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Modernizing Teacher Education

It’s been one year since the Enhanced Teacher Education Program came into effect, adding additional requirements and two more semesters to teacher training in Ontario. How has the new program been received and how does it prepare new teachers for the modern classroom? Read on to find out.

By John Hoffman
Illustration: Studio 141 Inc.

An illustrated image of Sahana Inpanathan, teacher candidate for the Enhanced Teacher Education Program, smiling in front of a school.

When Sahana Inpanathan started the fall term at Trent University’s school of education last September she had her sights set on being a primary teacher. Nine months later, after doing some placements at different grade levels, the 24-year-old from Mississauga was leaning more toward middle school. Though she feels she’ll most likely teach Grades 4 to 6, Inpanathan has time to change her mind since she is one of the 4,500 students in the first cohort of Ontario’s new Enhanced Teacher Education Program (ETEP).

Spending an extra two semesters at a faculty of education will impact more than just the time Inpanathan has to decide what age group she wants to teach. When she and her peers at various faculties across the province graduate in 2017, they will have completed new compulsory coursework in areas such as Indigenous, environmental and inclusive education, English as a Second Language, mental health and technology in the classroom. They will have completed 80 days of practice teaching and will have had enhanced instruction in classroom management, educational research and data analysis.

The new program and its additional requirements, which apply to concurrent as well as consecutive education students, was designed to enhance teacher education in ways that prepare students for the realities of the modern classroom.

As all educators know, Ontario classrooms have become more complex and diverse over the past 30 years, seeing increasing numbers of students affected by mental health problems, various special needs, and immigration and refugee status. And the education sector has become increasingly aware of the unique needs of Aboriginal students.

So the change to a longer and enhanced curriculum was inevitable. In fact, some think it was overdue. Prior to September 2015, Ontario was the only Canadian province with a two-semester teacher education program, and the idea of moving to four-semesters had been discussed in the past. “Most faculties have wanted a two-year program for some time,” says Margaret McNay, associate dean of teacher education at Western University. “Our faculty and others had looked at the possibility of lengthening the program about 15 years ago, but outside the faculties there wasn’t a lot of support for that.”

As the first year of the four-semester program drew to a close, we decided to check in with several Ontario faculties of education to see how its implementation was playing out.

While all faculties must meet the same requirements, the details and impact of implementing the new program are somewhat different depending on the university. Chloë Brushwood-Rose, associate dean of academic programs at York University’s faculty of education, lists some of the new required courses at York. “We now have a new required course in inclusive education, courses that take up issues around immigration and English-language learners, instructional technologies and a required course in New Media Literacies & Culture for our intermediate-senior students. We offered those courses before, but we couldn’t require everybody to take them.”

Two More Semesters

Brushwood-Rose says the four-semester program also provides flexibility and time to get into more depth in core subjects. “We welcome the opportunity, for example, to devote more time to literacy and numeracy.

McNay echoes that. “We’ve added computational thinking (or coding) to our math course,” she says. “Coding is something everybody knows about, but there’s a growing emphasis on coding around the world. I think we’re one of the first faculties to add computational thinking to our elementary program.”

Trent University’s education program includes a new two-part course, Teaching the Intermediate Learner, which is mandatory for everybody in the Intermediate-Senior division. “Previously, some of that material was covered in the practicum course, but this is the first year it has been a dedicated course focusing on the intermediate learner,” says Cathy Bruce, Trent’s dean of education.

Some faculties are also using the added semesters to enhance programming by developing specializations. Western and York, for example, both offer a specialty in international education — teaching in international settings or teaching international students. Western also offers specialties in the psychology of achievement, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), early childhood and issues facing urban schools. York is offering specializations in Indigenous education and French Immersion. Trent has a specialization course in early years math and literacy.

The new program and its additional requirements, was designed to enhance teacher education in ways that prepare students for the realities of the modern classroom.

Extended Practicum

With respect to practice teaching, not only have the required number of days doubled, the process now rolls out differently in many faculties, usually in ways that ease candidates’ transition into practice teaching. “We used to start with nine-weeks of classes followed by two five-week practicums, one each in the fall and winter terms,” says Teresa Socha, chair of undergraduate studies in education at Lakehead University. “Now we start with nine weeks of classes with a practicum of one day a week in October for five weeks followed by a four-week block in November, and the first part of the practicum is observation. In February, there’s a one-day-a-week practicum for five weeks followed by a five-week block. In year two, the practicums are five-weeks in both the fall and winter terms.

”York, in fact, already had 80 days of practicum, even before it was required in the new program, says Brushwood-Rose. “Two years gives us more space to scaffold the experience. Our students now spend the first year support-teaching in the classroom, co-teaching and working with small groups of students. In the second year they take responsibility for planning and teaching lessons, and they have blocks of practice teaching.”

Meeting Diverse Needs

The University of Ottawa’s French-language program has an even longer observational component for students, called Community Engagement, at the beginning of the practicum. “It’s a sort of non-evaluated practicum in addition to the required 80 days of practice teaching,” explains Phyllis Dalley, OCT, director, formation à l’enseignement at the faculty of education at the University of Ottawa. “On the French side of our faculty we have a very diverse student population. About one-third are immigrants to Canada, and, for some of them, the Canadian classroom is a culture shock.”

