This year’s pre-service teachers (PSTs) have been faced with an almost impossible task. The classroom experience that forms the backbone of Masters and Bachelor courses was off-limits, as schools around Victoria were twice plunged into bouts of remote learning.
Now in the final semester of her Masters in primary teaching, Susie Taylor had expected to complete three placements this year. As Term 4 begins, she has only completed one. “In March, I had about three days on-site before the whole of Victoria shut down,” Susie says.
“When lockdown happened, I didn’t even know if I was going to graduate this year. It was really daunting.”
Susie kept in touch with her mentor at the school and even did a bit of volunteering during the first patch of remote learning. When students returned towards the end of Term 2, she made plans to try again. “We thought, ‘Great, we’ll be onsite, let’s do three weeks at the start of Term 3 and hit the ground running’. Then it was announced that we would be going back into lockdown.”
Brodie Callanan’s timing was no better. Having arranged his first placement at Princes Hill Secondary College before moving east from Perth, the PST arrived in the sweet spot between lockdowns. A week after he stepped off the plane, the state borders closed and his planned classroom experience was suddenly screen-bound.
“The whole thing was conducted by Zoom,” Brodie says. “I was working from home in the living room on the computer most days and I got to go into the school both Wednesdays.”
Not getting any time face-to-face with the kids made his first attempt at teaching particularly challenging. “If you’re at school, you can get a sense of what the kids know, but when you’re doing it online, you’re just jumping in and you have no idea where the kids are at.”
While both missed out on the face-to-face connection with students, they were able to be more involved in the behind-the-scenes planning than they might otherwise have been. “In that pupil free week of planning in Term 3, I got to be part of all these meetings reflecting on the past lockdown and talking about how to improve online learning,” Susie says.
There were also lessons to be drawn from seeing how teachers adapted to an unprecedented situation. While there were positives, Brodie says the nature of the technology – and the accompanying screen fatigue – meant that students were often harder to engage. “You’d have a good class for 10 to 15 minutes and then you’d see the kids look sort of dazed and losing motivation. At times you felt like you might be doing something wrong.”
Brodie says he is grateful for the encouragement of his mentor, who assured him those dazed looks were part and parcel of screen-based learning.
“The mentor-teacher is twice as important than if you were there in person,” says Brodie. He hopes to complete a second placement on-site before the end of the year.
‘It was good to be able to say, “If this continues, we should go to the union about it”.’
Likewise, Susie is keen to get back in the classroom as soon as possible. “I would love to be in the classroom one more time before I graduate because if I get a job, I won’t have actually been in a classroom for more than a year.”
She was grateful when VIT relaxed its requirements, meaning she would be able to graduate despite not having completed the usual number of placements, and says that it was a comfort to know that, as a student AEU member, she had the union to call on for support.
“I’ve been lucky, but friends of mine on this course have been told their school won’t take student-teachers back and they’ve had to search for their own placements. We didn’t think that was right or fair. It was good to be able to say, ‘If this continues, we should go to the union about it’.”
Experience in the classroom is often a make-or-break scenario for new teachers, when the theoretical becomes very real, and they can judge whether teaching is their true calling.
“I have a feeling that I do want to go into teaching as a career, but I don’t feel that I’ve proved that,” Brodie says. “At the end of the day, you’re never really sure until you get in and do it.”
Despite the the trials of the past year, Susie has no doubts that she’s made the right career move. “It’s stressful to wonder if I will be ready to teach, whether I will feel like a natural again. But no, it hasn’t deterred me from teaching.
“It’s taught me more about how teachers carry a lot on their shoulders. I’m ready to feel like I could be of some value. I’m just eager for them to let me in and have a go!”