The European Quality Chart on Internships and Apprenticeships describes higher education and vocational school practices in participating companies and entities as a training-oriented component of students’ coursework (European Youth Forum, n.d.). In the educational realm, these experiences help teacher education candidates develop and refine their professional competencies and provide them with an easier transition to the job market, increasing their chances of finding quality, stable jobs (European Youth Forum, n.d.). These practices are known in Spain as the practicum.
The practicum, a required subject in the coursework of both early childhood and primary education BA degrees, consists of a series of collaborative activities between teacher training and education colleges and professional development schools, aimed at offering student teachers the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the realities of teaching in the early grades en route to adopting and developing their own teaching styles. Its formative objective is to provide student teachers with the opportunity to apply the knowledge acquired in their academic training to real classrooms and thereby acquire the necessary skills and abilities to foster their professional preparation and improve their employability prospects (Real Decreto 592/2014, 2014). To regulate the experience, universities sign MOUs with the Departments of Education of the different regional governments describing, among other things, the role of student teachers in the delivery of instruction and classroom organization, the duties of supervising school and university mentors, and the number of credits earned at the completion of the experience. Student teachers are also required to participate in university seminars as part of the practicum to reflect on aspects related to the realities and challenges of the job, their own performance during classroom presentations and explanations, and discrepancies in the theory–practice connection (Guía del Practicum, 2021).
While the benefits of the practicum for student teachers have been documented, information on its impact for placement school mentors is scant. Obtaining more information on the latter was therefore the objective of two of the authors, professors at the University of Extremadura in Spain. They decided to investigate the extent of student teachers’ cooperation with, and support for, their respective mentors in Extremadura during the extended nationwide COVID-19 mandated lockdown, when online teaching was the only instructional delivery mode allowed, as well as when a decrease in the spread of the virus permitted the regional government to lift the restrictions and allow a return to face-to-face instruction. Participants were 15 early childhood and primary education veteran school mentors with student teachers in their classrooms. Their responses appeared to point to the following three areas:
Support for “fatigued” teachers: One year after the beginning of the pandemic, the mentors agreed they were experiencing “fatigue,” described by Michie, West, and Harvey (2020) as “a presumed tendency for people to naturally become ‘tired’ of the rules and guidance they should follow to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” They alluded to episodes of fear and anxiety due to both the expansion of the pandemic and the unexpected recurrent virus spikes, as well as overwhelming stress caused by their having to adopt and incorporate into their teaching routines instructional delivery modes and technological resources most of them were not familiar with. As the lockdown was progressively lifted in Spain and they had to return to the classroom, they began to show psychological effects similar to those seen in health-care workers in potentially unsafe conditions (TFA Editorial Team, 2020), namely exhaustion and fear (Duffy and Allington, 2020). These effects were especially prevalent among veteran teachers, many of whom decided to resign and apply for early retirement. In fact, according to Núñez (2021), 2020 early retirement figures in the region showed a 30% increase over those in 2019. It was not therefore surprising, given this context, that the mentors interviewed appreciated having additional help in their classrooms, as the presence of student teachers provided much-needed assistance controlling students and making it easier to pay more individualized attention to those needing extra help or identified as having learning difficulties or disabilities. Moreover, the energy, novel approaches to teaching, and innovative tech tools, software, and activities brought and implemented by student teachers helped their respective mentors partially overcome their own tech deficiencies, acting as a singular vaccine against the latter’s previous fear, exhaustion, doubts, and even apathy.
