Quality Initial Teacher Education review

How to get career change teachers to stick

The Federal Government review of Initial Teacher Education has reinvigorated debates about attracting high-quality candidates into the teaching profession and preparing them to be effective teachers. 

In response, the Quality Initial Teacher Education Review 2021 Discussion Paper has highlighted several issues, including ways to attract high-performing mid-career professionals into the teaching profession to increase teacher supply.

Workforce planning for schools: Putting the cart before the horse

The review of Initial Teacher Education provides an opportunity to rethink schools’ current workforce planning strategy. It has, among other things, brought attention to how we can better capitalise on the contributions that diverse, passionate and qualified individuals with different career backgrounds can make to the teaching profession.

Yet, workforce planning for schools in Australia has traditionally relied on short-term, inconsistent and at times one-off initiatives to staff schools, especially those that suffer from teacher shortage problems. Recruitment bonuses, incentives and special entry pathways into teaching have been central to government strategies. This reactive approach has prioritised teacher recruitment to teacher retention.

A more comprehensive workforce planning strategy needs evidence-informed decision-making to recruit and prepare and retain qualified career change teachers. 

Career changers in the teaching profession

While career change teachers have always been part of the Australian education landscape, we know little about them, the challenges they face, and the support they need in their career transition into the teaching profession, as we outlined in an earlier article. We’ve done a new study including interviews with 17 career change teachers to uncover the motivations and challenges facing these career changers. 

What do we know about career-change teachers?

I got made redundant, which was the catalyst for a career change from my previous role. I could have probably quite easily gone and gotten a job in my same career somewhere else, but I just decided to use it as an opportunity to make a more significant change. One of the reasons that I wanted to go into teaching was because I wanted to work in a field that was more connected to the community rather than in a corporate environment.

Career change teachers make unique contributions to the profession by bringing practical experience and specific skills. Based on their previous experience, connecting abstract knowledge to real-life applications is natural for career change teachers.  This can make learning more engaging and meaningful for students. They also come equipped with interpersonal and organisation skills from their previous careers. 

Our study found that many career-change teachers are driven by a sense of ‘calling’ and a desire to make a difference in the lives of young people. 

I was doing chartered accounting and then banking for about the last 12 years. That was my sort of pathway for a bit and I was increasingly finding it not very fulfilling. I was very busy and stressed and all those sort of things, but not feeling like I was actually contributing to a community and people as much as I wanted to. 

Supporting career change teachers in their transition

A common thread in our participants’ responses was the challenges they faced in their transition, which affected their morale and job satisfaction. 

Challenges included: 

  • Adjustment to professional identity as teachers
  • Transfer of skills from the previous occupation to teaching
  • Establishing collegial relationships in the new workplace
  • Maintaining work-life balance
  • Meeting financial commitments
  • Developing self-efficacy and professional confidence in the new career
  • A mismatch between expectation about and reality of teaching 

The support provided by initial teacher education programs is integral to a positive transition to teaching and long-term teacher retention. In their adjustment from their previous career to studying and teaching, the support provided by university-based mentors, familiar with the needs of career change teachers, is the first step in this direction and vital in bridging the gap between study and teaching. 

The university provides us with what they call a clinical specialist so someone who is an experienced teacher, sometimes an academic, sometimes someone who’s been in more senior roles in schools. […] I had a very good clinical specialist. She had a lot of experience working in schools such as mine, where sometimes the behaviour can be really challenging […] I think in my first year that was really important because the behaviour was quite challenging and it took me quite a while to figure out how to teach in that environment. 

School-based mentors can offer specific advice about teaching, curriculum, the school context, expectations and practices.  

I have a mentor at school who I meet every week for a period. She has been very helpful and I go to her for advice even outside our scheduled meeting time. The school also provides support for new staff and they organise meetings to coincide with important events such as report writing and parent teacher interviews to ensure that we know what to expect and to provide any help. The school also has a teacher who provides support to new staff so I can always contact her if I require any help with anything. 

Retaining Career Change Teachers

Understanding the challenges that career change teachers face in their transition and the support they need is the first step in ensuring our schools are staffed with the most qualified teachers. Tailored, adequate and ongoing support is essential in preparing and retaining the most passionate career change teachers. It helps reduce investment loss due to the revolving door of teacher recruitment and teacher attrition.

While career change teachers can be drawn to the profession as a part of a larger solution to teacher shortage problems, these problems are likely to persist if education systems fail to address systemic issues that impact teachers’ sustainability within the profession, including issues relating to relatively low pay, insecure employment, heavy workloads, inadequate ongoing support and ever-increasing administrative duties in teaching.

