So this morning we had the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Chris Bowen MP, and the Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett MP announcing what they called “The National Plan for School Improvement” as part of their broader “Better Schools” initiative. The idea is that they believe the way to improve Australian educational standards is to address shortcomings in the teacher training process. They acknowledged that there is a high turnover of young teachers in their first few years of teaching and that they want to attract the best people to the job. Mr. Garrett specifically stated that they wanted teachers who are “likely to stay”. Which raises the first question: What are the factors preventing people from staying in teaching?
In order to improve the standard of teachers coming out of our universities, the ministers are proposing that candidates are tested in two important ways. Initially, they will be run through a raft of “emotional tests” (similar to the kind of things applicants to degrees in medicine are subjected) prior to commencing their studies, so that candidates are demonstrably the kind of people the public might want to have teaching our children. Towards the end of their studies – which will also involve some kind of improvements to and standardisation of practicum experience, of which the details are yet to be revealed – teacher candidates will also have to complete a national literacy and numeracy test. Candidates who fall outside of the top 30% of results will not be able to proceed with their qualifications until such a time as they can achieve the required result. Which raises the second question: Surely people who qualify to enter tertiary degrees in Education have already demonstrated sufficiently high abilities in literacy and numeracy?
The so-called Gonski Report into school funding, which was a report into Australian school funding by an independent expert panel headed by David Gonski, highlighted a large number of flaws in the education funding model used in Australia and made dozens of recommendations to address these flaws. There has been a popular movement to support the recommendations of the report, with the catch-cry “I give a Gonski” enabling people to feel as though they are striking a blow against the rapidly diminishing prospects of Australian students. The recommendations can be largely summarised into one statement: Education funding in Australia should be equitable for all students and be based upon logical, common-sense principles. There is a strong focus on the notion of equity, specifically with regards to “disadvantaged” students. The report’s 19th finding states, “The key dimensions of disadvantage that are having a significant impact on educational performance in Australia are socioeconomic status, Indigeneity, English language proficiency, disability and school remoteness.” Finding 20 goes further, “There are complex interactions between factors of disadvantage, and students who experience multiple factors are at a higher risk of poor performance.” Time to editorialise: If the Gonski recommendations into school funding are based upon logical, common-sense principles and are designed to deal with inequity and disadvantage in our society then they are doomed to failure because in order for them to be implemented they must first pass through Parliament. There are too many conflicting ideologies and interests at play in the world of politics for common sense to prevail, let alone logic. Which raises the third question: Is being seen to try and address issues in education by targeting teachers simply a convenient means by which to side-step the more significant, societal issues that are evidently having a far heavier impact?
I’ve raised the questions, now I will offer my answers (whilst furiously editorialising).
What are the factors preventing people from staying in teaching? Well, it would appear as though there are many factors. There has been quite a bit of research done into the topic, because it is actually a worldwide phenomenon. One report claims that anywhere up to a third of teachers will leave during the first three years of a teaching career. That figure can climb up to 50% within the first 3-5 years for teachers at schools in low socio-eonomic areas. The report found two major factors to why teachers leave the profession early – lack of support on the job and workplace conditions. I would add to that in the state of Victoria at least the lack of job security and the constant fiddling about with curriculum imposed by the government. Work conditions don’t necessarily relate to salary, by the way. It’s actually pretty low in the list of priorities for teachers, despite the recent industrial action. Teachers are expected to take on workloads that are huge, not only in terms of hours per week (including unpaid hours) but also in terms of the scope of practice. Teachers are frequently expected to not only teach but generate curriculum content, conduct and supervise extra-curricular activities, attend several meetings per week, patrol school grounds during breaks, deal with parents’ concerns, provide pastoral care and counseling advice both formally and informally to large numbers of students, deal with the emotional needs of students and other staff, occasionally intervene in violent altercations, suffer physical, verbal and emotional abuse and that’s all on top of what you’re trained to do at university. Couple that with having all these expectations placed upon you without any additional remuneration and often without any guarantee of a job next semester or next year, and you wonder why teachers find their jobs difficult?
Surely people who qualify to enter tertiary degrees in Education have already demonstrated sufficiently high abilities in literacy and numeracy? Well, see that’s just the thing. I don’t see how the government hopes to address issues in the quality of teachers coming out of education degrees without first having addressed the issues inherent in those tertiary institutions that offer education qualifications. Surely the people educating the educators must also be of the very highest standard? I wonder how many people working in university education departments are ex-school teachers who just had to leave and returned to the nice, safe world of academia? I really do wonder that. I suspect it’s quite a lot. This comes back to my previous musing on the topic of teaching – being highly educated or highly intelligent doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher.
