A Queensland study has shed light on the challenges primary school teachers face dealing with children starting school with different abilities.
Conducted by Associate Professor Linda Graham from the Queensland University of Technology’s School of Education, the study has revealed teachers forced to teach a curriculum children are not ready for, with some students unable to hold a pencil or even know the difference between numbers and letters.
Graham said the pressure put on students to learn literacy and numeracy at a level they are not ready for could cause them to disrupt the classroom, further increasing the strain on teachers.
“One of the biggest challenges is that teachers are expected increasingly these days to be able to get students to a benchmark standard,” she said. “Since we had NAPLAN, and My School, there’s more pressure on teachers to say the child is going to be reading by the end of the year. Now when you’ve got children who come to school and clearly have had very little exposure to print, if they don’t know the difference between letters and numbers, they are starting from so far back and I don’t think that there’s enough recognition of that.
“The difference between children from advantaged backgrounds and children from disadvantaged backgrounds is incredibly stark. When we started this project last year, even I was taken aback. We have teachers saying they have children who don’t know how to hold a pencil, and even though I’ve been interviewing teachers and principals for years who have been saying that – with myself actually going into schools and doing the developmental assessments with these children, doing language assessments with them, I was stunned.”
Graham said teachers need time to be able to work with these children through more specialised classroom activities.
“These children are often getting in trouble for things that they can’t control and they don’t understand why then begin to believe that their teacher doesn’t like them,” she said. “Depending on the classrooms that these kids go into that can be a very real thing.”
The study is seeking to understand the contributions that the actual pedagogical context makes to different student outcomes. The study consists of 250 Prep students across south-east Queensland, across seven different schools and approximately 18 different classrooms.
“What we’re trying to understand is if you take these children who have got all similar abilities – so we’re developing profiles of children – and we’re investigating longitudinally how those children fare relative to other children who started off like them in a different context,” she said.
“We’re looking at what’s happening in the classroom and we’re already finding that children are doing better in environments where the teachers are a bit more understanding, where the teachers are more pro-active and where there is some real warmth in the relationship.”
So far the study has found that the level of emotional support, the process of relationships in the classroom and the quality of teaching all influence student outcomes in the classroom.
“Principals generally know when they’ve got great teachers and when they’ve got teachers that need to improve and I think that there needs to be far more emphasis on developing teachers – there can’t be teachers who are allowed to opt out,” Graham said.
“We have seen some absolutely outstanding teachers, and the outstanding teachers were the ones who were quite self-critical and were the ones who were very keen to develop – they were the ones who needed the least to develop but were more inclined to do so. But the teachers who are not so outstanding and really needed to develop thought they had a lot of strengths and that they did not need to develop.”
Graham said the teachers performing well in their classroom took on a responsibility to make a difference in their classroom, and that the current discourse surrounding ‘classroom-ready teachers’ is the wrong focus as the study has also revealed mid-career teachers struggling the most.
“The three highest performing teachers in our sample were early career teachers,” she said. “We had two teachers that had over 30 years of experience and the three early career teachers, one of whom was in their first year out of university, were up there with the 30-year teachers.
“That’s a problem that we need to solve – when there’s been some burnout and there are some teachers that are still in the classroom when maybe they shouldn’t be – what do we do about that? Harassing universities about teacher education isn’t going to solve anything.”