Damian Blake

Good question: Did the teaching panel even look at what’s available now?

There are very few days of the week where I don’t receive urgent emails or phone calls from school principals pleading for graduates or current pre-service teachers who can fill vacant positions in their school. Those desperate communications reflect the harsh reality that many school leaders and teacher educators face daily in the struggle to minimise the impact of the current teacher workforce shortages in Australia. 

This is the backdrop against which the recently published Teacher Education Expert Panel Discussion Paper is set as teacher educators, school leaders, government departments, regulatory authorities and policy makers seek to engage with what has been proposed in the document. The discussion paper reflects the work of the expert panel (led by Mark Scott, pictured) in responding to Priority Area 2 of the Education Ministers’ National Teacher Workforce Action Plan which was released in December 2022.

The teacher shortage backdrop is a stark reminder that many factors contribute to graduate teachers’ early career experiences in schools, as they seek to move from graduate teacher to proficient. Issues already highlighted in the National Workforce Action Plan, such as unsustainable workloads, perceived status of the profession, prevalence of short-term employment contracts (perhaps now less of an issue), increasing complexity of student behaviours, and many others factors that influence a graduate teacher’s decision to stay or leave the profession, independent of the quality of their initial teacher education. It must be recognised that conditions in our schools are also the conditions in which our pre-service teachers are learning as an essential part of the professional experience dimensions of initial teacher education. My point is that we cannot separate the conditions in which teachers practise their profession from the activity of initial teacher education, because they combine to mediate the ‘quality’ of a pre-service teacher’s collective experience of initial teacher education. Starting from this point, it is helpful to work through some of the key considerations proposed in the discussion paper.

The proposed core content outlined in the discussion paper addresses the four areas of: (i) the brain and learning; (ii) effective pedagogical practices; (iii) classroom management; and (iv) enabling factors for learning.

It is not clear if the panel had undertaken a thorough review of what is currently included in a range of ITE programs addressing knowledge of how the brain learns, but it is likely that many programs do address this very topic already as part of achieving graduate standards 1.1 and 1.2. However, I would concede that in the absence of any such curriculum-wide review, there is no guaranteed national consistency on whether this important aspect of teacher education is included in all accredited programs. But in considering the need for the brain to be included as core content in all ITE curriculum programs, it is equally important to remember those other aspects of standard 1.1 and 1.2 which remind us that ‘brains’ don’t learn in isolation in classrooms, and that the life circumstances of young people influence their learning opportunities. In considering the possibility of core content related to cognitive science, it is important not to dichotomise such content with understandings about the sociology of teaching and learning. Perhaps the answer may be to develop a more accurate description of standards 1.1 and 1.2 to reflect the importance of cognitive science in the preparation of teachers, but not at the expense of the sociological and physical dimensions.

The panel’s considerations related to effective pedagogical practice and classroom management as core are also likely to be identifying areas already addressed in initial teacher education programs against multiple graduate standards.

Having been a reviewer of many ITE programs myself, I have seen a relatively high degree of consistency in relation to what is being taught, practised, and assessed regarding effective pedagogical practice and classroom management.

Having been a reviewer of many ITE programs myself, I have seen a relatively high degree of consistency in relation to what is being taught, practised, and assessed regarding effective pedagogical practice and classroom management.

Damian Blake

Although my personal experiences of reviewing ITE programs does not constitute a systematic consideration of what all programs address on these important topics, I do return to my earlier observation that what students learn about effective pedagogical practice and classroom management in any ITE program is equally dependent on what is learned during their professional experience placements. I would suggest the panel’s reform area 3 addressing the quality of professional experience is actually threshold to any considerations for core curriculum related to effective pedagogy and classroom management.

The final element of core included in the discussion paper addresses developing teachers’ understandings of enabling factors for learning, including those related to First Nation’s Peoples, cultural responsiveness, family engagement and diverse learning needs. I would agree that there is much work to be done in all of these areas, but perhaps a more genuine starting point would be a respectful and systematic approach to decolonising initial teacher education in Australia. That means coming to terms with the unintended consequences of previous ITE reforms that may have adversely impacted access to initial teacher education for our First Nation’s Peoples in particular.