Support with virtual learning and IT: The teaching force in Extremadura is aging. Thus, during the 2013–2014 academic year, 33% of its teachers were more than 50 years of age and just 2% of the total were under 30, compared to 25% and 12% respectively in 2004–2005 (Moral, 2015). A subsequent report placed Extremadura among the autonomous communities with the fewest young teachers in both primary and secondary education (Infoempleo, 2017). Despite significant efforts reinforcing the importance of the integration of information technologies in the educational system of the community (Fundación Maimona, 2014), many veteran teachers still have difficulties incorporating tech resources into their teaching routines. Fortunately, the student teachers in this project were able to offer their struggling mentors ongoing individual, specific support that allowed the latter to revamp numerous lessons for use in both synchronous and asynchronous meetings. They taught their mentors the basics of innovative software and tech tools such as Flipgrid, Genially, ClassDojo, TED, The Primary Box, Educaplay, MapTool, Kahoot!, Mentimeter, and eXeLearning, among others. Student teachers also helped their mentors incorporate project-based learning, flipped classrooms, and gamification into their lessons, creating a more engaging and appealing classroom environment that increased the motivation and interest of students, who were equally tired of the pandemic. As an added perk, thanks to their familiarity with the above tools, student teachers confined at home continued to be able to support their mentors remotely and even lead lessons in some cases, as seen in the example graphic above, created with eXeLearning by one such student who was commissioned to teach an art class on impressionism.
Support with logistics: Student teachers had to add logistical help to their academic duties, given mandated restrictions and safety protocols inside and outside classrooms and schools to prevent the spread of the virus among students, staff, and parents. Some of these daily tasks included ensuring students maintained the required social distance while entering and leaving school grounds, playing in the yard, and during bathroom breaks; checking students’ temperature, distributing hydroalcoholic gel, and disinfecting lunch areas at required times and on an as-needed basis; monitoring students during individual and small-group work; managing small and large group configurations; working with students needing additional help in homogeneous ability groups; providing specific individual reading, writing, and academic instruction; reporting assigned students’ progress at the end of the school day; or observing students’ socialization and interaction patterns during whole-class instruction in order to identify students needing help as well as those able to help others during follow-up assignments.
The practicum is beneficial for all parties involved. Feedback from mentor teachers helps the Teacher Training and Education Colleges at the University of Extremadura improve the student teaching experience. Mentor teachers enjoy the benefits of student teachers’ additional help managing their classrooms and introducing them to innovative tech tools to create more engaging lessons for their students. Student teachers gain practical experience and become more attuned to the realities of the classroom. In the time of COVID-19, student teachers constitute a valuable resource for an exhausted teaching force working under strenuous circumstances. Mentor teachers should be encouraged to openly communicate with them, request their help when needed, and take advantage of the opportunity to learn about new resources and methods that can make their lives easier.
Duffy, B. and Allington, D. (2020). “The Accepting, the Suffering and the Resisting: The different reactions to life under lockdown.” King’s College London: The Policy Institute. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/policy-institute/assets/Coronavirus-in-the-UK-cluster-analysis.pdf
European Youth Forum. (n.d.). European Quality Chart on Internships and Apprenticeships. https://www.youthforum.org/sites/default/files/publication-pdfs/European%20Quality%20Charter.pdf
Fundación Maimona. (2014). Estado de las TIC en Extremadura. Badajoz, Spain: Fundación Maimona, CREEX, Fundación CRESEM.
Guía del Practicum (2021). Prácticas externas: Curso 2020–2021. https://www.unex.es/conoce-la-uex/centros/profesorado/informacion-academica/practicas-externas/practicas-externas-20-21/practicas-externas.-curso-2020_2021
Infoempleo. (2017). Evolución del empleo por edad. Mercado Laboral. https://www.infoempleo.com/guias-informes/empleo-educacion/mercado-laboral/mercado-laboral-empleo.html#reparto-comunidad
Michie, S., West, R., and Harvey, N. (2020). “The Concept of ‘Fatigue’ in Tackling COVID-19.” BMJ Opinion. https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/10/26/the-concept-of-fatigue-in-tackling-covid-19/
Moral, G. (2015). “Uno de cada tres profesores de la región supera los 50 años de edad.” El Periódico Extremadura. https://www.elperiodicoextremadura.com/noticias/extremadura/uno-tres-profesores-region-supera-50-anos-edad_883609.html
Núñez, C. (2021). “Las prejubilaciones de docentes se doblan en Cáceres a causa de la COVID.” Hoy. https://www.hoy.es/caceres/prejubilaciones-docentes-doblan-20210122074948-ntvo.html
Real Decreto 592/2014. (2014). Real Decreto 592/2014, de 11 de julio, por el que se regulan las prácticas académicas externas de los estudiantes universitarios. Madrid, Spain: BOE.
