Undimmed by practicalities

8th January 1999 at 00:00
USA

Worlds apart but with a common chosen profession, student teachers from the United States, Brazil, France and Russia talk about their training, the challenges they face and what the future holds

Bundled up against the winter chill, a ragged line of fidgety eight and nine-year-olds waits obediently in the playground of the Maria Hastings Elementary School in Lexington, Massachusetts, until a woman barely taller than them appears through the doors to lead them inside.

Emerging from a blizzard of discarded coats and scarves, they arrange their child-sized chairs around the tiny tables in their classroom, put their little fists on their chins and furrow their brows in concentration.

"Miss Morris! Miss Morris! Can you help me with this?" one says as she sets about her writing exercise.

Another resumes a painting. Others make a beeline for the computer, or run to be the first to pass in their homework.

It's just another morning in the controlled chaos that is the lot of Sylvie Morris, a student teacher - or, in the modern lexicon, a teacher in pre-service training - at the bright and cheerful school in the historic Boston suburb.

Sylvie, 23, seems almost as full of energy as her third grade charges. "But you're getting me at the start of the day," she says.

It is a day that began with a 90-minute commute from her parents's home, where she still lives to save money.

Arriving an hour before the children, she will stay late, often until the building is locked up for the night at 7pm. She keeps a journal for her programme co-ordinator, writes lesson plans, reads case studies and has to attend classes at her university, where she learns to deal with such topics as divorce, death, illness and racism.

All this is to prepare for a position in a field that gets a disproportionate share of the blame in the United States for failing schools and low test scores, a job that pays an average of $35,000 (about pound;21,500) - less than the salary of a factory labourer. More than 30 per cent of new teachers in the US leave the profession within five years.

None of this has dimmed Sylvie's determination. "I tried to take a practical look at it, but nothing so far in my life had seemed so meaningful as teaching," she says. "Here's a group of 20 children, and I can actually make a difference to their lives, or at least make them feel safe. That totally outweighs the world of practical concerns."

Sylvie majored in English as an undergraduate at Tufts University, near Boston, and had no plans to become a teacher. She stumbled into it through a curriculum-writing course that brought her to a kindergarten class for fieldwork.

There, she says, "I saw there was something much more meaningful to do with my life than picking apart literature that was written 100 years ago."

She originally wanted to be a writer but, she says, "as the real world got closer, I realised I'd be in a queue along with everybody else going into the publishing industry".

Teachers, by contrast, are in great demand in the US. Surging enrolments and looming retirements have created a market for an estimated two million new teachers within the next few years. Washington has allocated $300 million to train more teachers and alleviate the college loan debts of students who agree to teach in inner-city and low-income districts. Sylvie is unusual among this new wave of recruits, since most are undergraduates. She opted to continue as a graduate student in Tufts' child development division, paying her fees initially by taking a job as an assistant to the teacher of the kindergarten class she had visited.

The programme also requires her to spend two semesters in unpaid pre-service training at the elementary school in Lexington, sharing a classroom of 22 children with an experienced full-time teacher.

This is a choice assignment. The town where the first shots were fired in the American Revolution has an affluent community with superior public schools, and the Maria Hastings School welcomes student teachers with monthly seminars about professional practice.

The programme benefits both sides, says the principal, Richard Rogers. "Our belief is that the adults in a school need to be learning and growing in order for the students to be learning and growing," he says. "Having a cadre of student teachers really helps to keep the school fresh, because the student teachers ask questions such as 'Why do you do it that way?' " For Sylvie, the downside of the programme is leaving the class just before Christmas, after receiving her master's degree and starting to look for a full-time job as a newly qualified teacher. "I always thought teachers had favourites," she says wistfully, looking around the classroom just a week before the end. "But there's not a single kid in here I'm not going to miss."

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