A teaching degree can’t prepare you for absolutely everything

Are teaching graduates well enough prepared to enter the classroom? AAP, CC BY-SA

Two reports released this week highlight that many teaching graduates don’t feel their university studies are sufficient to get them work-ready. A report released by ACER (Australian Council for Educational Research) and data gathered by Ernst and Young show only half of new primary school teachers think their initial teacher training was helpful in teaching students with a wide range of backgrounds and abilities.

The Conversation spoke with the Sydney Dean of Education at The University of Notre Dame Australia, Margie Maher, to discuss these findings.

Do you agree that teaching graduates aren’t always prepared for working in the classroom?

The stringent process of national accreditation of teachers in teacher education courses means that universities are able to produce evidence of quality, and many do a good job in the part they play in that continuum of learning that will continue through each teacher’s professional life.

We all keep learning all the time. I had been teaching for a quarter of a century when in my class came a little boy with Asperger’s syndrome and in addition to that he had physical disabilities. So even with that level of experience and a number of qualifications in special education, I had to learn how to implement strategies to accommodate his specific needs.

In Australia we’ve moved to a philosophy of inclusive education and I applaud this, having been hearing-impaired since childhood myself. I’m really keen that all students should have their learning needs met so they can maximise their potential.

In a four-year teacher course we can teach our students how to think about disability, how to recognise they have to take responsibility for all students and to plan for the diversity of students needs that they’re going to encounter in classes. But we cannot possibly provide them with the specific information for the thousands of disabilities they’re going to potentially encounter.

They need to know what supports there are within the school, within the family, within the department, for them to access so that they’ll be able to meet each child’s needs. At the university level we provide them with the fundamental skills and knowledge which they, with experience, will be able to apply to those situations.

Do some teaching programs lack real-world experience, or do teachers just require certain capabilities that enable them to be thrown in the deep end?

It is challenging to know what sort of children the graduates are going to encounter. However, I do think the principles of access and support remain the same. Some teaching programs have a minimum of 80 days in a classroom, or 60 if it’s a graduate entry position, but is this enough? Some universities have more - up to double that number of days.

Depending on how the course is designed, professional experience has the potential to be the pivot around which the theory units at university satellite. But it’s important that the professional experience be a fruitful and productive one for the teacher education student. Consequently it’s important to have sufficient supports in place for them and for the other stakeholders, including the classroom teacher, if you’re going to have prolonged professional experience.

Are ATARs are a good predictor of the capabilities required by teachers?

Obviously it’s important for the student to be clever enough to pass the course. However, the elements that are going to make a successful teacher are character qualities such as courage, endurance, compassion and self-sacrifice. I don’t see those reflected anywhere in an ATAR.

We use the ATAR as an indicative predictor of academic success, but we interview all prospective students to ensure they have all the qualities likely to make a great teacher.

How do we improve teacher education courses?

In NSW the department has put out a framework for high-quality professional experience for NSW schools and I think that’s extremely helpful. It portrays the relationship between the university and schools, between the teacher education students and the supervising teacher, in a positive light with clear parameters and expectations of whose responsibility is what. It’s viewed along the lines of a community of learners, where the teacher education student is portrayed in a positive light rather than perceived as a burden, which can sometimes be the case.

In most teacher education courses you’ll find carefully staged professional experience. In our case our teacher education students spend three full terms in schools. Our graduates tell us that they do feel competent, confident and work-ready to step into the classroom, having been successful for that length of time in three different contexts. And where there is a strong relationship between the schools and the university, it leads to better-prepared graduates.

It’s the quality, not only the quantity of time spent in schools. This will always be subject to financial constraints – sending teacher education students in to schools is an expensive exercise. Universities focused on producing work-ready graduates rather than on turning a profit would probably be more likely to produce the 50% of graduates who did feel work-ready in the survey.

I also think we need to be clear about what being work-ready means. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to be able to cope with every situation they may ever encounter in their professional life. It’s not as though there’s a little box getting filled and at the end of four years we tie the bow and give them the box because now they know everything they’re going to need to know about learning and teaching. Rather, there should be realistic expectations for that beginning teacher and a structured framework for supporting graduates as they step into teaching.

Would these measures improve retention rates of teachers?

I’m not sure we can say there’s a causal relationship between work readiness and the attrition rate, but it would be more productive to consider what systems we are putting in place to support beginning teachers, and what level and quality of professional development we’re providing to current staff. I’ve worked elsewhere in the world and Australia might be able to learn from other countries that have a higher retention rate, such as New Zealand possibly.