Today, state and federal education ministers will meet in Canberra to discuss the teacher shortage.
In their first in-person meeting for more than a year, they will also speak to principals, teachers and education experts about the crisis. Not only do we need more people to take up teaching as a career, experienced teachers are leaving the profession, or saying they plan to.
A recent survey found almost 60% of teachers in New South Wales plan to quit in the next five years.
Ahead of the meeting, numerous solutions have been offered by experts and advocates, including a teaching “apprenticeship”, and fast-tracking students or mid-career professionals in other fields into the classrooms.
As education academics researching the future of teacher education in Australia, we are concerned the current debate is missing the bigger picture.
While well-intended, the ideas on offer address the symptoms, rather than the complexity of the cause. We need a coherent and comprehensive plan to address the real problem: teaching is not being treated like a profession.
A teaching apprenticeship?
Ahead of today’s meeting, Universities Australia proposed a “teaching apprenticeship”. This would see student teachers get to do more time in schools with a job at the end of it.
Research shows it is very important for students to have practical experience. But calling it an “apprenticeship” implies teaching is simply a trade to be learnt on the job, rather than a complex profession that requires university study.
On top of this, getting teaching students to fill the growing shortage of teachers is not addressing the need for qualified teachers to be in classrooms.
This plan also optimistically assumes schools and teachers under pressure will be able to provide the support an increased number of “apprentice” teachers would need. Given universities are already finding it difficult to secure teaching placements, this seems unrealistic.
Fast-tracking to the classroom
Other suggestions include fast-tracking people through their teacher education, particularly if they are coming to teaching mid-career from a different profession.
While we need to welcome other skills and people’s commitment to become teachers, this is worrying.
For one thing, the strategy has not worked in the United States, because it does not address the conditions and unsustainable workloads of teachers. It also discounts teachers’ knowledge of complex teaching methods and approaches.
Teachers need to be able to plan lessons and units, secure good resources for these lessons, engage their students, engage students who need additional support, assess what they have learned, manage behaviour and look after young people’s wellbeing (among other skills).
We would not assume a high-school legal studies teacher, for example, would be able to become a lawyer without undertaking the appropriate tertiary study. So why do we imagine a lawyer can short-cut the education required to become a legal studies teacher?
This strategy implies content knowledge, rather than knowledge of how to teach and how best to teach particular students, is the core business of teaching. It also feeds the unhelpful myth that “anyone can teach”.
So, what is the way forward?
We need solutions that go beyond bespoke schemes and incentives.
The root of this issue is not the quality of education new teachers experience or their readiness to teach. We already have professional teaching standards, standards for teaching courses and entry and exit testing for student teachers. The education of beginning teachers is arguably the most regulated and measured part of the profession.
We know the circumstances that contribute to the teacher shortage are complex and include teacher workloads, the status of teaching and resourcing. So we need solutions that look at the profession as a whole. Here are two big picture approaches to address the current crisis.
1. Teaching must be treated as a profession
Other professions – such as medicine, law or engineering – value expertise, reward the development of new knowledge, and the contribution of those who lead others.
In teaching, there has been so much focus on the initial preparation of teachers (before they are registered and teach independently in the classroom) that we don’t have a “whole-of-career” approach.
Teachers already in the classroom are often reluctant to take on student teachers because it means they have more work and little recompense for it. There is a token amount of money available for it, but this may not go directly to the teacher.
We know mentoring is critical to support teachers and keep them in the profession. So let’s make it a desirable thing to do for all teachers. If you mentor and do it well, this should be recognised through career progression and remuneration.
In professions such as medicine, you develop specialist knowledge and expertise. Or you specialise as a generalist. But in teaching, teachers are largely required to develop expertise in all teaching methods, assessments and all aspects of student health and wellbeing.
If we could rethink the work of teachers, and teachers could specialise in areas they are more interested in and are needed, this would provide them with new career pathways.
2. We need different approaches for different schools
Policies for teachers and their work often assume all education systems across all parts of the country are largely the same.
In a country as diverse as Australia, this is problematic. An analysis of NAPLAN data shows schools can be grouped into five distinct socio-economic bands. This means some schools are more demanding or complex to teach in than others.
We know the impacts of staff shortages, and teachers teaching out of their fields of expertise are more likely to be felt outside capital cities.
If we want to retain excellent teachers in all schools, then we need to acknowledge the demands on those working in rural, remote, and isolated communities are different from metropolitan schools.
Not only do these schools need to adequate resources and funding but teachers working in hard-to-staff schools should be paid and supported accordingly.