Miles away but still in touch;Career development

15th October 1999 at 01:00
E-mail is a boon for student teachers, writes Nicholas McGuinn

As a teacher trainer I want to help my students have as wide a range of experience as possible. I am keen for them to work with pupils whose cultural and linguistic backgrounds are different from their own, but it's not always possible. This is when electronic communication can provide imaginative solutions.

Last autumn we set up an e-mail mentoring scheme with a multi-ethnic, inner city comprehensive, Primrose High school in Leeds. Each student on the PGCE English course at York where I teach was paired with a pupil from a Year 10 GCSE English class in the school.

Working exclusively through e-mail, the York students were invited to make contact with their pupil partners to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses and then to offer regular support by reading and commenting on written work or by sharing thoughts about a text.

Although at first the initiative seemed like a second-best alternative to "the real thing", virtual contact of this kind proved to have advantages for both student teachers and pupils.

As well as meeting different kinds of pupils, the e-mail project gave the York students an opportunity not only to meet the targets for information and communication (ICT) competence laid down in Circular 498 but also to integrate ICT with their work as English teachers. It also gave them the space and time to engage in intensive individual work with a pupil - something rare in the hurly-burly of the early weeks of teaching practice.

It is very easy for student teachers, anxious about their management skills, to lump all the children in a class together as one anonymous and potentially hostile entity. Working on an individual basis over time allowed them to relax a little and to appreciate that all pupils are different, with hopes, interests and fears of their own.

There were advantages for the school, too. From the school teacher's perspective, the e-mail initiative provided an extra - albeit "virtual" - 24 pairs of hands in the classroom. It also established a channel for dialogue between an experienced classroom practitioner and young student teachers eager to learn and to try out new ideas.

Pupils for whom a university might have been some alien structure located on Mars, for all the impact it had on their daily lives, became aware that the institution contained real people with whom it was possible to communicate in a friendly way.

Some even discovered that teachers do not emerge like robots from a giant governmental processing-plant but are actually young people only a few years older than themselves who, for a series of complex human motives - not least of which might be an idealistic belief in the transforming power of education and a love of their subject - have chosen to make teaching their calling in life.

Research into distance-learning is reassuringly emphatic that there is no substitute for face-to-face contact between people so we concluded our project by arranging a meeting between the students and their pupils at the university. It was a moving experience to see e-mail correspondents put faces to names for the first time.

We explored the GCSE texts we had been working on through a series of drama activities for an hour or so and then we had a party to celebrate the links we had established and the barriers we had broken, courtesy of the computer.

Nicholas McGuinn is a lecturer in education at the University of York

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