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June 07, 2021
Education Research Conference Review - Monday 14th December 2020. The University of Warwick. Written by Fionnuala Spicer - Primary PGCE student (Early Years Specialism)
On Monday the 14th December, the University of Warwick invited leading academics and teachers across the field of Education to share their research with current primary and secondary Warwick PGCE students. The conference began with an inspirational keynote speech from Jeanie Davies on the intricacies of the ethical teacher and why character matters in the teaching profession. The conference followed with a selection of seminars and workshops from varying professionals drawn from universities and schools across the United Kingdom who engaged our PGCE cohort in their research. The PGCE students including myself self-selected which sessions to attend and many opted for a pick’n’mix approach where we opted in and out of a number in order to hear as many speakers as possible. The research conference complied with the core content framework which details the compliancy for teacher training programmes in their entitlement of all trainee teachers to expose PGCE students to research.
I was particularly encouraged when listening to Jeanie Davies speak on the importance of character in the teaching profession. Jeanie challenged us to reflect on the different interpretations of character education and to consider our position as trainee teachers. I learned from Jeanie that character can be caught through the ethos of a school when it is embedded within school values, but it can also be taught to children through educational experiences which enhance opportunities for character development. Jeanie invited us to reminisce on our own school experiences, including reflecting in three words on an inspirational teacher who made an impact on us. I opted for the words “believed in me” as I remembered a teacher who touched my life and helped me overcome my difficulty in reading. Other PGCE students provided answers which followed on the same topical thread with words such as “’approachable”, “kind”, “caring”, “honest”, with one trainee also stating, “gave me opportunities”. I found this last answer particularly poignant as I hold the belief that education is a powerful tool which can be harnessed to address the inequality which still exists in our society. A highlight from Jeanie’s speech is it provided a moment for us as trainee teachers to reflect inwards and consider our personal motivations for pursuing a career in teaching. Jeanie highlighted the fact that most teachers enter the profession for altruistic reasons, because we want to make a difference, and this is a theme which was acknowledged and supported by many academics throughout the conference. Jeanie reminded us that there are complexities within teaching as teachers are regularly required in all aspects of education to make quick decisions with conflicting demands, many of which do not have a clearly defined right or wrong answer. However, it illustrated to me that engaging in moral matters is embedded within teaching and we therefore have a key role to play in showcasing our ethical knowledge and a moral responsibility to help our students become good people.
The next session I dipped into was Georgina Newton and Dr Holly Heshmati’s session on empowering pre-service teachers to develop personal and professional resilience. I was drawn to this session as I was already aware that teaching has one of the highest turnover rates of any profession and I was eager to explore how I could build my resilience considering this. I learned that resilience is not fixed or innate as it can be learned and strengthened in different contexts. Georgina and Dr Holly emphasised how a resilient teacher displays high professional competency to overcome challenges and shows empathy towards children who struggle at school. The theme of resilience was conveyed through an honest lens as Dr Holly highlighted that it is only realistic to expect students to be resilient if teachers exhibit resilience themselves and build a capacity for resilience. However, I appreciated that the session also acknowledged that each of us has a limit with what we can cope with as although resilience is important, it is essential that teachers are supported and feel able to be vulnerable and confide in others when in need. This was also supported in Professor Des Hewitt’s session as he highlighted how if we want the best for our students, then we need the best for teachers also. This also builds on Jeanie’s keynote speech which exemplified the importance of values, motivation, agency, and empowerment and how it should extend not just for children but to teachers also.
The theme of resilience was particularly relevant in advance of the next session I attended with Becki Coombe on supporting the engagement of disengaged and disaffected learners. This workshop really challenged me as a trainee teacher to not simply see children’s behaviour at face value but to instead consider the root cause. Becki highlighted that students who are disengaged or disaffected in their learning often have additional factors to negotiate such as early childhood trauma, a chaotic home environment, medical needs, and disorders such as ADHD. I learned too that children’s disengagement in learning can also be down to our practice as teachers if we do not differentiate enough or if there is a lack of creativity to sufficiently engage children’s interest. This spoke to me especially as it brought the accountability back on to us as trainee teachers to improve our practice and consider ways in which we can engage these children and help identify underlying life issues which are impacting them. During my first teaching placement, my mentor instilled in me the importance of building a relationship with my students and getting to know them and this was reiterated in this session as a way to help students engage. Becki helped us explore practical ways in which we can give our students quality time outside of the classroom such as leading extracurricular activities because if students feel invested in then they will have a much better experience to learn. Becki highlighted how by us investing in our students and showing them they matter, we are automatically helping place them in the third tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with a sense of belonging.