The panel proposes to link funding to performance measures in categories related to: (i) selection of diverse and high quality candidates; (ii) retention; (iii) classroom readiness; and (iv) employment outcomes.

This section of the discussion paper will draw much attention from university leaders, as it is likely to impact individual providers’ ongoing commitment to deliver initial teacher in their institution. The proposed categories have some alignment with elements of Stage 2 accreditation, and many providers already seek to achieve continuous improvement in relation to these elements. However, I am not aware of any evidence that would support publicising a table of comparative performance as the most productive way forward for achieving continuous improvement. In contrast, it may risk providers adopting a gamified approach to funding and completely distract from the genuinely important elements of increasing diversity in the teaching workforce.

I would also note that some of the challenges already faced in relation to these measures are genuinely outside the control of ITE providers. As noted earlier, the perceived classroom readiness of graduates and their likelihood of continuing employment in the early career years is linked to the conditions in which they are working. And despite many of the selection measures already being adopted under previous ITE reforms to strengthen the ‘quality’ of ITE entrants, their experiences of the reality of classroom life in all its glory does impact their commitment to completing a program and becoming a teacher.

Rather than funding linked to these performance measures, it would be more productive to have a serious funding discussion focussed on enabling high quality and scalable professional experience arrangements that serve as threshold dimensions in the provision of quality initial teacher education. I think this third element of the discussion paper does provide a real opportunity to improve one of the most important, threshold aspects of initial teacher education which, unfortunately, is also one over which ITE providers have minimal influence. It has been highlighted for its importance in most previous reviews and I would suggest it should be leading the charge in any genuine attempt to further improve the quality of initial teacher education.

Professor Damian Blake is the Head of School for Deakin University’s School of Education, after 15 years as associate dean, teaching and learning.

A vital message for teachers everywhere: how to help traumatised students

We are constantly exposed to life-threatening events that result in trauma. Natural disasters such as seasonal bushfires and floods have affected millions of Australians. The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought about loss of life, extended isolation, and exposure to increased domestic violence— for some youth, all these events can be traumatic.  

Likewise, human-induced traumatic events (e.g. violence, neglect, abuse, and household dysfunction) leave indelible marks on emotional and physiological wellbeing of Australian children and youth. For refugees from war-torn regions of the world, the trauma of violence, forced displacement, and resettlement stressors can be debilitating. Young people who grew up in foster care, experience extreme poverty, or identify themselves as LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or questioning) are also likely to experience trauma that can interfere with their learning and social interactions. 

But What is Trauma?

Trauma is the emotional, psychological, and physiological damage resulting from adverse events that overwhelm our ordinary coping abilities. Trauma can be caused by a single event (e.g. a car wreck), a series of events (e.g. sexual abuse), or collective historical wounding (e.g. forced removal of Indigenous children).

The impact of trauma can be multifaceted. Dr Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading trauma experts, describes trauma as a profound shock with lasting effects on one’s psychic, brain, and body. Trauma-impacted children and adolescents experience intrusive negative thoughts, anxiety, irritability, and feelings of numbness. 

Why do teachers need professional learning on trauma-responsive education? Because, we argue, trauma affects student performance and teacher wellbeing. Traumatic stress associated with emotional and psychological wounding interferes with people’s ability to manage ordinary daily activities, including learning. 

The Epidemic of Trauma in Schools

Trauma is a pervasive problem. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that in a classroom of 20 students, at least three are likely to have had traumatic experiences. 

In the US,  the National Council of State Education Associations called for a policy action to address ‘the epidemic of trauma in schools. In Australia, the damaging effects of the ‘hidden epidemic of early trauma’ are yet to gain increased public attention. The prevalence of the problem notwithstanding, there is still a lack of awareness about trauma and its impact. A secondary school principal in Melbourne told us: 

People think that there are only certain areas that are affected by trauma. No matter where you are, children will be impacted by adverse childhood experiences, sometimes up to 40% of students within a class. There are many forms of trauma. [But] people aren’t recognising or appreciating that there is trauma. 

In a recent survey of close to 900 young people (16-25-year-olds), 42% of the participants reported that the pandemic worsened their mental health condition. Although not all individuals with mental health conditions have a trauma history, those exposed to traumatic events are more likely to suffer from mental health issues. 

