What student teachers learn when putting theory into classroom practice

by Dr Nhlanhla Mpofu

(Repost by The Conversation https://theconversation.com/what-student-teachers-learn-when-putting-theory-into-classroom-practice-122222)

The preparation of student teachers is a critical aspect of their journey to being professional teachers. And teaching practice – real-world experiences that students acquire from actual classroom teaching before they are qualified teachers – is one important characteristic of this preparation process.

During this process, student teachers entering the profession are supported to realise that teaching is not just about applying learnt theories. It also requires practical problem-solving expertise that leads to effective teaching. Simply put, it’s not adequate for student teachers to only observe and read about teaching if they don’t also practise it.

According to research, mentorship from experienced teachers and systematic reflection in practice helps student teachers to cultivate knowledge of the subject, learners and teaching communities.

In South Africa, all initial teacher education institutions are mandated through policy to include teaching practice as part of the Bachelor of Education programme. I recently conducted a study about teaching practice at one South African university.

At this institution, teaching practice begins in the first year of enrolment. In the first two years, the students are sent to schools for a time to observe an experienced teacher in the actual process of teaching. In the last two years of the study, the student teachers began the actual teaching under the mentorship of an experienced mentor teacher.

I wanted to know how student teachers in their third year deal with what are known as “critical incidents”. These are defined as unplanned and unanticipated events that occur during a lesson or outside the classroom that provides important insight to the practitioner about teaching and learning. For example, a high school teacher might plan to have learners debate on a topic, but discover that the learners are unable to construct a comprehensible English sentence. This incident will serve as a future reference to the teacher not to assume the learners’ level of proficiency.

In my study, I found that the student teachers used critical incidents to notice, reflect and reshape their teaching practices. Such reflection is critical as it enables them to question their practices, the initial process to their professional development.

Three key areas

In my study, I examined the critical incidents that the 38 student teachers who were being prepared to teach English in high school encountered during teaching practice. These incidents resulted from situations in which student teachers were puzzled about how to maintain an effective teaching environment.

Three key areas emerged from the study. One related to discipline; the second was about student teachers’ professional identity; the third outlined how student teachers grappled with differences between theory and practice.

Firstly, the student teachers felt challenged in maintaining classroom discipline. They found that there was a mismatch between the theories of classroom management they had studied at university and the realities of the classrooms where they had been placed.

Classroom indiscipline was largely a result of large classes and limited learning resources. Learners also often struggled with the English language – they came from multi-lingual backgrounds and were learning English as a second language.

The student teachers seem to have learnt that the failure to match subject knowledge and the actual context of the classroom caused ill-discipline among learners.

Secondly, the student teachers learnt that the way they chose to groom themselves as professionals, especially in dress, influenced how learners assigned credibility to them as teachers. The student teachers became aware that their developing professional identity was shaped in interactions with others – including the learners during various activities of teaching and learning.

While the student teachers had only focused on the classroom as a source of practising their professionalism, they came to realise that sites of instruction were multiple and, at times, informal.

Thirdly, the student teachers experienced estrangement between the theories of second language teaching and the practical instruction needs in the classroom. Although the student teachers have theoretical knowledge of teaching English, the realities in the classroom did not align to their preparation experiences.

Perhaps the most significant “incident” that all the student teachers described on this point was that their learners lacked the prior knowledge they’d expected to be in place at those levels. They filled the gap by developing remedial programmes to help their learners. But they told me they weren’t certain they’d be able to continue with this sort of support when they actually became full-time teachers. They worried doing this would add to an already heavy workload.

What does this mean?

These findings lay bare just some of the wide range of experiences to which student teachers are exposed when they work in classrooms and schools. The study also shows how student teachers responded to these incidents: they saw them as a learning process that caused them to act, respond and reflect so they could maintain quality teaching.

These descriptions are important as evidence of the way student teachers reframe, rephrase, reshape and ultimately transform their teaching practices to reflect both context and diversity in English Language teaching.

Nhlanhla-pixDr Nhlanhla Mpofu is the Director for Teaching, Learning and Programme Development and a Senior Lecturer at Sol Plaatje University. Nhlanhla received her PhD (Humanities Education) from the University of Pretoria. Her research interests are in the area of knowing sciences positioned within the socio-cultural and cognitive perspectives. Through her research focus, Nhlanhla seeks to gain a strategic, epistemological and pragmatic understanding of the nuanced discourse of knowing how to teach. Her research and professional perspectives are drawn from multi-paradigmatic trajectories that seek to locate teaching knowledge in the empowering epistemic metaphors embedded in context, reflection, problem-solving, critical thinking, experiential and transformative spaces. Following her research foci, Nhlanhla, is at the moment the principal investigator of two research grants.
Twitter handle: @MPO12

It’s that wonderful time of the year…

It is Christmas time. Someone said a PhD student is not hard to shop for – just give them “time, patience, and steady job prospects”. And I like that very much. It is also that time of the year where we write Christmas cards to our family, friends and colleagues. “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…” In lieu of my last blog here, I am writing a thank you note / Christmas letter to everyone remotely related to my PhD experience, including my future self.