TFA Editorial Team. (2020). “Tackling COVID-19 Fatigue as a Teacher: How educators can build resilience amid the pandemic.” Teach For America. https://www.teachforamerica.org/stories/tackling-covid-19-fatigue-as-a-teacher
Francisco Ramos, BA, MA, MSc, PhD, is a professor at the School of Education, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA, where he teaches courses on bilingual education, bilingualism and biliteracy, and methods of teaching in L1 and L2 in bilingual settings.
Gemma Delicado, BA, MA, PhD (University of Chicago, 2007), is currently the director of international affairs and a professor in the English Department at the Teacher Training College, University of Extremadura (Spain), where she teaches courses on bilingual education, English, and Spanish language and literature for U.S. study abroad students.
Laura Alonso-Díaz, BA, MA, PhD, is the director of internships and employment and a professor in the Education Department at the Teacher Training College, University of Extremadura (Spain). Her research interests revolve around teacher training, virtual educational environments, training for employment, internships, and bilingual education.
In recent years, an educational trend has gained new traction, one that holds that a pure British accent – the Queen’s English – no longer has to be the one that prevails when teaching, learning or using English to communicate. This trend, known as ELF (English as a lingua franca), favors a more neutral pronunciation where the goal is to get the message across.
“The important thing now is being able to communicate; the purity of the accent is a thing of the past,” holds María Luisa Pérez, a professor of English studies at Jaén University and a leading researcher on this issue.
This line of thinking bears a relationship to the debate on whether the bilingual Spanish-English education model used in some public schools in Spain is really up to par, considering that some regions – which have devolved powers over education – ask teachers for a B2 level, indicating fluency but not proficiency as defined by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL). Other regions require teachers to prove a C1 level, for proficient users of the language.
In recent years, nearly 90 centers have dropped out of the bilingual education system, viewing it as ineffective. But Pérez, just like other experts, warns that many people simply have the wrong idea of what a bilingual model really does. “It’s a mistake to think that children will end up speaking English just like they speak Spanish; the goal is for them to achieve a functional level that will let them communicate and work in the future,” she explains.
Spain’s first English-Spanish bilingual program for public schools was introduced in 1996 as a joint initiative of the Spanish Education Ministry and the British Council. The goal was for students to become “fluent” in English, considered “decisive to favor employment prospects and professional ambitions.” Starting in the year 2000, regional governments began to launch their bilingual programs, and the number of enrolled students has grown 498% in a decade.
At no point was it ever claimed that students would end up speaking perfect English, although that continues to be the hope of many families who sign up their children for these programs. So says David Marsh, who back in the 1990s (before the bilingual model was introduced) coordinated a team of psychologists, educators and scientists to analyze why, after eight years of studies at schools in various European countries, graduating students were barely able to put together a single sentence in English.
Marsh and his team detected that the major problem was the methodology used at centers, based on memorizing and repeating concepts, with critical thinking relegated to a secondary role. Their solution was a system called CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning), which was included in the action plan to promote linguistic diversity launched by the European Commission between 2004 and 2006, and which lies at the heart of today’s bilingual model.
This system defended learning a new language through the study of other subject matter such as maths, geography and history. But there was a limit: the student would never actually speak the second language as well as their native one. “The word bilingual is dangerous and it creates false expectations,” says Marsh. “Families think that if they take their children to a bilingual school, they will learn another language in a short space of time, but the real goal is for Europeans to be able to communicate at a basic level.”
