Crash-course in teaching a band-aid fix?

Crash-course in teaching a band-aid fix?

15 Dec 2008

lorraineling

Dean of Education, Professor Lorraine Ling
Email: L.Ling@latrobe.edu.au


High quality teachers needed  but will a six week crash course in teaching help?

We all remember teachers who impacted upon us positively and also teachers who impacted upon us negatively.  We learnt because of them and sometimes in spite of them.  Teachers cannot avoid in some way making a difference to our lives and thus the profession of teaching is one which comes with a significant responsibility. 

The decisions which teachers make every day in their profession as educators are based on knowledge and understanding of a variety of theories, methods, approaches, strategies and models.  The ability to make these decisions in an informed and ethical manner derives from the training and preparation teachers receive for their profession.  This ability and preparation is what separates teachers from the public armchair experts who claim to know everything about education because they have been to school.  Teaching is a profession.

It is not surprising, given the elements of teacher preparation which are seen by teacher educators as central, that there is alarm at the announcement by Minister Gillard that Australia is to follow in the footsteps of USA and UK with their short cut, quick fix approaches to getting teachers into classrooms.  
Julia Gillard has announced that the Government will fund a new scheme to attract Australias best graduates into teaching. This is part of the previously announced $500m National Partnership between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories to improve Quality Teaching which is also a key COAG issue.  The Minister in the media release announcing the scheme proposes a new pathway for high performing graduates to enter teaching in areas such as commerce, law and science. Top graduates would do an intensive teacher training course, receive mentoring from experienced teachers and undertake further study as they complete their teaching qualification. The program would require that graduates give a minimum two year commitment to teach in schools and at the end of that time, graduates would have the option of taking up positions in the business sector.

There are a number of serious concerns about this scheme which is being enthusiastically embraced by at least some of the State governments. Such schemes as these involve a block of about six weeks of intensive training before appointing these teachers to schools. In the case of the Victorian scheme (which will come with the accreditation and blessing of the Victorian Institute of Teaching) these people will be appointed to schools which are classed as disadvantaged.  This label could mean a number of things such as being in a low socio-economic status (SES) area, possibly having some disengagement issues with students, potentially in remote and hard to staff areas.  Six weeks of training means these teachers  will be equipped with survival skills only, recipes, bags of tricks and prescriptions.  With such limited exposure to the teaching theory it would be virtually impossible for them to properly engage with the bodies of theory and knowledge which are central to teacher preparation. 

This is worrying enough, but perhaps even more concerning is the fact that these people will be highly likely to teach as they were taught, be uncritical of the existing teacher culture and of necessity, be acculturated into that culture.  This may or may not be appropriate. Given that high achievers in universities are likely to come from higher SES areas, their own educational experience may not equip them for the contexts in which they are placed.  If they are lucky enough to have a mentor who has the time to seriously coach them and who is themself a critically reflective teacher, they may learn much on the job.  However, due to the intensification of teachers work, a teacher who is designated as a mentor will struggle to find time in their busy schedule to undertake the task in the manner which is required.  There is also some literature which queries the whole notion of mentoring as it well may be a means by which to ensure that the status quo prevails unquestioned and uncritiqued.   Such questioning and critique is essential in any profession which is to progress, adapt in a rapidly changing world, and to move beyond an old and outmoded paradigm. 

The Victorian scheme claims that one of the key elements is that these are graduates who would otherwise have not gone into teaching.  Yet if we look to the overseas experience it is unlikely that these people will still be teachers five years on.  The notion that high quality teachers are critical to a high quality education system which is articulated by the consultants who are preparing the Teach First style model for Victoria, is not in question.  What is in question is how a six week crash course in teaching and then a stint in a disadvantaged school for two years will produce high quality teachers.  It is also central to the Victorian scheme that it is in league with leading corporates.   It is now well accepted that education is a tool of economic rationalism, as is every other social process in the current era, but we have to consider the appropriateness of the corporate ideologies and agendas that are now being driven down through the schooling system and inculcated into learners from preparatory grade onwards. 

It is not surprising that the Teach First model appeals to governments even though there are many criticisms of it by professional educators.  It constitutes for governments a quick fix, a band aid, a lower cost of training teachers, a means to produce uncritical teachers, and potentially to ensure that the status quo prevails unchallenged by critique from within the ranks of professions such as teaching.  Whilst we know this is unsound in every way, it is pragmatically desirable for governments and that will win out over pedagogy and common sense every time unfortunately.

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