Pre-service teachers must spend a few months working in schools to practice their craft and learn from qualified educators. This is an important part of their training, but it doesn’t allow pre-service teachers to work for an extended period with the same group of learners.
The absence of such a sustained, intense interaction deprives pre-service teachers of an important opportunity to understand their learners’ challenges – and their own shortcomings – before entering a classroom full time.
A project in a peri-urban area about 75 kilometres from Cape Town is exploring what happens when trainee teachers are able to spend a full year tutoring the same one or two children. The early results are extremely encouraging for both the pre-service teachers and their 52 learners. It is also reaching a much wider pool as learners share their experiences with their peers.
Immersing pre-service teachers to learn lessons
The project, initiated by the Wellington campus of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, is part of the curriculum for pre-service teachers training at the campus. Wellington is a picturesque small town. As with many places in South Africa, it is home to both great wealth and terrible poverty.
This project focuses on after-school tutoring in Maths and English for 52 primary school learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. The learners are all in grades 5 to 7, aged between 10 to 12, and are chosen based on their academic performance. They are the best students in their grades. The tutoring happens for an hour each week after school.
The project started in January 2015. The pre-service teachers were prepared for it during their English and Maths lectures. Two visiting scholars from the US who are working on community engagement projects like this one as part of their Fulbright scholarships came and shared their experiences.
Research shows that this kind of after-school engagement has many benefits. It offers pre-service teachers who haven’t yet started working permanently in a classroom setting a real insight into the challenges that learners face when studying Maths and English.
It can also greatly develop the creativity and critical thinking skills of both the pre-service teachers and their young learners.
Loving English and making Maths count
The English leg of the project aims to improve teachers’ and learners’ proficiency in the language. Afrikaans is the most commonly spoken language in the Wellington area. All but one of the 30 pre-service teachers in the English component and all 52 learners from the four schools participating in the project speak English as a second language.
The lessons allow pre-service teachers to practice and develop their own communication and teaching skills. They enhance the learners’ love for English, develop their reading skills and give them a space in which to grapple with grammar problems.
This course provides a great opportunity for academic growth within a service-learning context.
A non-profit organisation, Help2Read, sponsored containers full of new books, games, stickers, stationery and activities for each of the participating schools. These resources helped pre-service teachers to make their sessions with the learners more fun.
For the maths component, learners are asked to bring school work they’ve been struggling with in class. At the start of each tutoring session, the pre-service teachers try to get a sense of whether learners are participating in their school maths classes.
For instance, learners will be asked what maths they were taught, how it was taught and whether they struggled with how concepts were explained. They are also asked to identify highlights from their classes. Engaging learners in this way gives them a voice and, hopefully, teaches them that their experiences are valued.
They are also offered agency: in one session, two pre-service teachers reversed the power dynamic by giving learners the chance to structure questions and to question them rather than the other way around.
Pre-service teachers get to learn, too
Pre-service teachers at each of the four schools form a professional learning community. They meet each week after tutoring to share their experiences and talk about what they have learned. They are encouraged to critically examine what their learners are battling with and to ask tough questions about their own teaching methods.
Many pre-service teachers have reported that they struggled to address their learners’ challenges and questions during tutorial sessions. They needed to go away and think about their own understanding of the mathematical ideas being discussed and how best to develop this.
Teachers at the participating schools have seen a difference in their learners. During a progress meeting in July, one reported:
My learners in the project … their self-confidence has increased … the way they analyse each other’s work … identifying errors and supporting other learners in class … (it) was not like this before
A ripple effect
The project is having a positive impact beyond just the 52 learners who are taking part. Some learners have started tutoring their peers, using the skills they’ve developed during sessions with the pre-service teachers.
Learners who aren’t yet involved with the project have told their peers they want to work harder so they have a chance of taking part.
There has also been great interaction between pre-service teachers, who support and encourage each other through the project. Though these are still early days, it is shaping up as a wonderful professional collaboration opportunity for all involved and is set to become a permanent fixture in the curriculum.