Investing in quality professional experience for pre-service and professional mentor teachers is the best move governments can make towards immediate and sustainable improvements in teacher quality and student learning, writes Professor Tania Aspland.
Government has identified professional experience or the “practicum” as the most important part of teacher preparation programs. Investing in quality professional experience for pre-service and professional mentor teachers is the best move governments can make towards immediate and sustainable improvements in teacher quality and student learning.
This change is also reflected in submissions to the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) review[i] that outlined three planks to improve teacher education – selection, accreditation and practical experience.
Earlier this year TEMAG Chair, Professor Greg Craven, told an Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) Deans’ Forum:
“Every single person or group that came before TEMAG emphasised the centrality and criticality of the professional experience. Every single submission talked about its importance…every single person proposed the greater integration of practicum and professional experience with university, teaching and theory.
“It has universal acceptance. The jury is in on this,” he said.
The Federal Government’s response[ii] to the TEMAG Report recommendations said that timely, high-quality, structured and supported practical experience was critical for teacher education students to develop the knowledge and skills they needed to be effective teachers. Students should receive professional experience as early in their initial teacher education training as possible.
As one Dean in the ACDE forum said: “Professional experience is where the rubber hits the road for students”. It is when teacher education students find out whether they are suited to the profession.
“We all know those dreadful experiences of someone who progresses through the program, is absolutely terrific, they think they really want to be a teacher, and then they discover something from there – like they don’t want to teach, or that they have difficulties engaging with students, or even worse I would think, that children cannot engage with them,” Professor Craven told the Deans.
However, while there are already Australian Professional Standards[iii] in place, there is a pressing need to reconceptualise the nature of professional experience for contemporary times, and ensure that there is greater consistency in delivery and the quality of engagement with teachers.
Pre-service teachers cite professional experience as the most important part of their teaching degree. Great teaching careers are founded on both the knowledge gained at university and through graduates working alongside accomplished teachers in schools.
Previous models of teacher ‘training’ tended to separate the theory learned at university and the practical experience gained in schools. This model of practicums, with teaching students being ‘helicoptered’ into schools and then back to the books at university, is no longer appropriate, nor supported by the profession.
As a top national priority, professional experience is currently being reconceptualised by all partners to include internships, observations, school-based tutorials, joint clinical practices, mentor training, and supervised practicum or community placements – all elements that the recent TEMAG Report says should be designed to provide graduates with multiple opportunities to ‘learn to teach’ through field-based quality mentoring and partnerships. This reflects the call by government for a more clinical focus on teacher preparation whereby would-be graduates are required to observe and be engaged in classroom practices in a systematic and sustained manner with quality teachers; teachers who are identified and upgraded as lead or mentor teachers.
It also reaffirms that, “pre-service teachers should be exposed to a wide range of school-based experiences during this time, from delivering the curriculum and managing students in a classroom to working as part of a school community”.
Stronger culture of collaboration
It is important that teacher education students begin to take responsibility for the learning of young people from the start or in the first semester of their teaching degrees. Optimal outcomes depend on them being connected to a national network of teachers, teacher learning, teacher development and research and evidence that informs and improves their teaching. The ACDE submission recommended that teacher education students become registered with their local regulatory authority on enrolment rather than on graduation, and government has supported this aspiration in its response to TEMAG.
Over the past five years there has been a marked cultural shift towards a more collaborative and national professional experience framework. This is largely a result of effective conversations across stakeholder groups, led by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). To achieve the changes required, stakeholders need to continue their commitment to improve how teachers, schools and universities work together to prepare graduate teachers. Teachers, bureaucrats and principals must sustain their commitment to actively contribute to the critique and reconstruction of teacher preparation, and be central to, course design and accreditation, the delivery of the course and the assessment of impact of programs on student learning. The diaspora of teacher educators is more actively crossing the boundaries of universities and schools to become a community of advocates that strive to enhance the quality of teacher preparation, induction and professional development. Ultimately, this is a win for the quality of learning offered to students in our schools. Government has demanded that the latest research and best practices must contribute to the future of teacher assessment, developing classroom ready graduates, and the teaching of literacy and numeracy. This re-conceptualisation and cultural shift must also include a different relationship with our industrial advocates. It’s a joint responsibility.
TEMAG’s Action Now, Classroom Ready Report[iv] proposes a deeply integrated system in which partnerships of higher education providers, school systems, and school communities work together to achieve strong outcomes.
In its response, the Federal Government said it will, “instruct AITSL[v] to establish and publish the essential requirements for practical experience, identify best practice examples in Australia, and model partnership agreements and other supporting materials for universities. This work will be developed in partnership with universities, schools and education authorities.
“AITSL will also outline clear expectations for the supervision and assessment of teachers undertaking practical experience. This will assist universities and schools to identify and prepare highly skilled teachers to supervise practical experience, and to undertake rigorous, continuous and consistent assessment of teacher education students for classroom readiness.”
Many professions – like law and medicine – have structured entry into the workforce yet teaching graduates are usually on their own in the classroom from day one. Graduates need a structured, scaffolded period of transition as they come to the end of their course and move into teaching profession. ACDE has made a recommendation that initial teacher education should extend into the first two years of classroom teaching. It is well accepted that graduate teachers require ongoing mentoring and support for induction into the profession, as well as into the educational and community contexts.
While more data is required to inform future policies and practice, the evidence we have highlights a disconnection between how early career teachers and school principals perceive the availability of school-based professional induction programs in the crucial first two years of teaching.