Trauma Inhibits Learning 

Exposure to adverse childhood experiences is positively correlated with poor school performance. Traumatic stress during the early stages of life impairs brain development and affects memory. 

Trauma also results in prolonged activation of the body’s stress-response system. Students cannot focus on the present and effectively engage with learning experiences when the stress-response system is activated for an extended time. Traumatic reactions such as anxiety and hyperarousal affect how students feel, think, and act on schoolwork. Trauma also diminishes memory

Trauma Drives Disruptive Behaviour

For traumatised students, the slightest hint of danger triggers anxiety. Overwhelmed by feelings of fear and helplessness, trauma-impacted students may display emotional outbursts and act out in the classroom. Such disruptive behaviours are not wilful; traumatised youth have limited capacity for emotional self-regulation. 

Seen through a trauma lens, disruptive behaviour can also be a language of communication. Traumatised children often adapt disruptive behaviours as a survival mechanism. Trauma turns their learning brain into a ‘surviving brain’. For instance, children who have experienced chronic neglect tend to use disruptive behaviours to communicate their desire for attention and attachment.

In schools where trauma is not recognised as a serious factor that affects engagement and learning, survivor students are less likely to get the necessary support. In fact, as Baldwin and Korn (2021) noted, “When traumatised children are restless and aggressive, they often get labelled as ‘bad,’ and their suffering gets missed.” 

At a societal level, trauma is costly too. It is estimated that annually unresolved childhood trauma costs Australian taxpayers as much as $24 billion

Student Trauma Increases Teacher Stress 

Student trauma can produce a negative ripple effect on teacher wellbeing. According to the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey, one of the primary causes of teacher stress is student behavioural problems. Working with trauma-impacted students can expose teachers to excessive fatigue and draining stress. In other words, dealing with recurrent disruptive student behaviours and hearing trauma stories can result in secondary traumatic stress that generates emotional duress and makes teachers feel overwhelmed. Extreme stress may force teachers to leave school. 

In 2019, a nationwide study showed that many teachers were concerned about their wellbeing,  saw student behaviour as a serious challenge, and indicated an intention to leave the profession. Increased teacher attrition in state schools, in turn, widens the educational divide along the line of socioeconomic status of schools and communities. 

In a recent Australian study that surveyed 749 teachers, over half of the respondents reported being stressed due to environmental factors, including disruptive student behaviour. The study also revealed that the stressed teachers ‘were considering leaving the profession’.

What Can be Done?

Teacher trauma awareness matters. One in three young people who participated in the 2019 Mission Australia survey reported that they “would turn to a teacher as a source of help with important issues”. Further, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that students who establish positive relationships with their teachers display a greater sense of belonging at school. 

But without timely and relevant professional learning, teachers may find it challenging to help traumatised students learn. 

Teachers need to be trauma-responsive, but this does not mean that they should be trained to treat trauma. Instead, it means that teachers should use a trauma lens to understand student learning and behaviour. Trauma-responsive teachers are non-judgemental. They ask trauma-affected students: “what happened to you?” rather than “what is wrong with you?”

Schools should promote trauma-responsive practices. Professional learning opportunities on trauma-responsive education are instrumental in equipping teachers with valuable  knowledge and skills for supporting trauma-impacted students. Without the necessary awareness about trauma and its impact on student behaviour and learning, teachers may find it taxing to cater to the learning needs of their students. 

In closing

Teachers equipped with current knowledge and skills on the causes and consequences of trauma are well-positioned to promote learning for all. They are also likely to avoid misdiagnosing student behavioural problems as a marker of innate mischievousness. They take time to understand the message of disruptive behaviour and re-engage students in learning. 

Trauma-responsive teachers create positive learning environments that provide a protective buffer against triggers and additional stressors and nurture resilience. Widening access to professional learning opportunities on trauma-responsive practices is critical in preparing teachers for the task.

Tebeje Molla is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. His research areas include student equity, teacher professional learning, and policy analysis. His work is informed by critical sociology and the capability approach to social justice and human development.

Damian Blake is a professor and Head of School for Deakin University’s School of Education and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Damian’s research and teaching experience focuses on applied learning and teacher education aiming to improve young people’s educational outcomes and well-being.