Improving the quality of initial teacher education is rightly taking centre stage across the country, with the aim to graduate and retain more teachers, and for them to be more classroom-ready when they land their first job.
Finding a solution starts, as it did at my university, La Trobe, with a curriculum declutter of our teacher programs.
Before a teacher sets foot in a classroom, they must be exposed to a high-quality curriculum and the science of learning. Education degrees have traditionally been heavily influenced by a liberal arts and sociology tradition. Although the history, sociology and philosophy of education is important in understanding the fabric of teacher practices, the science of learning should feature strongly.
Instead, the majority of coursework should be based on evidence-informed approaches to developing teachers’ skills. Take the critical skill of reading, for example.
In my past career as a secondary teacher, I was repeatedly challenged by some of my year 10 students who struggled to meet the reading benchmark for a seven-year-old. My plans to offer content-rich experiences to these emerging young adults was soon usurped by the simple need to teach them to read.
While I didn’t have an evidence-informed toolkit to tackle the problem, at La Trobe research from our Science of Language and Reading (SOLAR) Lab is embedded in our teaching courses. Our graduates enter the classroom being able to teach young learners how to read, develop rich language skills and increase writing capabilities.
This doesn’t just build confidence and job satisfaction. It also frames a commitment to social justice where impactful learning is experienced by all students.
In this way, being ‘classroom-ready’ means having practical skills based in solid evidence about how learning happens, how human memory works and how behaviour can be taught. When a teacher prepares a lesson, they do more than curate content and activities; they set the scene of how behaviour will be accepted and exchanged between everyone involved.
These skills are difficult to develop; a teaching degree needs to provide opportunities for future teachers to practise, practise, practise – in a context that supports and advocates for high quality teaching.
Many argue that a four-year undergraduate teaching degree is too long. It’s not – but where change could be introduced is in embedding the last two years of the program in real schools. Effectively an internship model, this would not only alleviate teacher shortages, but build stronger relationships between schools and universities, as well as producing what we all want: classroom-ready teachers.
This can also make an impact on a wider problem.
Through real classroom experience, we can encourage students to teach in some of our more culturally diverse, and economically underserviced secondary schools – often located in regional areas – that struggle to attract teachers.
At La Trobe, we have the NEXUS program that prepares career changers to become teachers, by paying them to teach while they compete their qualification.
NEXUS teachers not only have the skills to work in these hard-to-staff schools, but they actively engage with communities to impact learning for individuals and groups. The most important aspect of an employment-based pathway like this is the mentoring wraparound support which allows discipline experts to become experts of learning.
All these initiatives make a difference; at La Trobe we have a 71 per cent retention rate for our teaching courses – 40 per cent above the national average. With a renewed focus on the learning sciences and building capacities for teachers to navigate classroom realities in evidence informed ways, our retention will no doubt increase further.
Although redefining teaching courses is not the panacea for the teacher shortage, prioritising learning based on science, to assist with the classroom realities that new teachers face, will go a long way to upskilling a future teaching workforce.
Passion for teaching is essential for being a good teacher but being classroom-ready is even more important. It creates better outcomes for students and ensures teachers thrive in the classroom. And critically, it makes teachers more likely to stick around for the long term.
This article first appeared in The Australian, under the headline We know how to make new teachers classroom ready