Administrators at the Isaac Albéniz secondary school in Leganés (Madrid) defend the bilingual model and report being pleased with the results. “Getting students to speak perfect English is impossible, we the teachers are not native-like, but we know enough to teach secondary school kids,” says Inmaculada Alonso, head of studies at the school and herself an English teacher. Alonso was a member of a panel that assessed teachers’ ability to be part of the bilingual program in the Madrid region, which requires a C1 level. “In the oral test, which is around 15 minutes, we made them talk about their life, their favorite movies…we didn’t let just anyone pass,” she says.
Her colleague Óscar García, another school administrator, is convinced that accent plays a secondary role. “Some of them [students] have better pronunciation than others, but what’s really improved is their understanding, the way they follow the classes… we’re on the right track.” he says.
However, there are many Spanish teachers who believe that under the current system, students are neither learning English properly nor grasping the content that’s being taught in that language – in primary school, natural and social sciences as well as arts and crafts; in secondary school, 40% of courses including geography, history, physics, chemistry and biology.
But there are studies showing that performance in English has improved, while remaining stable in other subjects taught in that language. In 2018, the universities of Jaén and Córdoba published the Mon-CLIL report after working with a sample of 2,245 students at 43 public centers, three private ones and eight concertados (semi-private) in the regions of Andalusia, Extremadura and the Canary Islands. This report showed that children in bilingual programs scored 1.23 points higher in English than their peers in monolingual programs at the primary level, and 2.4 points higher at the secondary level. But they also performed 0.46 points better on Spanish at the primary level, and one point higher at the secondary level. As for other content taught in English, kids in their fourth year of secondary education scored 0.50 points higher than students in non-bilingual programs.
The same report also underscored the problems with training teachers in bilingual programs, including a lack of familiarity with the concept of CLIL, which theoretically lies at the heart of the new methodology. Another weak point was the teachers’ low skills when the time came to communicate effectively in English with their students in class.
“Every man for himself”
Pedro, a 36-year-old interim teacher at a bilingual secondary school in Torrejón de Ardoz (Madrid), has never heard of CLIL. “Nobody has told me how I should teach my class; my understanding is that it falls within our academic freedom. The only thing they made quite clear is that classes had to be taught 100% in English and that tests have to be administered in English as well.” In his view, the situation could well be summarized as “every man for himself.” He obtained the C1 certificate during a year he spent at Oxford and teaching in English is not a problem for him, but he has received no specific training in methodology. No regional government requires this in order to teach in a bilingual program.
Enrique Lafuente, who teaches a master’s degree in teacher training at Zaragoza University and has a degree in English studies, believes that the biggest problem lies in the fact that bilingual programs were launched without previously providing sufficient, extensive teacher training. “It’s not just about translating a textbook into English and teaching the class just like you would in Spanish,” he notes. “The CLIL involves a specific methodological change. Before starting on a new subject, you ask students what they already know and make them share it out loud with their peers. This creates a preliminary reflection as well as stimulating motivation.”
The teachers should have basic knowledge of how a new language is learned, and help students produce texts as well as hold conversations in that language. “Teachers should provide the scaffolding, text structures that can be imitated in order to produce work of a certain quality… the science teacher must be aware of the student’s linguistic needs.”
The program created by the Education Ministry and the British Council, with 147 participating public schools in 10 regions of Spain, theoretically includes something called a linguistic advisor, who serves as a coordinator of sorts and is required to have experience in the Anglo education system, preferably with field experience in the United Kingdom. This individual is in charge of conveying educational strategies to the teaching staff, and planning an integrated curriculum combining the Spanish coursework with elements of the British system. But this role does not in fact exist in Spain’s public bilingual schools – instead, there is a coordinator who is typically the school teacher with the strongest English skills.
English version by Susana Urra.