The covid-19 pandemic that is gripping the world has prompted the transformation of the teaching practice curriculum in South Africa, introducing a new challenge for student teachers.

In a normal world, teaching practice prepares student teachers to play their part in South Africa’s schooling system by exposing them to a diversity of teaching environments by allowing them to spend time at schools as part of their training. This year’s crop of students will, however, because of the covid-19 pandemic, forfeit that experience because accessing schools has become impossible. 

Schools-based learning is an essential part of the education degree. According to the revised policy on the minimum requirements for teacher education qualifications in South Africa student teachers are unable to qualify if they do not complete at least 20 weeks of “formally supervised and assessed school-based practices over the four-year duration of the degree.”

The Wits School of Education (WSoE), which produces about 550 bachelor of education (BEd) and 250 postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) students annually, now has to adapt its teaching experience curriculum to suit the restrictive conditions created by covid-19. To qualify, final-year students will have to complete a two-part programmethe majority of it online, as an alternative to teaching practice.  

Amy Stoch (22), a finalyear BEd student at Wits University, says she is disappointed she will not get the chance to accumulate teaching experience in a real classroom.  

The issue is, we usually have a practical from July to September,” she said. “It’s a six-week practical. And this is our most important year for that because we are basically taking on the role of a teacher: one would go into a grade one classroom and literally teach for that full period, whereas in previous years [of the degree] you usually do some lessons here and there with the teachers helping a lot.”  

Stoch, who has always wanted to work with children, is specialising in foundationphase teaching with a sub-major in early childhood development. She comes from a family of teachers: her grandmother, who also liked working with young children, was a nursery school teacher.  

I can’t even explain, it’s just an instant connection when I am with kids, I love it so much,” she said. They just bring so much light and happiness into my life. Every day is different. Every day is an exciting journey.”

Young high school teacher, Grace Buthelezi (24), completed her PGCE at Wits University in 2019.  She had the opportunity to complete her teaching experience last year, and says she is sceptical about whether the alternative teaching programme will prepare students adequately for the classroom.  

I think covid-19 has done an injustice to [student teachers]. I genuinely believe you can’t get the experience unless you get it in the classroom. In the classroom – that is when you learn, okay this works for this class, it doesn’t work for that class, it works for these types of people, it doesn’t work for that type of people,” Buthelezi said.  

Before the pandemic, student teachers – for every year of their degree – were placed at different types of South African schools, where they would observe lessons and sometimes teach under the supervision of a qualified teacher.  

Student teachers are now obligated to move the majority of their teaching practice curriculum online as traditional learning remains unfavourable under covid-19 conditions. Photo: Akhona Matshoba

Now, however, more than 26 000 student teachers across 17 higher learning institutions have substituted traditional teaching practice with an alternative online academic plan that is composed of two modules. 

The first is the Teachers Choices in Action moduletaken by all education students. This module helps students understand the theoretical basis behind the choices made when teaching in a classroom. Students will have to evaluate previously recorded lessons, some of which were produced by senior students teaching in schools as part of academic research.  

The second is the Micro-teaching modulea two-week campus-based programme designed for final year BEd and PGCE students. This module imitates the classroom-based teaching exercise the students would have done before covid-19. Students in this programme will plan and deliver a lesson to their peers under the supervision of a tutor. 

Adjunct Professor Francis Faller, who heads up the teacher experience unit at WSoE, wants to ensure that finalyear student teachers meet the requirements to qualify as educators.  

Faller acknowledges that covid-19 has thrust the education sector into uncharted terrain, but he also expresses excitement about how the alternative academic plan could transform the higher education sector 

It has the potential not just to plug a gap in the 2020 teaching experience (TE) curriculum, but may well be used in future years as part and parcel of the TE profile,” Faller said.As we know, covid-19 has precipitated a number of necessary innovations in education, but [it has also] possibly accelerated pressures on contactmode universities to provide blended support.” 

Stoch, who has already secured an internship for 2021 at a remedial Jewish school in Johannesburg, acknowledges the value of the supplementary micro-teaching programme. I guess we just have to go with it and make the most of this experience,” she said.It might not be like a normal practical, but at least my friends will look at my lessons [and advise me]. Because we are not able to go [into classrooms], it [micro-teaching] is the next best thing.”

Reflecting on her journey as an entry level educator teaching for the first time during a pandemic, Buthelezi, who teaches life orientation, economics and management science and creative arts, says she is not convinced that micro-teaching classes are enough. 

“I think its going to be very subjective because the peers only know so much. You need to get feedback from the actual teachers, because they are with the children most of the timeEven with lecturers, they have been out of the classroom for a while and things are always changing,” Buthelezi said.  

The South African Council of Educators (SACE) has endorsed the alternative online module. The CEO of SACE, Ella Mokgalane, says the course will introduce to teacher education a level of consistency that was not present prior to covid-19. “There have been uneven levels of implementing the teaching practice within the entire system,” Mokgalane said.I think it [the alternative online module] has got more value than when you go into the field to do the actual teaching practice face to face, because sometimes teachers in schools do not necessarily give these students the support they need.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Wits University’s Education Campus in Parktown, Johannesburg. Photo: Akhona Matshoba