What should we be talking about when we talk about teachers? Teachers’ pay, working conditions and the looming teacher shortage.
What are media talking about instead? A commonly suggested ‘solution’ to address concerns about standards in teaching: pre-prepared lessons, or, as the Grattan Institute describes them in a recent report, ‘high quality teaching materials’.
The Grattan Institute, a thinktank, notes in its summary of the report that: “of 2,243 teachers and school leaders across Australia, … only 15 per cent of teachers have access to a common bank of high-quality curriculum materials for all their classes.”
In a departure from any claims to objectivity, the report paints a picture of teachers “being left to fend for themselves, creating lessons from scratch and scouring the internet and social media for teaching materials”.
This is yet another example of a large scale survey conducted by those with only a tangential relationship to the profession. It ignores the views of many teachers and offers a ready-made solution – one likely to become another costly and wasted expense for taxpayers. It also fails to note such approaches have been tried in some jurisdictions in Australia – with limited success, for example, the Curriculum-to-Classroom program in Queensland was found to be deficient. The surest outcome of such an approach would be a new revenue stream for specifically chosen edu-businesses as they rush to be selected as the provider of choice.
There are already a range of paid options for teachers to access similar resources through sites like Twinkl, Teachers Pay Teachers, TES and others. Admittedly, these are paid resources; we argue it is unreasonable for teachers to pay for any curriculum resources out-of-pocket. However, even a ‘free’ version seems misguided because it does not pay attention to the work – and the expertise – that is central to teachers’ practice. And this practice includes the careful design and development of learning materials. This is not something that can be outsourced.
As we say, the assumption and positioning of highly trained and university-qualified teachers, many of whom have trained for 4 or more years, as vulnerable and ‘fending for themselves’ is odd.
Planning lessons, finding, curating and developing resources is central to the work of teachers. Many teachers take great delight in carefully crafting lessons that leverage students’ interests; education is not, and never has been a one-size-fits-all model and any claim otherwise is undermining teachers, leaders and education support staff around Australia.
Teachers delivering content via a pre-prepared script or lesson might seem easier and simpler, but it remains difficult to see who benefits from a lifeless and unthinking teacher delivering someone else’s content. The key to teaching – and learning – lies in the human relationships between teachers and students. Those human relationships allow for careful contextualisation and design. It is that which drives teachers to search for just the right YouTube clip – the one that will appeal to that particular Year 9 Science class – not a sense of ‘fending for themselves’. Whereas teachers are responsible for their school students, families and communities, creators of ‘teacher-proof’ lesson banks are accountable to their corporate employers. As Lucinda McKnight reflects, ‘who would we rather have designing learning experiences for our own children?’.
Our new book, Empowering Teachers and Democratising Schooling: Perspectives from Australia has taken the focus of empowering teachers and outlines alternative, human-centric ways that teachers can be trusted and empowered to make decisions about their work, with the shared goal of democratising approaches to education. By combining theory, academic thinking and teachers’ best practice examples, the book provides a range of suggestions on many of the key challenges facing Australian education. For example, George Lilley outlines the way that teachers have been sidelined in favour of a rigorous adherence to educational research.Alex Wharton’s chapter imagines what an education system might look and function like if teachers were respected across all facets of their domain.
Polly Dunning’s chapter articulates the range of pressures placed upon teachers – and the effects this has on children. Not surprisingly, the nature of lesson planning is not mentioned, but rather the rise of administrivia and additional expectations placed upon teachers without additional time or funding provided.
As with many things in education, the best solutions require humans to be empowered to find their own solutions. Education is filled with complex, ‘wicked’ problems, where solutions can take time, and require contextual nuance. ‘Solutions’ such as those suggested by The Grattan Institute ultimately misunderstand the work of the teacher as technocratic and therefore something that can be standardised. Until we appreciate the complexity of what it means for teachers to teach, we will continue to be presented with claims of ‘teacher-proof’ policies and materials that ignore the diversity of the students, whilst disenfranchising the teaching profession.
If we are aiming to recruit and retain teachers, poorly thought out solutions such as providing teachers with pre-prepared teaching materials, as suggested by the Grattan Institute, is not the answer. This will do little to reduce workload, and it will also further damage the reputation of the teaching profession by limiting the expertise of teachers. These outcomes will do little to encourage people to become or remain teachers.
Instead, we must look towards long term solutions that recognise the expertise of the profession. Trust, empowerment and listening to the voices of the profession is key.
Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors.
Tom Mahoney is a teacher and educator of secondary VCE Mathematics and Psychology students, currently completing a PhD in Educational Philosophy part time through Deakin University. His research explores the influence of dominant educational ideologies on teacher subjectivity. You can keep up to date with Tom’s work via his fortnightly newsletter, The Interruption, via Substack. Tom is on Twitter @tommahoneyedu