Teaching graduates want “more time spent in schools”. This research finding is noted in the discussion paper of the teacher education review announced by the federal education minister in March this year.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of pre-service teachers were unable to do any teaching placements. This breakdown of the placement system highlighted existing weaknesses in teacher education, which now threaten future teacher supply.
Schools are already short of teachers. A 2021 Victorian government advertisement tells us: “We’re looking for 4,000 new teachers.” New South Wales is on a similar search. Current shortages are worrying given that prospective teachers must make up the placements lost in 2020 and 2021 before they are ready to teach.
What is more concerning is that a three-year Australian Research Council investigation, “Teaching workforce development through integrated partnerships”, identified these problems facing teacher education before COVID hit.
The research project aimed to understand how schools and universities work together in teacher education. The researchers interviewed people from schools, including principals, as well as university academics, administrators and deans.
What did the research find?
The first significant weakness identified was that universities need teachers to do the daily work of supervising pre-service teachers.
The problem here is that schools must look after their own students first. Teachers’ work is demanding. For many teachers, supporting pre-service teachers is one job too many.
This means it is often difficult for universities to persuade schools to accept placements. A placement officer interviewed said:
You felt like the telemarketer that called people at seven o'clock at night and no one wanted to speak to you.
The research also found that all universities employ many placement workers whose job it is to secure placements for pre-service teachers in schools. But many universities do not have enough resources to support all those they place. One university administrator said:
We send students out, but we don’t send ongoing support or connection with the unit. It’s just a funding cut.
In other universities, pre-service teachers were better supported. However, the staff who visited schools were often casual staff who had limited contact with their universities themselves.
Unis and schools need to work closely together
The picture is one of schools and universities having limited connection as they work to educate future teachers. It certainly does not match the goal of “seamless integration of the work of staff in the two settings” proposed in a 2014 ministerial review of teacher education. The 2021 review agrees that school and university staff must work closely together to create strong teachers.
In the ARC investigation, researchers did find examples of close partnerships between schools and universities. Lecturers set up programs designed to give their students more in-depth experience in schools than the usual placement arrangements.
One lecturer, for example, arranged for her pre-service teachers to assist in a school’s sports program. She wanted future teachers to see “the reality of teaching […] through the more informal, team teaching”.
As a result she found her pre-service teachers “increase[d] their confidence” and “the year 5/6 class teachers […][were] grateful for support in coaching their students”. She felt proud to give her pre-service teachers “genuine experiences of teaching practice”.
But this useful collaboration relied on the commitment of the individual lecturer who as “instigator” felt “responsible for "massaging’ the relationships” between the school and university. She found she could not maintain the partnership once the pandemic hit.
[Pre-service teachers] and their school partnership learning were left behind in the dust.
A model for supporting placements
A group of school principals started a partnership with a particular university because they wanted to help educate the kind of graduate they wanted to employ. This project not only survived COVID, it was also useful during that difficult time.
The schools remained committed to taking placement students. They included them in online teaching at a time when many schools were not prepared to do so.
This partnership was also distinctive in that it was supported by federal funding for schools in low socieoconomic areas. This support allowed the schools and the university to set up processes that meant they communicated regularly and solved problems together.
People interviewed from both schools and universities agreed this close collaboration was ideal. But the research made clear these partnerships were on a small scale compared to the large placement network.
In 2021, one of the universities studied had placement relationships with more than 600 schools but had “integrated partnerships” with about 70 schools.
The large placement system was not able to do its job of securing placements during the pandemic. This is a problem if we want sufficient future teachers, let alone ones who have benefited from close links between university and school learning while completing their course.
What can be done to improve the system?
Governments need to work with schools to give teachers time in their workload to supervise pre-service teachers. Currently, most teachers receive a small payment for supervision, but this does not make it easier to manage the important work.
The ARC project showed the value of small-scale partnerships that support the larger placement system. These partnerships experiment with new practices and strengthen teacher education.
Adequate resources to sustain these partnerships would mean the individual work of teacher educators is not lost under pressure of circumstances.