For this reason, the University of Ottawa has always given its immigrant students an opportunity to spend a week just observing what is going on in an Ontario classroom. “Now we’ve generalized that practice,” says Dalley. “Even students from Québec need some time to get use to the culture of Ontario classrooms where the French-speaking population is in a minority situation. So we’ve always been dealing with a bilingual population rather than a unilingual one.” In Ontario’s French-language schools some children speak English rather than French in the schoolyard. That has an impact on pedagogy, Dalley says, because it means teachers have to deal with language transfer and other issues related to working with a bilingual population.

Lakehead University is taking advantage of the two added semesters to consolidate a move to more of a mentorship model of practice teaching. “Traditionally, associate teachers have often used more of an apprenticeship approach where they would model their practice for their teacher candidates to follow,” says Socha. “We’ve been working with Jim Strachan, an education officer with the Ministry of Education, to try to move from an apprenticeship to a mentorship model. We are also working with our local boards and regional boards to support associate teachers in developing mentorship skills needed to support our teacher candidates.”

The four-semester program provides flexibility and time to get into more depth in core subjects.

One aspect of the shift toward a mentorship model is that associate teachers working with Lakehead teacher candidates are now being encouraged to do some co-planning and co-teaching with first-year candidates. “In the past, the teacher candidate would often come into the classroom, observe on the first few days and oftentimes be given a unit plan to prepare and teach,” says Socha. “Candidates were often teaching full days in the first week of placement. We’re promoting some initial co-planning and co-teaching, particularly in the first practicum.”

Lakehead is offering associate teachers a full day of professional development, in partnership with local and regional school boards, to support the transition to mentorship learning and to model ways to co-plan and co-teach with teacher candidates. At its Thunder Bay campus, Lakehead has also created a new position of faculty liaison, a faculty member whose role includes working with associate teachers, teacher candidates and the faculty adviser to assist with this transition.

Better Prepared Students

Generally there is strong support for increasing the amount of practicum time, and spreading it out over two years is a major plus for students. Brushwood-Rose feels that a more gradual introduction to practice teaching should reduce some of the deer in the headlights feeling that students used to get in the two-semester program when they realized, “Yikes! I have to be ready to teach this in a real classroom and be responsible for leading a lesson on my own next September!”

Inpanathan says she’s glad to be having an extra year. “I felt a little overwhelmed at times last year with all there was to learn,” she says. “I had discussions with my friends where people said things like, ‘Imagine if this was a one-year program, how stressed out we’d be feeling right now?’”

Confronting Challenges

Any change of this scope is not without its challenges, of course. Since the new program coincided with a 50 per cent reduction in the number of student places at Ontario education faculties, it has become difficult to offer certain teaching options at the Intermediate-Senior (IS) level, where teacher candidates specialize in certain subjects. Trent’s Cathy Bruce explains, “Now, with lower numbers and reduced per student funding, it is more challenging to offer some of the classes that tended to have the lowest enrolments.” In fact, York, which is Ontario’s largest programs (550 students in 2016–17), was the only faculty able to offer all IS teaching options last year. Contrast that with smaller faculties like Lakehead and Trent, which have 55 and 136 students respectively. Lakehead dropped the Junior-Intermediate division completely, and Trent has had to work around low numbers in some IS teaching options. For example, it did not offer IS physical education last year (although they offer it this year) and only two students signed up for physics. Trent’s solution with physics was to combine physics, biology and chemistry students in one course.

The University of Ottawa has faced similar challenges in its French-language program. “It’s always been hard to fill arts teachables in our high school stream,” Dalley says. Ottawa and Laurentian University dealt with this issue by joining forces to make sure that students at both institutions can take all arts subjects. “So at the University of Ottawa we’re going to be offering drama and visual arts while at Laurentian they will offer dance and music,” says Dalley. Ottawa and Laurentian students will be in the same classes but some will be taking the course online.”

Despite some of these challenges, McNay says that, overall, the four-semester program provides a more substantive education for new teachers. “Teaching, schools and our society have only become more complex over the decades, and so the more support, resources and preparation we can [provide teacher candidates], the better.”

The Colleges Role in ETEP

The Ontario College of Teachers played a key role in the implementation and design of the Enhanced Teacher Education Program, which came about as the result of a recommendation from the College to the Ministry of Education. The College began looking at enhancing teacher education a decade ago. In 2006, it published a 132-page document entitled Preparing Teachers for Tomorrow, which included 66 recommendations about Ontario’s initial and continuing courses and programs of professional education.

“We recognized that it was challenging, in a one-year program, to cover everything that needed to be covered in order to prepare teachers to meet the needs of today’s students and classrooms,” says Roch Gallien, OCT, the College’s director of Standards of Practice and Accreditation. “In terms of implementing the changes, the College developed general guidelines for how faculties of education should ensure that teacher candidates would be exposed to enhanced knowledge about Special Education, student well-being and mental health, teaching English-language learners, and the needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students.”

These guidelines are detailed in the Accreditation Resource Guide, published by the College in 2014 in collaboration with the faculties of education. Recognizing that each faculty of education is unique, the College did not prescribe exactly what or how faculties would teach; rather, it worked with them to “put meat on the bones” as the new program was developed and implemented.

As is the case with any new program, ETEP’s implementation is being closely monitored. “We are in the process of looking at each program to ensure that all of the key elements are in place,” says Gallien. “We want the College to become a resource for faculties. We want to promote a professional dialogue between the faculties and the College to ensure teacher candidates are prepared in the best possible way so that students can succeed in a safe, respectful environment.”