Teacher workplace learning: some issues

Teacher learning is complex. There is not one size fits all in improving teacher attrition. Need to think differently about how people learn the profession or good teachers will continue to leave. Currently, I’m working on a graduate teacher workplace learning project. Below are some of the things I am processing.

1. Teacher training needs to improve but this is not the only answer

A lot of attention is focused on the overcrowded and underfunded school curriculum but it should be understood that the teacher training curriculum experiences the same problems. Intitial teacher educators are required to do quite a lot with very little time. Here are a few differences between my training in the early 1990s and the training today.

I had a lecturer come and watch one lesson. This was considered a part of my assessment for professional experience. It was worth 50%. Today I simply go and meet preservice teachers (PSTs). What right do I have to assess a prac based on watching one lesson? The mentor teacher knows best and their word is final. My role is to advocate for the PSTs if they feel they are being hardly done by. I often need to remind mentor teachers of the workload that is required because the trainees are too scared they will fail their professional experience if they challenge their timetables. The majority of my focus is on the PSTs that are failing their professional experience. I am only paid for 20 hours over the six weeks and this is where the time goes. In brief, if a PST only sees me once, that’s a good thing.

I did two sociology, two psychology and one law subject as a part of my training. Today that theory is embedded in a couple of practical subjects about inclusive education and differentiation. These were not taught in my degree; nor were stand alone literacy, numeracy and ICT subjects.

The Australian Professional Standards for [Graduate] Teachers has been a wonderful audit tool for ensuring that the assessment items in a teaching degree are richer and more practical, but there is very little room left for critically engaging with teaching and education policy. For example, to commit a few tutorials to how to embed ICTs into Humanities and Social Sciences, means that we have less time to teach how to be critical History teachers. We also spend time simply showing PSTs digital tools they could use to teach History but no time critiquing the tool. My entire life as a History teacher was spent critiquing tools for inquiry, reflecting on them and improving them. Digital technologies are generally not subjected to this type of critique and are simply accepted as “good”. This is problematic.

These are only a few of the problems which need solving in teacher training. The thing is, solving those problems requires time for thinking and creative problem solving; something that teachers are very good at but in an audit culture lack the necessary hours.

2. School inductions are important but are also problematic

Imagine sitting in a room full of strangers. You are nervous. It is your first day at work. Finally after four years of teacher training you are about to take the plunge. Will you sink? Will you swim? What will your classes be like? Are you wearing the right clothes? Everyone around business-19156_1920you looks corporate but they are all new teachers and executive staff. The suit feels itchy and constrictive. How am I supposed to sit on the mat in this outfit? I wonder if I’m allowed to eat the lollies in the middle of the table?

So begins the full induction day. You try to pay attention but you are too nervous. When will they teach us to use the photocopier? When will I see my classroom? Will I have my own classroom?

You are introduced to your buddy or mentor but you have absolutely nothing in common and you sit in silence while you are told to have your assessment schedule submitted in two weeks. New panic sets in.

Most of the day is taken up with child safety and fire drill in-servicing. You’ve done all this at university so you can tune out and concentrate on your panic for a while, or jot down to-do lists. You put a few things on the list you have already finished just so you can cross them off and quieten the panic.

By the end of the day, your brain is dead. You are inducted but you still don’t know how to photocopy. You’ll just have to work it out yourself by making friends with the administrative staff and library aid. Maybe you can hang around it for a few minutes and someone will come in and show you.

Big smile. “Hi! I’m new. I’m sorry to be a pain but can you show me how to use the photocopier? Great! My name is _______, by the way.” Now you have someone to sit with at lunch.

3. Communities of practice and collaborations are helpful but flawed

To be a part of a community means to belong to it. This takes time. But is it time that a new teacher has before they quietly pack up their desk with no intention to return the following term? As a relief and contract teacher I have been in more staffrooms where I have been ignored than those that shook my hand, asked my name and showed me where the fridge is with offers of help when I needed it. I understand that the reasons for “not really noticing” a new staff member are complex, but the act of doing it informs the new staff member that this is the culture. They will either embrace it, challenge it (which is very difficult for a 21 year old) or leave.

Effective communities of practice and collaborative efforts are cultural. Stipulations to work in teams can create frustration, fear, irritation and avoidance because workloads are just so full and good teamwork takes time. Time to get to know each other, have tense moments, work through those moments and produce a result. This can take years. In an audit culture, this looks like too much hard work.

4. The solution could lie in individual agency

New teachers are capable of shaping a school just as actively as a school shapes them. The problem with providing a checklist is that it assumes that teachers are simple vessels waiting to be filled with new knowledge about their profession. The reality is that teachers (both trainee and trained) bring a rich network of experiences and ideas to the profession. For example, a post-graduate PST may bring experiences of professionalism and learning from a non-teaching profession that could revolutionise how a classroom is run. All graduate teachers have been to several schools as a part of their training. This means they have fresh experiences of different ways a school is run. All teachers have networks of support outside of their school life that influence how they approach the profession and whether they stay or leave. By simply trying to improve teaching with a set of standards we spend our time concentrating on the piece of paper rather than acknowledging that the best improvement comes informally and unplanned, usually as problem solving unforeseen circumstances and challenges.

The research in this field is tiny. Most departmental initiatives see school workplace knowledge as something to be acquired. Academic research tends to dispute this and say that knowledge comes through practice. Neither of these strong fields have fixed the problem of teacher attrition. Maybe the solution is already there. We just need to ask the new teachers to be a part of discovering it.

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