Lifelong teachers require slow-burn training

Preparing for the teachers New Zealand needs is not a quick fix. The University of Auckland's Dr Fiona Ell compares our investment in teachers to slow-burn GI carbohydrates.

Professions are characterised by a body of knowledge and the necessity for problem-solving and decision-making that draws on that knowledge. These bodies of knowledge have elements not usually known to the person in the street, hence the need for professional preparation to become, for example, a doctor, lawyer, engineer or teacher.

Learning the frameworks and ideas that underpin a profession is how people start their careers. In most cases an academic qualification is followed by a professional qualification of some sort that deals with the more everyday, practical demands of the job. This works well if you are going to be an accountant, lawyer or architect because after your degree you will be carefully supervised, given parts of jobs that you can manage and helped to build your expertise before you have to take responsibility for the full role.

But not so in teaching. Although new teachers receive a time allowance in their first two years for development and support, they are the teacher for their class right from day one. This means teacher preparation is critical.

This month the Education Council of New Zealand released a consultation paper on the future of teacher preparation in New Zealand. It contains a number of proposals for reforming teacher preparation, including standard tests for literacy and numeracy, longer time spent in schools and the possibility of post-graduate level qualifications. A few weeks previously, just before the budget, the Minister of Education announced she was lifting the moratorium on new teacher education programmes, making it easier for new providers of teacher education to enter the market.

At the same time as these policy changes are being introduced, fewer people are entering teacher preparation and there is an emerging shortage of teachers in Auckland where living on a teacher’s salary is becoming increasingly difficult. New modern learning environments, increasing diversity and the ever-changing world of technology demand new skills and knowledge from teachers. How should we prepare teachers in times like these?

Well that depends on the teachers we want.

"Let’s insist our teachers receive sustaining preparation that will keep them going over long careers in our classrooms."

I think we want teachers who are knowledgeable and skilled, who are committed to teaching as a way to build a socially-just New Zealand and who stay in teaching in order to build our understanding of what works, and to share their expertise with others. We want their preparation to provide them with the tools to continue to learn and grow, and be curious about their work and stimulated by it.

Teaching is fascinating; we want new teachers to engage with it long-term. In this way we can build expertise, rather than lose it from the profession. Preparation for this sort of teaching is like lean protein and low GI carbohydrates – it burns slowly, providing energy beyond an initial sugar rush. It’s nutritious and sustaining; it gives you something to get your teeth into.

Overseas experience suggests teacher preparation based on quick fix, skill-focused courses are similar to glucose or white bread: they give you plenty of energy immediately, but don’t sustain you long term. By getting people into teaching quickly, and giving them a starter set of skills, rather than deeper-level conceptual frameworks, we can solve the immediate shortage problem. However, in doing so, we create another, more persistent problem: a high turnover of teachers which leads to loss of talent and lost opportunities to develop experts who can grow the profession. Nutritious preparation is not about the length or location of teacher education, it’s about the orientation of the programme and the belief about what teaching is.

Teaching is a profession and one that has a profound impact on the wellness of our society. Let’s insist our teachers receive sustaining preparation that will keep them going over long careers in our classrooms.

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