Generalists not the answer to teaching woes



·   JANUARY 25, 2014 12:00AM

IT beggars belief that Sydney University vice-chancellor Michael Spence can extol the virtue of generalist qualities in teaching degrees. As a practising classroom teacher, a supervisor of trainee teachers both in Victoria and in Britain, and someone who has tutored trainee teachers at university, I believe the last thing contemporary schooling needs is generalist thinkers.

The problem with contemporary schooling in so far as the preparation of teachers is concerned is twofold: inferior applicants and poor training in university. There is no easy way of saying this. Some teachers who qualify are frankly close to being functionally illiterate. I am not joking. The question is, how did they get this far?

There are academics who deign to dirty their shoes in corridor fluff and actually visit schools. They sit at the back of the classroom, often watch lessons deteriorate to the point of chaos and do nothing - because they can't. They don't know what to do. I have had to intervene on more than one occasion in situations like this.

Then there are the academics associated with trainee teachers who phone in for an update of a student's performance. Professor Brian Caldwell is right when he says some teaching departments in universities just run "call centres". Fact.

But observing a student teacher is one thing; it is what goes on in universities that continues to be perplexing. Teachers are just not being taught how to teach. Academics who have never taught cannot have any idea of what a classroom is like. Theory of child growth and temperament is just dandy, but what about the actual classroom reality of imparting information and teaching skills?

Then there is the matter of control. Teaching is about taking a large number of people, most of whom would rather be somewhere else, to a place where they are excited and transformed by learning. It takes considerable skill to do this well. Generalist degrees that are more about warm and fuzzy subjects are deleterious to the essential skills of teaching practice.

While many teaching degrees are at best modest, many others, were they to be audited on the actual quotient of classroom practice and follow-up, are scandalous. Some graduates enter the nation's classrooms knowing less than their more able Year 10 students - and it shows.

In the case of my own school, we now take only postgraduate teaching students from the University of Melbourne Graduate Teacher Program. This is an elite program, as was described by Bernard Lane in this newspaper on Wednesday. The decision for the school to take only Melbourne graduates was made to pursue excellence as well as contribute meaningfully to the education of teachers.

But as much as a trainee teacher may be well prepared at university, the other critical aspect in "making" a teacher is the school supervisor's role.

School supervisors of student teachers need to be experienced senior teachers who are given adequate time to work with individuals over time and ensure they are imparting professional knowledge, skills and practical applicable techniques in the classroom. The importance of the mentoring role of school supervisory teachers is a vital component in teacher upskilling and consolidation of hands-on experience. No trainee teacher should be supervised by anyone with less than five years' full-time classroom experience.

Poorly prepared teachers have a serious impact on students' skill development and knowledge that impacts on the national interest; nor are they adequately skilled to understand or deliver the national curriculum. This sets in train a cycle of mediocrity that is revealed in cellar-dwelling NAPLAN results, and low test scores when compared internationally.

Poor teaching is directly accountable for low classroom achievement. This is a well-known fact, supported by extensive longitudinal research within Australia through the Australian Council for Educational Research and backed by international findings. How many parents try to get their children into particular classes in particular schools because they know Mr or Ms so-and-so is an outstanding teacher? We all do it, but it is surely time to ask why this has to occur at all.

Teaching is a calling. Teaching must be seen as a vocation. It is a career for life.

For too long, teaching has been viewed as a soft option by many undergraduates who missed out on other placements. Moreover, universities have acted culpably in accepting students who have low scores into teaching degrees, knowing they are, on graduation, likely to inflict their incompetence on children and by implication, the collective intelligence of the country.

Teachers who do not meet pre-service teaching inspections and reviews must be failed. And before they get to this point, they need to be seriously counselled against teaching in the first place. What is at stake are children. Until the universities actually fail trainee teacher students and declare them unfit to teach, then inferior teachers will be inducted into the system to the detriment of students and the incandescent frustration of colleagues who have to work with them.

This is a reality in schools. Lousy teachers are a species protected by unionism and second chances through the professional bodies that represent them. The fact is that poor teachers should be sacked. There should be no three strikes. One warning and if no improvement, goodbye. Colleagues want it, students need it and parents deserve it.

What will change teacher training fundamentally in Australia, besides universities emulating the Melbourne Master of Teaching model, is a rigorous probationary system. Trainee teachers need to be on a probationary system for two years. This works in Britain where the "newly qualified" status is essentially a probationary year before being accorded full professional accreditation.

Two years' probation would ensure that the trainee teacher is vocationally minded and is prepared to, in effect, be apprenticed for a period. Teachers should not be given automatic accreditation but must show, to a panel of senior teachers and an independent observer, why they should gain full professional status. Student performance test results on NAPLAN and other means are mandatory to be included.

Beyond these measures, schools can also do more. There needs to be a far greater strategic emphasis on how to ensure the next generation of teachers are given a wide range of opportunities to learn and feel supported.

As part of my school's commitment to the profession, we hold an annual dinner for all the trainee teachers who have come through our school. At the dinner, colleagues have a Q&A session and also offer their experience in such areas as how to apply for a position in a school or how to manage time, and demonstrate we are interested in their progress post training.

To make better teachers and get better classroom outcomes, teaching degrees have to be vocational, practical and specifically focused on the dispersal of skills and the enhancement of student expertise. There is no place for generalist degrees when actual, precise pedagogic skills are what's needed in today's classrooms.

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