It’s time to rethink teacher training

What makes a good teacher? It’s not rocket science.

Over the past six years, we’ve had calls for teachers to be trained in everything from protecting girls from female genital mutilation to knowing how to recognise mental health issues in students.

And the list of what teachers “should” or “could” be trained in is now very long. But while each call for training has a justified and reasonable argument behind it, we cannot escape the fact that initial teacher training cannot deliver fully trained, for every eventuality, teachers.

The general postgraduate route into teaching in the UK is 36 weeks long. Of those weeks, 24 are spent “on the job” in school – which leaves 12 weeks for all the rest. This isn’t a great deal of time when you consider those 12 weeks are when students will largely learn the skills required to actually be a teacher. This includes classroom management and lesson planning, along with how to deliver practical demonstrations and organise activities for pupils as well as subject knowledge for teaching.

Of course, there are also the fast track teacher training programmes like Teach First. Under these types of training programmes, high-flying graduates are placed in difficult schools with minimal initial training and ongoing support.

But the danger is that such an approach promotes a view that subject knowledge combined with altruism and social justice is all that is needed. And it is probably with this in mind, that Teach First has recently extended its training to a two-year postgraduate diploma model. Previously, their model included a one year Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) followed by a year studying educational leadership.

The 21st century teacher

The length of initial teacher training varies from country to country. In Finland and Portugal, for example, it is a master’s level programme taking about five years in total. While in Japan, teaching qualifications are graded, with the highest grades needed to teach in higher secondary schools – this also takes around five year’s of training.

In the UK, the length of teacher training has not changed significantly in over 30 years. And yet the demands on teachers – both experienced and new – have increased massively. If we were to compile a list of the various calls, from government departments to pressure groups, for what teachers should be trained in, it would include a rather broad range of topics from overcoming gender biases, to knowing how to teach gifted children and pupils with special educational needs.

This, along with demands that teachers are trained to identify mental health issues, as well as how to handle children’s emotions, and also know how to spot sexual abuse, has meant that teachers can feel that they are responsible for solving all of the problems and issues society experiences.

The current message to teachers. Pexels

As a teacher trainer, I also regularly get fresh demands that teachers must be trained far better in classroom management and behaviour management. Related issues are also highlighted as special cases requiring training for teachers. This includes dealing with time-wasting in classrooms – such as children using mobile phones. Or the more serious issues of how to deal with bullying, as well as knowing how to deal with racism.

Teachers must also know about, and understand gender diversity – and be able to support transgender pupils. And teachers, it’s claimed, really should know how to administer first aid and deal with ongoing health emergencies.

Then there have been calls to train teachers in how to exploit computer technology and games. And to cap it all off, apparently teachers should also be trained how to teach left-handed children. All this, on top of the day job of actually teaching their subject, marking papers and setting homework.

Time for a rethink?

So although many of the above calls and demands may have good reason to be implemented, exactly how and when they are introduced needs a lot of further thought – because trying to cram it all into 36 weeks just won’t work.

Teachers can’t be all things to all people. Pexels.

Of course, teachers should be trained – it is just a case of figuring out what else “should” and “could” be included in this initial training. Although that said, for Michael Gove it wasn’t that obvious – he changed the law to allow untrained teachers to be hired in academies and free schools. Still, it could be worse. In the US, there were genuine calls for all teachers to carry guns, and to be trained to shoot in order to protect the children – some states already legally allow this to happen.

Perhaps in the UK, then, it is time we looked again at the demands of teacher training, and rethink how long it should take, along with what exactly initial training should cover. Because things can’t carry on as they are.

And by working out how we want future training to look, we can decide what “core initial teacher training” must involve – and at the same time work to ensure there is an entitlement for, and ongoing provision of, training for all qualified teachers.