Every few days there is another report about the teacher shortage across Australia. Last week, we learned one of Melbourne’s biggest schools is considering a return to home learning to cope with staff shortages.
Read more: COVID and schools: Australia is about to feel the full brunt of its teacher shortage
But as we look at the causes and possible solutions, something we are not talking about is the risks around rushing student teachers into classrooms before they are fully trained and ready.
We are academics with a focus on teacher education and leaders of the Network of Academic Directors of Professional Experience. We are alarmed about the growing trend of sending unqualified teachers into classrooms.
Student teachers are teaching
Our colleagues around Australia are regularly telling us about their students being recruited into paid teaching roles with special permissions to teach. This can be as early as their first, second or third year of study.
In New South Wales, university staff tell us between 20% and 30% of their final year (fourth-year) students are employed in teaching roles. Prior to the pandemic, this only occurred in exceptional circumstances.
In Victoria, as of July, the Victorian Institute of Teaching (the teaching regulator) has approved 782 “permission-to-teach” applications for final-year education students. This is a category specifically established at the beginning of 2022 to help support schools with COVID-related workforce shortages.
In Queensland, we are seeing students teaching in classrooms before they have graduated in the hundreds, rather than handfuls. Industry partners are telling us they predict more than 600 “permissions to teach” for student teachers in Queensland in 2022. This is up from 320 in the state in 2021.
Mixing work and study
All states and territories have schemes to allow student teachers into the classroom in a paid (non-studying) role. For example, in Tasmania, when a suitable registered teacher cannot be found, a school can apply to employ a student under a “limited authority to teach”. In the Northern Territory, a similar process allows schools to recruit people to teach in hard-to-fill or specialised teaching roles.
Western Australia has also opened up opportunities for final year students to work part-time in public high schools (with mentoring) and to register in the casual teacher pool.
The state also uses an existing fast-track to put students into the classroom as paid teachers. The Teach for Australia program employs “associates” in a school after six-weeks of intensive training. From this point on, associates balance study in a master of teaching program with employment as a teacher, with support from mentor teachers and Teach for Australia.
WA currently has 175 full-time equivalent staff in public schools, who may be Teach for Australia associates, or working towards a teaching qualification. This is up from 112 in 2020. Taking into account casual and part-time workers, the actual number of students teaching in the system is likely to be higher.
A risky fix
Putting student teachers in the classroom to help deal with the teacher shortage seems logical. But it is a quick and risky fix.
Arguably, education students are already less prepared for the classroom than their pre-pandemic peers. Around the world, student teachers have experienced disrupted study because of the pandemic with shortened, simulated and irregular practical placements.
Read more: Could more online learning help fix Australia's teacher shortage?
This is on top of interruptions to their regular coursework, thanks to disruption the pandemic has caused within and beyond their studies.
Additionally, student teachers are entering a stressed and depleted workforce. COVID has added to teachers’ already demanding workloads, made them sick (and therefore absent at times) and seen some reach the end of their tether and leave.
When more experienced staff are stretched, under-prepared teachers cannot be well-supported by those around them.
While all this is happening, it is becoming harder for student teachers to get supervised practical experience as part of their teacher training - there are less teachers to supervise them.
These factors mean student teachers are less prepared than in previous years and are entering workplaces that are demanding more of them.
Graduates will burn out
From an administrative perspective, this situation is placing a huge strain on teacher registration bodies around Australia, who are not structured to assess and process masses of “special authority” applications.
We are alarmed about the potential fallout here. Under-prepared and fast-tracked teachers cannot be well-supported. Nor can they be expected to perform as highly effective graduate teachers when they are drawing on disrupted university preparation and limited placements.
This leaves them vulnerable to burnout and leaving the profession prematurely.
Importantly, these factors are also likely to exacerbate the impact of COVID on children’s learning and development.
The increased needs of many children and young people have increased the complex demands of teaching them. The training of future teachers needs to prepare them for the new realities and requirements of teaching.
This will not improve ‘quality’
The current approach contradicts the federal government’s talk about improving teacher “quality” and we fear universities will be blamed for the outcomes of putting under-prepared graduates into schools.
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We need to put our focus back on preparing high-quality teaching graduates – even if this takes more time and resources to get them into the classroom.
Alongside other strategies and responses, employers need to prioritise placements for student teachers. This will allow them to progress through to career entry under conducive conditions. Good preparation is essential for teacher effectiveness and retention.
What we are doing at the moment is equivalent to giving student teachers an umbrella to go out into a raging thunder storm. This is not sensible, justifiable or sustainable.
This approach also has the potential to worsen teacher shortages in the coming years and risks seeing teacher attrition levels like we have never seen before.