Last week the Education Review Office (ERO) released a report about newly graduated teachers’ preparedness and confidence to teach. Confident and well-prepared new teachers are an important part of an education system, especially when there is a shortage of teachers and schools need to employ a higher proportion of beginning teachers.
If I told you that the findings of the report included concern about the relevance of certain courses, the way professional experiences are conducted and the disjunction between theory and practice you probably would not be surprised – but in fact these are the findings of the 1977 Hill Committee Report into teacher education.
If I told you that it emphasised the need for beginning teachers to know about how to cater for a range of strengths and challenges in students and how to manage students of different ages, you would likewise think that reasonable – but this was a finding of the 1951 Consultative Committee on the Recruitment, Education and Training of Teachers.
Why are these messages from 40-60 years ago so similar to last week’s ERO report? Is teacher education perennially hopeless, or is there a systemic issue here? It might help to know that these problems are also international. So, what is it about preparing teachers that is so problematic?
There are three key issues.
First, a country needs a lot of teachers so it can’t afford to spend a lot on preparing them – hence teacher preparation tends to be funded at levels that do not support strong university-school partnerships. Schools teach children, they don’t prepare teachers. Advocates of on-the-job teacher preparation forget that the mentoring and feedback that new teachers need will take highly competent staff away from their own classes – and that their time costs money to recompense their expertise and to cover their teaching. So, we could provide more time in schools, but for that to be any better than current practices it needs financial support for schools, and careful thought about the unintended consequences of school staff undertaking initial teacher education as well as their core work – teaching children and young people. The Schools Direct programme in England has learned this lesson the hard way.
Second, a key challenge for teacher educators is to prepare student teachers in a way that helps them recognise what they have learned when they encounter it in context. This phenomenon has led to increased partnerships between providers of teacher education and schools and early childhood centres to design learning experiences that deliberately weave course content and practice together. This is much easier to do with smaller numbers of student teachers and larger amounts of funding so schools and centres can be recognised for the extra work this required which returns us to the funding problem above.
Third, new teachers are expected to do the whole job from the first day. Newly graduated lawyers, or engineers or architects or accountants do part of the job, under supervision, and are gradually given more responsibility. No-one puts the new engineer on the road bridge job and leaves them to it, checking in once a week or so. You might think teaching is ‘easier’ or mistakes in teaching are ‘less important’ than in these other professional roles, but I disagree. Teaching is intellectually demanding, high stakes work – and that’s how we want it to be for the good of our children. If new teachers had the benefit of tertiary preparation, with practical experience included, and then were appointed to paid roles where they did not have full responsibility for a class for a period, that would make a huge difference to their confidence and competence.
One of the Government’s supply initiatives moves towards this, placing new teachers in schools with a mentor for six months before they take up their own classes. The Manaiakalani Digital Teaching Academy partnership between the Manaiakalani schools and the University Auckland is premised along these same lines has been shown to produce effective and engaged teachers.
There is more to learning to teach than copying a good teacher. If we want to break the cycle of criticism of teacher education we need to understand what works best in the preparation of new teachers – strong, equitably resourced university-school – partnerships, and well-supported and phased entry into teaching – and to fund that accordingly.