How do primary pupils perceive trainee teachers? Justina Hart reports on some intriguing research.
When the head of a primary school in Sunderland asked his pupils to answer the question, "What is a student teacher?" after 25 trainee teachers had spent a one-week placement in his school, he received an intriguing range of responses: "When a student teacher is not at school, she is in college," said one child. "She learns how to punish children. She also learns how to learn children maths, hangwriting (sic), art, RE, reading and English. She learns the easy way to teach kids."
When the head shared the answers with the trainees, they found one comment particularly amusing: "Student teachers look about the toilets and go to classes with Mr Fraser."
This informal exercise sparked a two-year collaborative project that has evolved into an innovative, thought-provoking book about children's perceptions of learning with trainee teachers. "How children perceive, how they talk, how they experience things gives a real freshness to the book," says one contributor.
In 1997, the teacher training department at St Martin's College, in the Lake District, commissioned initial research to discover what children think about trainees. An outside researcher interviewed 129 children who had been taught by 43 trainees at schools in Lancashire and Cumbria. The work revealed that children were very aware of how trainees supported their learning and felt valued by them.
The project was broadened and, in 1998, a group of subject and education tutors from St Martin's met to plan a series of small-scale empirical case studies through which they could analyse the questions thrown up by the research.
Each chapter - set in a theoretical context - takes an aspect of a different curriculum area and endeavours to use children's perceptions to make links between theory and practice, and to encourage trainees to use those perspectives as a basis for discussion with mentors and tutors.
For instance, senior lecturer Nigel Toye looked at how the teacher's use of role-playing can shift pupils' views of what a teacher can do. "When role-playing is used in drama, we have to re-think our relationship to the children, just as they have to see us anew," he explains. "New possibilities of authentic communication are achieved."
There are suggestions at the end of several chapters that trainees can use to replicate or modify the study in their classrooms. In this way, the book helps trainees to use children's perspectives to maximise good practice and minimise pitfalls.
The challenge of recording and analysing what children really think prompted imaginative responses from the tutor-researchers, who used inventive research methods ranging from videoing of drama lessons, to pupils' drawings, to informal conversations with children.
"It is incredibly difficult to find out what they think," says Charles Batterson, whose research project focused on how children reacted to ethnic minority trainees based in predominantly white schools. "When I first saw the book proofs, what fascinated me was the way different people had treated evidence and had collected data."
Batterson believes that the book is practical - "if we can hear the voices, then we can respond to them" - but stresses that it offers models and strategies rather than definitive answers. He also thinks it can help trainees to learn from real-life stories about their peers. "I think the book shows that it's worth trying things, even if you make mistakes."
Hilary Cooper, co-editor and head of the programme for research into education at St Martin's, explains that the authors didn't intend to originate "stunning" new evidence, but to give in-depth examples that show why some practices work and others do not.
Researchers found that children learn most with trainees who are able to convey key concepts, stimulate, challenge and change their thinking, respect them as individuals and maintain a good classroom ethos.
The tutors discovered that having an extra pair of hands in the classroom also allows for more flexible organisational strategies, which can have a positive influence on learning: "Children seem to get a lot more opportunities to do practical things when there was a trainee, like experiments and visits," says Cooper.
Many of the case studies are particularly insightful and honest about complicated contemporary issues. Batterson's chapter entitled, Miss, Why Are You Brown? was written in the wake of the Macpherson report. At a time when organisations were feeling anxious about institutionalised racism, it shows that primary age children do not demonstrate racist attitudes towards ethnic minority trainees.
Although he takes only a small sample, this research into the experiences and impact of trainees in white, greenfield and rural locations, is one of the first studies of its kind. In Lancashire and Cumbria, he writes:
"Often, having a black or Asian student teaching in their classroom is the first direct, person-to-person experience that white children have of any black, Asian or ethnic minority individuals."
Along with the trainees he studied, Batterson had assumed that the children might display "negative and derogatory" reactions. He found, on the contrary, that most children reacted positively. Pupils were more likely to be curious about an "exotic" person in their midst, and trainees were able to capitalise on this sense of "uniqueness".
On her first visit to St Bede's primary school in a small northern village, Victoria, an Afro-Caribbean trainee from Birmingham, commented: "There was a lot of interest in me, not just from my class but from all the other children." In another school, children expressed positive feelings about an Asian trainee in an area where they interacted well with their Asian neighbours, but felt intimidated by local white gangs.
Trainees and experienced teachers "should never under-estimate children", concludes Batterson. "In one northern city, there is racial tension and tremendous deprivation, yet the children were positively disposed towards good teachers, regardless of race."
His research has also highlighted some of the tensions and implications about where black and Asian teachers work. "We have to be careful about tokenism and the pressure that's often on them to be role models for their community. The idea that ethnic minority teachers should work in Tower Hamlets or Hackney is very patronising."
Owain Evans, who researched children's responses to working with male trainees in schools dominated by female staff, was similarly surprised. Pupils commented on what they identified as the male trainees' sense of fairness, whereas he had expected gender-based responses, such as that male teachers would play football. Some children did, however, expect a man to be more authoritarian: "We thought he would be shouty and strict," said one child; another expected the trainee to "deal with the tramp that hangs around the rec."
This research highlights how male trainees (who are in a small minority nationally), often find themselves in a complex scenario, especially when children have limited experience of male adults at home. This can make male trainees feel insecure in terms of what role - such as father or big brother - they can take on, even though, says Evans, the children are pre-disposed to act favourably towards them. Male trainees also felt universally uncomfortable when told by heads that they must never be alone with or touch a child. Evans argues that current fears about "stranger danger" do not allow for equal opportunities among male and female trainees.
Hilary Cooper says the book is aimed at trainees and NQTs, but should be of interest to their mentors in school, class teachers, others working with students in schools and also to college tutors.
* Children's Perceptions of Learning with Trainee Teachers, edited by Hilary Cooper and Rob Hyland, will be published by Routledge later this month, priced pound;15.99 paperback, pound;50 hardback.