Rewards outweigh challenges for pre-service teachers on a Chilean practicum
A visionary decision by the NSW Education Standards Authority in 2017 allowed domestic students to earn credit for their teaching degrees by completing a teaching practicum overseas.
In May 2019, Macquarie University’s Associate Professor Michael Cavanagh led a group of secondary education students to Chile – a first for a Macquarie pre-service teacher group. “Students undertook a three-week professional PACE placement at one of three bilingual schools in Santiago where they taught middle and high school classes in the International Baccalaureate program,” says Professor Cavanagh.
The pre-service teachers visited Colegio Cardenal Carlos Oviedo Cavada in Santiago (a school in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Santiago)
Back row: Emily Chate, Annika Williams, Amelia Goodwin, Jacqueline Morrison, Felicity Morris, Magdalene Yap
Front row: Harjee Bawa, Gabrielle Barford, Michael Cavanagh, Emily Hung, Mia Russillo
Teaching students of non-English speaking backgrounds
“Adapting to a new culture and language was challenging for them,” says Professor Cavanagh. “Successfully doing so helped the students appreciate what it is like to be in a classroom where a different language is spoken – a significant outcome, given the cultural diversity of Australian schools.”
One student teacher, Emily Chate, who did her ‘prac’ teaching high school students at Santiago College, understood the significance of this. “The school I went to growing up in Sydney was very multicultural, so I thought I would be pretty understanding and savvy when it came to teaching kids from language backgrounds other than English. But I was still in the lingual majority when I was at school – a native English speaker in an English-speaking country,” says Emily. “In Chile, however, I was the teacher not a classmate. I found teaching in English to non-English speakers forced me modify and simplify my language.”
Emily’s experience of being in the lingual minority in Chile forced her to examine how to impart knowledge when faced with the challenge of teaching students from non-English speaking backgrounds, which as Professor Cavanaugh notes is not uncommon in Australia.
“When I was observing my supervising teacher’s Year 10 classes on World War II, which were conducted in Spanish, I struggled to understand,” Emily says. “I knew the content and had picked up a few Spanish words, but I really had no idea what was going on.”
From first-hand experience, Emily could appreciate how difficult it is for students who are still developing their English skills to understand new content. “It made me rethink how I use language in my teaching and how my English proficiency comes with responsibilities in a multi-cultural class.”
Giving lessons in English to Spanish speakers proves challenging
Student teachers Harj Bawa and Annika Williams completed their practicums at Craighouse School, a large private middle school with a modern campus set right at the foot of the Andes mountains. “The view from each classroom was spectacular!” says Harj, who along with Annika were also challenged teaching lessons in English.
“In Chile, lessons in the middle school years, from Years 5-8, are conducted in English, but preceding that, from Years K-4, they’re all in Spanish,” says Harj. “So, it wasn’t surprising that the students we taught at Craighouse struggled and would often revert to a fusion of English and Spanish to get their points across.”
Outside of the school, the tables were turned for the pre-service teachers, says Harj. “We found the majority of places we visited were Spanish-speaking only and, as we had only a mixture of broken Spanish and Google Translate to get by, we learnt first-hand how difficult it must be for our students to learn in English.”
Lesson engagement and classroom management in a foreign school
Despite the challenges with language, class engagement was never an issue for the novice teachers, whose students were well-behaved and eager to learn. “This meant we could really focus on establishing a good rapport with the students and build on strategies classroom teachers use to keep children on task,” says Annika, “for example, keeping our voice levels uniform when giving instructions or using names to call students to attention.”
However, there was one surprising difference to what the group had experienced back home. “In Chilean culture everyone is more physical, greeting with kisses on the cheek for example, and this translated into the classroom,” says Annika. “It was normal to, say, tap a student on the shoulder as a silent reminder to quieten down or be a little more focused. In Australian schools, it's very much understood that you do not touch kids.”
Supporting students by collaborating with colleagues
Professor Cavanagh says that a key feature of the practicum was that the group would also learn about the importance of collaborating with colleagues and working alongside teachers to improve the learning outcomes for students.
“The staff and supervising teachers went out of their way consistently to help us with anything we needed,” says Harj, “and we observed some master teachers who helped us improve our own practice.”
The Macquarie students also supported each other’s professional development by sitting in each other’s classes and checking lesson plans to provide a different perspective. “We would reflect on our teaching experiences at lunch and on our one-hour commute home each day,” says Harj. “My peers were crucial in helping me through this experience and I couldn’t have asked for a better set of people to go through this practicum with.”
Cultural immersion benefits teacher understanding of the school environment
A cultural program and a visit to a public school in a poorer neighbourhood of Santiago was also in the itinerary and was organised as part of the ongoing relationship between Macquarie University and Universidad del Desarrollo (UDD). “The students additionally joined some undergraduate classes at UDD and shared their experiences of teacher education in Australia with the Chilean students,” says Professor Cavanagh.
“UDD is a very beautiful and modern campus close to the Andes mountain range,” says Harj. “Everyone we met from the University was incredibly helpful and kind, organising welcome dinners, city tours and a farewell lunch for us – they generally made themselves available for anything we needed.”
There was fun to be had, too. According to Emily, a highlight was going horse riding in the foothills of the Andes mountains. “We were picked up in Santiago bright and early one Saturday morning, driven into the country, and taken for a ride up into the mountains with actual Chilean cowboys. The scenery was stunning, my horse was a sweetheart (and a ginger – bonus!), and it was just a genuinely fun experience. I mean, how often can you say you went horse riding in the Andes?”
The rewards of pre-service teaching placements overseas
“The overall experience in Chile was incredible,” says Harj. “The combination of the culture, the city and the beautiful schools made for an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind practicum. I will walk away from this trip a much better teacher having observed some incredible practitioners and gaining a new perspective on culturally appropriate teaching methods.
“The Chilean people, despite not speaking much English, tried incredibly hard to help us wherever they could, and the staff who we worked with at our schools will forever be what we remember most fondly from our time in Chile,” says Harj. “I’d highly recommend this experience to anyone who has the chance, whether for a practicum or just a holiday to Chile!”
How Macquarie University equips education students with a global perspective
The Santiago placement is part of a wider suite of opportunities available to teacher education students at Macquarie that enable them to develop their inter-cultural awareness and experience schools in countries across South East Asia and in South America. Although the selection process is competitive, and places are limited to a maximum of 10, students should not be deterred in making application. “These placements are integral to the work of the Department of Educational Studies and our goal of developing globally aware teachers for the future,” says Professor Cavanagh.