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Young Teacher Reflects on Failings of University Teacher Training

Posted on 20 October 2018
Young Teacher Reflects on Failings of University Teacher Training
Scandalous data published by the ABC has revealed the shockingly low threshold for entry into tertiary teaching programs. These low standards, it is insinuated, are directly linked to the declining outcomes of Australian students in international tests.

On one hand, there are some legitimate concerns here: if our teachers cannot grasp basic concepts, how are they supposed to teach these ideas to impressionable young minds?

But this problem isn't with who gets accepted to university; it's with what happens to them while they are there. After all, if more than ten per cent of potential teachers cannot pass the patronisingly low bar set by mandatory literacy tests (aimed at a year 9 level of aptitude), then how have they managed to make it through a tertiary degree?

In 2015, when this issue reared its head, Australian Catholic University Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven made the astute observation that: 'You can't select quality teachers by looking at a mark branded on their forehead when they are 17. What matters is how teachers come out of university, not how they go in.'

The unspoken assertion of Craven is that universities will weed out those unsuitable for teaching, with the rest being tempered in the flame of higher education until they are sharp teaching implements. Unfortunately, this is not borne out by evidence.

In his brilliant paper, What Doesn't Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction, Professor John Hattie notes that 'teacher-education programs have among the lowest overall impact of all the influences on student achievement'. It is important to note this does not mean that teacher education programs do not have the potential to be transformative, just that they currently are not.

Hattie goes on to note that the time where teachers learn the most about their craft is in the first year of full-time teaching. While it might be expected that hands-on experience leads to greater learning, the research also reveals that university courses woefully under-prepare new teachers for entering the classroom; most first-year teachers experience significant 'transition shock'.

"I was one of the lucky ones: when I got to my practicum, I discovered that I actually enjoyed teaching. Some made it through four years of a degree to find they did not."

Hattie's conclusions mirror my own experiences. Even though I learned a hell of a lot, my first year of teaching was a haze of stress, confusion and burnout. Given these factors, it's understandable why teaching's attrition rate is so high.

In my own tertiary education, the topic of pedagogy was rarely broached in any useful way. Except in the occasional elective, my Bachelor of Education was highly theoretical and devoid of practical application. I came out of the first three years of that degree as someone who could have developed good educational policy, but would not have been able to teach.

It wasn't until my final year, in light of going on our first placement, that the realities of the classroom were discussed. Even then, most of the discussion was how to translate curriculum into lesson and unit plans. Behaviour management, rapport-building, and public speaking skills were touched on in a cursory way at best. For the most part, we talked about content, not about teaching. I was one of the lucky ones: when I got to my practicum, I discovered that I actually enjoyed teaching. Some made it through four years of a degree to find they did not.

Teacher education programs need to be changed, but not with the application of yet more paternalistic literacy and numeracy tests or the overly-simplistic solution of stricter academic thresholds. Instead, universities must refocus on the practice of teaching, and help their students move into professional practice.

There is also a broader cultural issue at work here. We must kill the idea that 'those who can't do, teach'. Though it is true for some, very few people I know became teachers because they failed to achieve their real calling. The pernicious attitude exemplified by this old adage is the reason why universities can be so lax with their entry requirements.

There is, however, a grain of truth in this statement; our society devalues teachers in a very literal sense. Teacher working conditions are poor, and while our starting pay-rate is good there is little room for it to grow. In a culture where the almighty dollar is the benchmark of success, you must truly view teaching as your vocation to choose it when you have other options.

If we want to attract the highest calibre of candidates, we have to make the profession palatable. Obviously, a certain amount of passion is required in any job, but there is a middle ground between 'martyr' and 'just in it for the money'. Working conditions must be improved, politicians need to start listening to the needs of teachers, and parents and carers need to start trusting that teachers are professionals.

Thresholds at universities only help with the perception of quality, but do nothing to address the fact that high-achieving applicants are simply not drawn to the job.

From: Eureka Street 15 October, 2018

By: Tim Hutton is a high school teacher and occasional freelance writer. His ramblings can be found over at www.mrhutton.com.


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