I found this session particularly useful also as it opened my eyes to how teachers should aim to contribute to a positive learning environment by conveying expectations, setting clear boundaries, remaining consistent and embodying the ‘glass half full’ mindset. Becki revealed to us how we should “catch students being good” and pay just as much attention to positive behaviour as we would negative, to build rapport and provide students with stability. Becki highlighted how a good sense of humour will carry us far in our role as teachers and that a “teacher look” is an essential in any teacher’s toolbox! The focus on being present and available to our students really stood out to me as it linked to Jeanie’s prior session on how we can support children’s character and be a stabilising presence in children’s lives. A lesson that I will apply from this session in my future practice is to treat each lesson like a story - each lesson should have a beginning, middle and end but everyone desires the happy ending at the end of the story. Therefore, I will ensure that the ending of each lesson is a positive experience for my students so that they leave happy and willing to continue engaging in learning.
However, the session also highlighted some of the problematic issues in practice as it raised the importance of not limiting resources or provision which have been recommended for children to help them cope in the classroom such as time out cards. However, Becki highlighted the underlying tension as there is often a tendency to cap these at a certain amount when instead any adjustments used as a mechanism to support students in their learning should be wholeheartedly utilised, welcomed and embraced without limit.
Other sessions I also popped into included Sue Johnston-Wilder’s seminar on addressing maths anxiety in our students and ourselves. The session revealed the sense of fear that is typically centred around maths and which permeates many students’ mindsets. However, it was positive to note that we as trainee teachers can play a pivotal role in changing that trajectory and we can move students on from a place of helplessness to one of confidence in maths. This theme of confidence was also drawn upon in Professor Des Hewitt’s session which focused on the ways in which research can make sense of primary and early years settings. The session supported much of what was also conveyed in Becki’s session with an integral focus placed on the importance of us knowing our students and understanding their learning journeys. This session reaffirmed what I learned in Becki’s session as Des conveyed how through understanding children’s personal circumstances, we can help them overcome obstacles in their learning. In this session we were asked to also reflect on teachers who were memorable from our school experiences and most of the answers centred on teachers who were funny, caring, passionate and who helped us through difficult times in our lives. Therefore, there was a sense that it is the pastoral element of nurturing teachers which keeps students going. Professor Des Hewitt’s session was also a particular highlight for me personally from the research conference as it promoted social justice in the way in which it advocated for inclusion and challenged us as trainees to consider what defines an inclusive school which avoids discrimination. We were encouraged in the session to choose an aspect from the ten principles of inclusive leadership which we felt had particular significance for us. I selected aspect four which stated how inclusive leaders acknowledge and value diversity and champion a culture of tolerance and diversity. However, I felt it important to note that whilst I agree that we must champion a culture of diversity, there are complexities within the language of ‘tolerance’ which demand acknowledgement as diversity should not be just ‘tolerated’ but wholeheartedly embraced, welcomed, recognised and valued. I appreciated how the session placed a focus on looking for the ability in people and seeing that talents can be expressed in a multitude of ways such as through art, music or social dimensions rather than from a wholly academic perspective.
To conclude, as a result of attending the research conference it has become clear that there are implications for trainee teachers which require acknowledgement. The fear surrounding Ofsted and the culture of compliance was drawn upon in different sessions and the problematic issues were built on further with the recognition that professionalism in education is often determined as compliance and by measurable aspects such as attendance or punctuality. There was a mutual understanding within the research that there is at times a disconnect between what universities say is good practice in schools and then what happens in the classroom. Another problematic issue raised from the research is how there is limited training for teachers on moral development in schools which has the potential to impact on practice and how students learn about character. The research conference was a worthwhile event as it prompted us as trainee teachers to think beyond practice and explore how as teachers we need to act in good sense and pass this on to our students also to prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead. The speakers provided us with the opportunity to consider the complexities behind student’s behaviour, motivation, life circumstances and this is particularly useful as it will carve us into kinder, better trainee teachers. The research conference has equipped us as trainee teachers to understand research, engage in research and to recognise its value. The research conference also provided a physical example of the advantage in universities and schools collaborating to help each other in enriching teachers’ practice, student’s learning and in fulfilment of the moral commitment to contribute to the wider professional community. The research conference has made me appreciate my entitlement to work in a research rich environment and to teach in a way which is informed by the latest research for the benefit of my students and wider school community.