The Longitudinal Teacher Education and Workforce Study 2013[vi]found more than 97 per cent of principals identified induction programs as available in their schools but 20-26 per cent of graduate teachers identified induction programs as not available. Further, the Staff in Australian Schools Study 2013[vii]pointed to ongoing professional learning opportunities as the most common form of support for newly employed graduate teachers, but the study also noted a lack of school support and induction. The study found there was a need for better early career training in the most challenging culturally, linguistically and socio-economically diverse environments.
Principals identified the key challenges faced by newly employed graduate teachers as classroom management, pedagogy and catering for diverse learners. Early career primary teachers perceived a need for more professional learning in supporting students with disabilities and teaching students with a wide range of backgrounds and abilities. Both primary and secondary early career teachers perceived a need for more professional learning in dealing with difficult student behaviour. These needs can be ongoing throughout a teaching career but are critical throughout the induction and transition period.
TEMAG findings on induction
The Action Now, Classroom Ready Report found that:
- There is no profession-wide approach to supporting teacher development in the important early years in the classroom;
- The quality and quantity of induction support varies across states and territories, sectors and schools;
- Despite many excellent initiatives, employers and schools are not consistently offering effective support for beginning teachers through their transition to proficiency and full registration;
- Stakeholders have identified a need for improved support for beginning teachers, including mentoring by highly skilled teachers;
- There is concern that induction support is inadequate for beginning teachers in temporary employment and in ‘hard to staff’ schools;
- Effective induction is critical to successful transition into classroom teaching practice. It includes structured mentoring, observation and feedback; and,
- High-performing and improving education systems demonstrate a commitment to structured support for beginning teachers in their transition to full professional performance and in doing so, build and sustain a culture of professional responsibility.
ACDE is most supportive of working with government and the profession to address each of these shortfalls through providing needs based professional development to graduates and teachers; professional development that is context specific, based on research evidence and aligned to ongoing teacher registration. There is evidence that much of this is already in place in some jurisdictions.
ACDE recognises the importance of teacher professional learning that ensures continuous improvement in teaching quality and student outcomes and enhances the career prospects of many of the 440,000 registered Australian teachers. However there is a need for research-based professional development that meets the needs of individual teachers, professionally, intellectually, culturally and contextually. Such professional development needs to be appropriately financed by government and employing authorities. The fact that there are very few national scholarships to support ongoing professional learning for teachers is of concern. Teachers in Australia rarely receive an automatic increase in their remuneration with the awarding of a higher degree in contrast to a number of international practices.
Despite this situation many Australian teachers continue to engage in professional development over the lifetime of a career.
Interestingly, on the international scale, Australia rates well with its professional learning opportunities. The OECD’s Teaching and Learning Survey 2014[viii] found that Australia has one of the highest percentages of teachers who reported undertaking some form of professional development in the year prior to the survey. Three out of four teachers did not self-fund their professional development and Australia had one of the highest reported percentages for providing time for professional growth during working hours (79%).
An Australian analysis of the TALIS Report, by the Australian Centre for Educational Research, also found that:
- Australian teachers are more likely to attend workshops and conferences and participate in networks for their professional development;
- They are less likely to visit other schools or undertake formal qualifications than their international counterparts;
- The wide inclusion of teachers with a high rate of participation is countered by a low number of days;
- Australian school systems are centred more on maximising overall participation in professional development than focussing on the intensity of offered professional development; and,
- For every content area listed, Australia exhibited the lowest percentage of teachers reporting a moderate or large positive impact on their teaching when compared to each sub-group.
The analysis suggests that the findings invite further investigation into the satisfaction and appropriateness or quality of the professional development received, or whether there are other factors that reduced its perceived impact. Teachers may need additional days to gain full benefit from these opportunities. In the current context however, before extra resourcing is made available it will be incumbent on teachers to demonstrate that professional development has a positive impact on student learning. Only then is it likely that funding for sustained professional learning be viable and credible.
This call by government for teachers to demonstrate impact may endorse a current practice in some contexts that all teachers be required to undergo ongoing performance management by employers. Professional development resources would be integral to such an approach. It is argued that models of performance management that provide teachers with appraisals and feedback can be powerful tools to improve the quality of teaching and student outcomes. However almost 62% of Australian teachers believed teacher appraisal and feedback was largely undertaken to adhere to administrative expectations — a figure unchanged over five years.
Only 29% of Australian teachers report thought feedback received was based on a careful review of their teaching practices. This compares to just under half of the teachers in the 34 countries surveyed compared with just under 50% of TALIS teachers. This is a challenge for the future.
Moving into the future
ACDE will continue to work for change and improvement in institutions that engage in teacher preparation, and with schools, communities and systems. The Deans recognise that there is a need for strong partnerships to develop highly capable teachers and continued excellence in the teaching of future generations.
The ACDE Deans’ Forum in March committed to working in a partnership with AITSL and the Federal Government. It will contribute to expert groups on:
- Rigorous selection into initial teacher education (ITE);
- Improved and structured Professional Experience;
- Strengthening the accreditation process;
- Robust assessment of graduates to ensure classroom readiness; and,
- What research and data is required to enhance ITE?
ACDE is optimistic that early implementation of many TEMAG recommendations will begin next year.
Professor Tania Aspland
DipTeach KPTC, GradDip(SpecialEd) MGCAE, BEd Qld., BA Qld., MEd Deakin., PhD Qld.
As President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, Professor Aspland leads the peak association that represents 43 of the 48 Deans of faculties and Heads of Schools of Education in Australian universities and other higher education institutions. ACDE informs policies, strategies, conversations and research in higher education, particularly teacher education. It is currently working with the Federal Government and other agencies to implement the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) Report recommendations.
Professor Aspland has had an extensive career in three states and is a national leader in teacher education course development. She is currently Executive Dean, Faculty of Education and Arts at the Australian Catholic University. Prior to ACU, Professor Aspland was a Professor in Education at the University of Adelaide.