Teaching can be a stressful job, and teachers in Australia are under a great deal of pressure. Teachers are considered to be one of the greatest influences on student achievement, yet the academic outcomes of young Australians continue to slide.
Not surprisingly, teachers are often blamed when students fail to reach their full potential.
Although research indicates this is often due to low salaries and variable working conditions, many teachers also leave the profession due to a perceived lack of support.
While 97% of Australian teachers participate in professional development activities, they have an average of nine days of professional development activities each year. That is just over half of the number reported by teachers in other countries (15 days).
This may be because relevant face-to-face professional development isn’t readily available in Australia. It could also be that some teachers are choosing not to take part in activities that support learning and development.
Heavy workloads could be a reason for this. Australian teachers spend more teaching time that teachers in other OECD countries (873 hours per academic year in primary school compared to the OECD average of 790 hours).
However, these figures could also be explained by accessibility issues. These include the cost of engaging in private professional development, and a lack of targeted training for those working in specialist teaching areas, such as languages and special education. This is also a concern for teachers working in non-school settings.
Teachers are seeking out new ways to develop skills relevant to both their challenges and career trajectories.
Online providers of professional development have responded accordingly. Providers are rapidly moving to fill the gaps in existing professional development with a wide range of program choices.
The online world also provides opportunities for regular engagement in activities that support individual learning needs.
Professional development isn’t just for new teachers
The loss of skilled teachers, particularly specialist ones, is a problem for both the teaching profession and students.
Professional development builds and sustains teachers’ knowledge of the curriculum, policies and the changing needs of students.
While professional development begins during initial teacher education, it continues until teachers leave the profession. Quality professional development activities can support both new and established teachers, as well as those working in leadership positions.
Yet the quality of professional development teachers receive varies greatly across Australia.
In fact, what constitutes professional development is broad. It ranges from attendance at conferences, to one-off workshops and informal participation in professional conversations.
Such a vague articulation of professional development is simply not good enough. Research indicates that, for professional development to have a positive impact on teaching and learning, training activities need to focus on:
1) teachers’ content knowledge
2) teachers’ knowledge of how students learn
3) alignment to individual and school learning goals
4) support by school leadership.
Training must meet teachers’ changing needs
Professional development needs to be offered more widely and more regularly in order to respond to reform and create a culture of professional learning that recognises the unique challenges facing the teaching profession.
Although state- and territory-based providers continue to make efforts to support provision of professional development to Australian teachers across education sectors, more needs to be done to motivate teachers and leaders to acquire new knowledge and sustain existing skills.
With the ongoing popularity of social networking and developing professional online learning communities, it seems feasible that online professional development can offer teachers a valid alternative to traditional face-to-face formats.
However, to support high-quality practice, all professional development practices in Australia must continue to consider the changing needs of teachers and their students.