My family

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With my youngest, he better not ask for co-authorship.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Your presence this year has reminded me that this journey is not mine alone, that other people have a stake in it too. I have loved simplifying my thesis in one sentence, literally explaining to a 6 year-old. Studying when you are around has trained me to be disciplined with my time; to focus on doing the meaningful stuff and taking the necessary breaks. Taking a break in the day to cook for us, and taking walks with you has been all the therapy I need. You are an important part of my identity, one that threatened to be consumed wholly by “being a PhD student”.


My parents/brothers and sisters (including in-laws)

Thank you for caring about my self-determination, and asking often, “how is school going?”, and “when do you finish?” Yes, as PhD students we often don’t like hearing these questions; so thank you for understanding and accepting the short and simple answers of  “it’s going” and “soon”. I really appreciate your big dreams for me; how you think I will be able to get any job I want as soon as I complete this degree. I am often too tired to discuss the reality, and I would rather have the positive affirmations.  You are a big part of my positive outlook on my future.

My supervisors

Thank you for being reliable, consistent and open about your own challenges and the nature of academia. Seeing you balance your own work and still giving me prompt and constructive feedback on my project is inspiring to me. I hardly have enough time for the PhD — and it is all I do — so I don’t know how you do all you do. I feel confident that in the next year we can build on the positive and productive momentum we have created, in order for me to submit my thesis. I will need what you have always provided in the past, which is your experience, wisdom and knowledge. I have learned so much from you in the past three years that I will keep with me when I become a supervisor too.

My PhD friends and colleagues

Thank you for the laughs and the inside jokes this year. Thank you for all the personal stories you have told me, and for making me comfortable to tell mine. It has been amazing the number of stories we could tell each other over lunch or dinner between intense, isolated work sessions. I was happy to be your springboard for ideas as you were mine. Thanks for nodding enthusiastically as I ranted on and on about my project and giving advice the best way you could J Thank you for reciprocally taking my advice as well, even going as far as calling it “great advice, thank you!” 🙂 We make each other feel and do better.

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Some PhD colleagues and friends at a recent writing retreat.


My school and funding body

Thank you for the financial and other support that enables me to dedicate all my time to this PhD. We complain it is not enough but even CEOs of Fortune 500 companies think they deserve more. And those guys get a lot; they categorically don’t deserve more. I digress. Thank you for always lending an ear to the ways in which students could feel more supported, and creating tools to ensure that it happens. Thank you for the analysis software licences, the retreats, the conferences, the journal clubs, the support for extra coursework you name it. Thank you for showing your compassion to starving students on campus – through the food donation drive and feeding schemes for the general student body. And thank you for being full of approachable world-class professors/lecturers who are willing to talk to you about your project and listen to your challenges even though they are not even your supervisors. Thank you to the university at large for the library resources I can access off campus and the librarians who are always online, ready to chat!

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With some PhD colleagues, supervisors, policymakers and funders at a recent conference



Government and the bodies that be

Thank you for your recognition of research as an essential part of the development of South Africa. Thank you for your subsequent endeavours to support students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Thank you for all efforts to make sure that you meet the demand for higher education in this country given the unique needs of this nation and the lack of resources we contend with. Thank you for any effort to ensure that resources are therefore not wasted but invested in the diverse and brilliant minds of this nation, from kindergarten to tenure. Thank you for any effort (now and/or future) to lend an ear to students and experts on how to positively transform higher education in South Africa to be an empowering space for students, their families and society in general.

The Universe

Thank you for the positive vibez… ha ha.

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Source: Unsplash



My future self

I have ended this year on a positive note, which is surprising because it has probably been the most challenging of my adult life.  This blog post has been an exercise in zeroing in on the positives all around me.  It is an exercise of self-preservation that is necessary to keep a balanced perspective on things. It’s easy for the brain to latch onto negative things and let those propel us to action or worse: inaction.  In contrast, the positive gifts all around us can provide the leverage to act in positive ways and do what is beneficial for ourselves and others. 2019 will be hard, with the anxiety to finish and to plan the next steps. Use anything positive around you, no matter how small, to cope. And just like that the year will be over and you will be writing a letter to your 2020 self.