Valuing the profession of teaching

Dean of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education Professor Field Rickards, explains why it’s so important to value teachers in our society.

There has been a fair bit in the press recently about teaching and teachers. Debates about ‘lifting student achievement’ and ‘improving teaching standards’ tend to have a familiar ring, with suggestions like one-off bonus payments, sacking under-performing teachers, or fast-tracking professionals from other fields into teaching appearing time and again.

While I agree there is a need for change in the profession, we need a much deeper solution to the challenges teachers face today. We know from the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that Australia’s overall education performance has been losing ground for the past nine years. The top 25 per cent of our students are slipping the most, and there is a significant difference in performance between the top 25 per cent of our 15-year-olds and the bottom 25 per cent. NAPLAN results also show the wide variation in student abilities in any given year level.

These are significant challenges. As many have noted, part of the solution lies with teacher education. All teachers should have a professional preparation which enables them to cater to students throughout the range of development, and not just to teach to the mid-range of whole class groups.

Too many teachers, however, are still taught to deliver the kinds of lessons you might remember from childhood. The kind where the teacher stands at the front of the class and delivers the content scheduled for that day. If you can keep up, fine. If not – too bad! Readers of this article can probably relate to a time at school when a teacher presented a new concept and some in the class simply didn’t ‘get it’.

This reflects the simplistic (and far too common) view that teachers are passionate information-transmitters. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching is a complex and challenging task and needs to be embraced universally as a genuine clinical practice profession.

So what does ‘clinical teaching’ mean? Like other clinical professions, teachers need to be able to assess, intervene and evaluate. Teachers do this by drawing on evidence about what each student knows and understands at the start of the lesson and then choosing from a broad base of highly complex knowledge to inform how they teach.

Every class features students with a wide range of abilities. What clinical teachers do is create an environment where all students are on the right learning path, whatever their developmental stage and current abilities. Clinical teachers can also evaluate the impact of their teaching – to know how to continue this process. This involves a complex set of decisions and actions which we call ‘clinical judgment’. It is a much more complicated process than mere information transmission.

At the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE), our Master of Teaching is a genuine clinical masters. Our teacher candidates are on placement in schools and early childhood centres two days a week from early in their studies, supported by a school-based Teaching Fellow and a University-based Clinical Specialist. In this way, they can truly connect their university and school learning, rather than the two operating in isolation as lectures and placements do in so many teaching degrees.

Our graduates are taught to tailor their teaching to the needs of individual students. This kind of ‘personalised learning’ ensures that advanced students are stretched and that slower students are not routinely confronted with material they cannot understand.

There are other important changes that need to take place in teaching, not least introducing a revised salary and career structure fit for a 21st century profession. However, teacher education is a vital part of the equation, and at MGSE we have found a model that works. I encourage politicians and policy-makers to examine our approach when considering how to improve student outcomes in Australia. It is a useful place to start.