their respective identity, beliefs and values are joined together as they work alongside each other.
  • The waves represent the tensions and expectations on the institutional plane that both the associate teacher and the student teacher must contend with.
  • The chain links represent the values, skills and dispositions within the interpersonal plane (the key findings from this study) that lead to the effective creation of an invited space.
  • The anchor represents the cultural awareness and understandings that cement the engagement of the invited space.

Concluding thoughts

My research highlights the importance of relational practices – of attending to relationships in order to allow student teachers to successfully navigate teaching practica, particularly in settings that they find challenging. My findings remind us of the need to ensure:

  • that we are constantly ‘in-tune’ with our ever-changing learning communities; that we are all culturally aware;
  • that we set high expectations for all learners;
  • and that we remain open to continually developing our active teaching practices.

Through such practices, we will weave collective and connecting webs that contribute to growing a new generation of exciting and dynamic teachers who are equipped to work successfully within challenging low socio-economic early childhood settings.

My hope is for the awareness and understandings gained from this research to awhi (assist) and tautoko (support) both associate teachers and student teachers to build relationships that provide safe spaces for learning and growth. I also hope that both student and associate teachers can continue to grow culturally, and with an awareness of their reciprocal responsibility for the benefit of our mokopuna, through this idea of an invited space.

Kia kaha, kia toa, kia maia, kia manawanui – Tiheī mauri ora!

Claire.jpgClaire Wilson is a full time lecturer for Te Rito Maioha ki Papaioea. Claire completed her Master of Education degree with Massey University, Manawatū; the quality and significance of her research led to her being a joint recipient of the 2017 NZARE Rae Munro Award for high quality Master’s research. Claire has a strong passion for growing resilient and competent teachers within the early childhood education sector.

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