Is being seen to try and address issues in education by targeting teachers simply a convenient means by which to side-step the more significant, societal issues that are evidently having a far heavier impact? Oh, of course it is. The 17th finding from the Gonski Report says,
“New funding arrangements for schooling should aim to ensure that:
• differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or
• all students have access to a high standard of education regardless of their background or
Neither of those statements have anything to do with teacher performance. Indeed, teacher performance is a secondary issue in the Education debate, but it’s being brought to the fore because a) it enables politicians to pull tricks like suggesting that performance-based pay bonuses are the means by which to motivate teachers to their best efforts; and b) it’s easier to appear to be solving teachers’ problems than actually fixing real societal problems. The government needs to do more to address the division in society between its “haves” and “have nots”. It needs to address the attitudes of its citizens towards education and teachers generally. It needs to address the deficiencies in service provision to disabled, indigenous and disadvantaged people. These are the serious issues. Issues in Education exist, but fixing them now can only hope to serve a cosmetic purpose (especially in an election year).
Time to end this rant. Conclusion: Education is, once again, which is to say for the third consecutive election, being kicked around like the proverbial football in a vain attempt to lure voters. If you’re unsure of how you feel about the issue, may I suggest talking to some teachers? If you have kids at school, talk to their teachers. Get involved in your kids’ education. Be interested in what they’re doing. Role-model for them a healthy attitude to learning. Raise concerns with your kids’ school. Don’t wait until reports come home to give a shit about what’s going on. That way you’ll be doing what you can to help your kid succeed. Believe me, that will be more effective than any about of governmental meddling.
Both of my parents were teachers. I swore blind that I would never become a teacher, and yet here I am.
I swore blind that I wouldn’t become a teacher because I didn’t like school when I was a kid. The main reason why I didn’t enjoy it was because I was quite bored. Under-stimulated by the matters to which I was required to turn my attention. I say to students now that there is no such thing as a boring topic, only boring people. It’s a poverty of the imagination that leads one to conclude that something is “boring”. I say that, but I don’t really expect that many, if any, of my students will take me seriously. Because I know that when you’re at school, under normal school conditions, loads of things are boring. Even exciting things.
One of the hardest things a teacher is asked to do is make being at school an interesting occupation. It’s easier for me now that I’m a music teacher, because my students want to come to my lessons. I had the gratifying experience of a Year 8 girl tell me that my lessons were one of only two that she actually really enjoys at school. The other one was Woodwork. When I was a History teacher, and my students were required to attend compulsorily, it was a much more difficult task to engage students in the topic at hand. As an adult, it isn’t hard to see the value in learning about and discussing the important events from history. As a child, however, it isn’t about the value of the study of History, it’s about the topic at hand. It simply isn’t possible to have such amazingly good fortune that your entire class of diverse young individuals just happen to think that the lives of Australian pioneers is really interesting. That would be like expecting everyone you know to read the same newspaper you do, or watch exactly the same television programs. The best you can hope for is maybe 50% interest, with a possible 15% level of feigned interest included. The other 50% are probably not enjoying themselves very much and would rather be doing something else. Anywhere up to 5% of them may actively seek to sabotage lessons for their own amusement. The rest are asleep inside.
The mark of a good teacher, we’re told, is one that can make any topic interesting to the majority of students in their class. Very often, in order to achieve this, many hours of additional work are required, and very few of them will be acknowledged by anyone else. The first rule in making any topic interesting is to know the subject matter very well. Students are adept at sniffing out the teacher’s weaknesses, and they will know if you’re relying too heavily on a textbook or Googling on the fly. Obviously it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to know everything about everything (although many people do have this expectation) and a good teacher, when faced with an unfamiliar topic, will make the experience of learning about it something they include their students in. I’ve had to do it before, and the only thing that kept me from losing my sanity was an openness to possibility. My students and I shared the burden of learning something new. I would like to say it was an unmitigated success, but it wasn’t. It was a success, but mitigated by the inevitable few students who didn’t come along for the ride, for whatever reason.
The New South Wales government announced this week that they were raising expectations for teachers in that state. They want to raise the standard of tecahing – and hence learning, they believe – by making it easier to sack teachers that “under-perform” and by requiring teachers to pass literacy and numeracy tests before earning registration to teach. They really want the most intelligent people to become teachers. Seems fair enough, I suppose, except that one of the things we learn in teacher-school is that intelligence is a multifarious thing. Being a proper wizard at Maths won’t make you a great teacher. Being any kind of expert doesn’t necessarily equate with success in teaching. People who aren’t teachers don’t understand that. Those of us whose experience of education is only as a student seldom have any real insight into what it is that teachers actually do. This is one of the reasons why teachers get cranky when politicians in election years start up with lots of hoo-hah about education reforms.
I won’t bother getting into the political aspects of the Education debate because I find politics is never a satisfying topic to investigate in detail. I will make one observation, which is that all of the argument about teachers’ pay and entitlements being centred around “performance” is ridiculous. There are no universal standards against which to make comparisons between teachers, and far too many uncontrolled variables to make sense of any statistical information the government/s like to bandy about when teachers arc up about money and conditions. It is interesting to see a government suggest minimum standards of erudition for teachers, though. Especially when they can get by on popularity alone.