On-the-job learning in teacher education continues almost unquestioned but what are aspiring teachers learning in the staffroom?

At the request of a colleague, and in recognition of the sustainability of this blog (given current commitments), I have taken the decision to republish (with edits) a series of eleven posts I originally published in 2015. Using Tony Rossi and colleagues 2015 book, Workplace learning in Physical Education: Emerging teachers’ stories from the staffroom and beyond, as my muse I will undertake to consider the impact of the staffroom on new and aspiring teachers. 

Learning to be a teacher

One of the undisputed ‘truths’ of teacher education is that learning to be a teacher requires the learner to do the work of a teacher. Regardless of the length of the teacher education element of a teacher’s education (be it one year or five) there is an expectation that working in schools allows the aspiring teacher to experience life in schools from a teacher’s perspective. Put more simply, most teacher education programmes consist “almost entirely of doing the work of a teacher”. There is an assumption that what happens in schools is high quality and that by learning from experienced peers is always a good thing. What this assumption doesn’t take account of is the full range of experiences that novice teachers might gain from working in schools. After all, we all know that good and bad things occur in schools. 

Programmes, indeed whole countries, structure learning around concepts such as the “professional-in-training” and consider workplace craft ‘practising’ as a non-negotiable aspect of teacher education. Time in schools is seen as a “rite of passage” and “the only or the best way of learning how to be a teacher”. Worryingly, despite the almost unchanging and unchallenged idea that working as a teacher is the best way to learn to be a teacher, education itself is constantly referred to as being in need of “revision and reform”. This is an equation that simply doesn’t seem to balance.

Teachers are consistently criticised, or so it seems, and yet they are trusted (meritoriously in many cases) to teach the new teachers. Their “personal literacy levels, subject matter knowledge and pedagogical skills” are the subject of calls for improvement and yet little changes in terms of our expectations around the school-based element of teacher education. It would seem that policy and practice around teacher education are founded on “customs and traditions” rather than evidence. 

In contrast, while teacher education seems unchanging wider society is increasingly engaging in an information and knowledge rich world. We live in what Rossi and colleagues call “a pedagogized society”. This doesn’t mean that we live in a world full of qualified teachers. Instead it is more the case that ‘everyone’ now has a platform to offer advice. Significantly “the opportunities to learn are more widely distributed that ever before”. People seek advice on injury concerns, they self-diagnose, and they go to the Internet before seeking professional help and yet, despite the apparent “ubiquity of pedagogy”, this new “pedagogized society” hasn’t changed the way in which people become educated and qualified professionally.

In many ways rather than changing teacher education this pedagogized society has simply created a “globalization of knowledge” about teaching and teacher education. The concerns over teachers’ subject matter knowledge, for example, in the USA have quickly become an issue in many other countries and yet professional learning – the very structures that created these apparent deficiencies - has not changed much. Teachers are still taught in the same way i.e. through workplace learning, and Governments increasingly seek to remove universities from the equation. It is as if what goes on in schools is real and what happens in universities is hypothetical. 

While universities, and the teacher educators who work and research there, believe that aspiring teachers need to develop their “technical skills, competence and subject matter knowledge” they might also argue that such principles are “insignificant [on their own] for the preparation of teachers to meet the needs of twenty-first century schoolchildren”. 

Rather than challenging the traditions we are repeatedly faced with “an education minister with a reform agenda” and a desire to right the errors of previous administrations: with the exception of the school-based element of teacher education. This ‘righting of wrongs’ occurs in policy statements but rarely seek to change, or challenge, some of the ways we educate teachers. It would be easy at this point to demonise schools and laud the achievements of universities and yet both play their part in teacher education. That is not the point of this blog and I do not (and nor do the authors) place university-based teacher education on a pedestal. What we do (they and now I), however, is challenge the uncontested notion that ‘workplace learning’ and ‘work’ readiness are always good.

Increasingly (and historically) there is support for the “training on the job model” and for the production of, and adherence to, “an intimidating list of standard and levels of performance by which a teacher may be ‘judged’” has persevered. Globally, working as teachers in schools during teacher education has been “retained, legislated for, and minimum time standard (i.e. number of days) established.” The truth is though there are “few if any definitive answers about how best to educate teachers for working in classrooms of the twenty-first century”.

At a time when physical education is in crisis (although it is worth noting that it has been in crisis for decades), and its purpose and relevance in children’s lives is repeatedly questioned, what do we know about the experiences that young teachers ‘enjoy’ in schools. More specifically what do we know about what happens in the “departmental office or staffroom”? Indeed, as a field, education generally and physical education specifically lack a deep understanding of what is “actually going on, and where, in terms of the school as the place of work-based learning for teachers”. It can be argued (and has historically been argued) that workplace is a good place to learn. In many cases our stories, as teachers, may well be positive ones but it is naïve to assume that every story is the same. The idea that “the school is a simple, homogenous learning space is misleading”. While some spaces are conducive to learning others are “actually detrimental, even counter-productive to becoming a teacher.” 

The truth is learning to be a teacher in a school doesn’t equate to working in one single space i.e. the school. It is not one space but multiple spaces that can (and do) impact on becoming a teacher. The department staffroom, or (using UK terminology) the ‘PE Office’ is “often little more that small room between the gym and the changing (or locker) rooms and showers where one could sit and gulp a cup of tea or coffee before the next lesson”. It is place where teachers (aspiring, new, and old alike) spend much of their non-teaching time and it is where they are socialised into the job of a teacher. 

At the heart of this book (and the ten blogs that follow) are narratives from pre-service and newly qualified teachers about what goes on in these small spaces and its profound importance in becoming a teacher. Ultimately the book argues that “professional learning…both pre- and post-certification is something that could be done a great deal better”. 

What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching - Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something, or are looking for help, then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Rossi, T., lisahunter, Christensen, E. & Macdonald, D. (2015). Workplace learning in Physical Education: Emerging teachers’ stories from the staffroom and beyond. London: Routledge.