From left to right: Babak Dadvand is a senior lecturer at the School of Education, La Trobe University. Babak’s research is in areas of teaching and teacher education with a focus on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion in relation to teachers’ work and student experiences. As a teacher educator, Babak has worked with multiple cohorts of pre-service teachers, including those who enter the teaching profession through employment-based pathways into teaching. Babak’s current body of research is focused on the challenges that pre-service and in-service teachers face and the types of support that they need in their transitions into the profession, especially within the more challenging working conditions of schools that serve communities that are socially-historically marginalised. This Industry Report is informed by and builds upon Babak’s recent research and teaching work. Merryn Dawborn-Gundlach is a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She is a subject coordinator and lecturer in the Master of Teaching (Secondary) and Master of Education (International Baccalaureate) courses at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Merryn is active in developing initial teacher education in Victoria, as coordinator of the Master of Teaching (Secondary) Internship course, a position which supports change of career teachers as interns in schools. Merryn’s research interests focus on transition and retention of early career teachers, developing scientific reasoning competencies of pre-service science teachers, investigating the supports required by change of career teachers and supporting out of field Physics teachers in Victoria. Jan van Driel is a Professor of Science Education and co-leader of the Mathematics, Science & Technology Education Group in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE) at the University of Melbourne. His research interests include science teacher knowledge, teacher education and professional learning. He has supervised 25 doctoral students to successful completion. He has served on the boards of associations for educational research in the Netherlands and the USA. Currently, he is co-editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Science Education anda member of the Education Committee of Council of the Australian Academy of Science and the executive board of the Australasian Science Education Research Association (ASERA). In 2018, he was identified as national field leader in Education by The Australian. In 2021, he received the MGSE Research Excellence Award. Chris Speldewinde is a Research Fellow and Sessional Academic currently undertaking a doctorate at Deakin University that examines STEM teaching and learning in Australian bush kindergartens. Chris has several academic and practitioner publications regarding bush kindergartens. Chris works on projects involving with multi-university research teams investigating issues in early childhood, primary and secondary school education. He also has interests in the implications of teacher education; teaching out of field; policy and governance in education; and early childhood and primary school education. 

The new review: good, bad, ugly and curiously ignorant

In what, internationally, is becoming a sure sign of an impending general election, here we have yet another review of initial teacher education in Australia – a ‘thousand and second damnation’, perhaps, in the words of one of the review panel members. Delivered to former minister Alan Tudge in October but released last Thursday with the minister still missing in action because of an inquiry into a relationship he had with a staffer, the report of the Quality Initial Teacher Education (QITE) review is a curious mix of serious reflection and scatter gun politics, with a deeply colonial flavour.

The Good:

The report powerfully underscores the national responsibility to address Australia’s First Nations communities through multiple means in educational contexts, including better support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to enter the profession and better preparation for all teachers to teach in a culturally responsive and sustaining way. Combined with a strong emphasis on ensuring better representation of Australia’s diverse and multicultural communities in the teaching profession, the report’s authors should be congratulated for signalling the powerful part that teacher education can play in fostering a fairer and more equitable society.

Also worthy of note is the call for the government to raise the status of the teaching profession in Australia and, more indirectly, cautioning policy makers about using schools in politically motivated culture wars if they wish to improve both recruitment and retention in the teaching profession.

The Bad:

The report is sometimes characterised by a naïve understanding of what counts as ‘evidence’. For example, the injunction to use more randomised control trials in teacher education programs, apparently recommending universities deny some prospective teachers in control groups the beneficial treatments, at the same time as urging universities to reduce the length of programs to get teachers into classrooms quicker. The rhetoric around the ‘gold standard’ of RCTs is telling; it’s most often wheeled out when people have not engaged with the multiple forms of evidence that can give policy-makers good reasons why a reform is worth scaling. Good policy requires good judgement  about what research can and can’t tell you rather than slavish adherence to methodological dogma.

Further contradictions are apparent in the report’s approach to innovation. The system-wide encouragement of innovation is critically important factor in developing the quality of ITE – to be welcomed – but panel’s recommendation of greater political control of the content of ITE curriculums through proposals for ‘quality’ measures tied to commonwealth funding will lead to an overwhelming focus on compliance. The evidence internationally is that the tighter you control provision through monitoring and audit cultures, the less creativity and innovation you get. A different kind of culture is needed, one that expects universities to be innovative with ITE.

Similarly, a welcome emphasis on high expectations for ITE programs is contradicted by the proposal to shorten them to a year for those with ‘good subject knowledge’, for example. This recommendation both contradicts the evidence about teachers’ subject knowledge (where a teacher’s advanced qualifications in mathematics, for example, can lead to poorer outcomes in mathematics for primary age students) and runs against international trends where the period of initial preparation is being extended. The issue for career-changers is how they support themselves during a career transition not the length of the program alone and there are already examples of accelerated programs where student teachers are paid for work in schools alongside learning to teach. Reducing the length of programs in itself will just make it more difficult for the panel’s aims to be realised.

The Ugly:

The references to the ‘United Kingdom’ Core Content Framework are just embarrassingly ignorant and unworthy of inclusion in a serious document. There is no UK framework. The UK is made up of four nations and the panel is referring to the highly controversial framework for England that is widely regarded as deeply ideological and fundamentally amateurish (it was shown to be copied and pasted from another document in a political rush to get education policies out prior to the 2019 British general election). Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have far different frameworks for ITE – with the Welsh policies being especially worth reading for their requirement for schools and universities to work together in consortia. This part of the report is pure colonial political theatre.

Which brings me to perhaps the single greatest weakness. Overall, the report continues to perpetuate the myth that the quality of an ITE program is overwhelmingly down to what universities teach on campus. This report, like so many others, betrays a profound lack of attention to the importance of what happens in schools. Schools placements – especially longer ones – present powerful, practical learning opportunities for student teachers. Yet Australian schools, especially private ones, do not all have a history of offering placement opportunities. Any serious national effort to improve ITE would also address how schools can better exert their powerful influence on what and how new teachers learn to teach in collaboration with universities. The best policy frameworks internationally (e.g. Norway’s, the US federal ‘teacher residency’ initiative, and yes, Wales) do just that.

Having a whack at universities just prior to a general election is an expedient way of provoking a ‘debate’ about the state of a country’s education system without attacking teachers directly. Despite a strong start – such as emphasising the part that teacher education can play in fostering a fairer and more equitable future for Australia – the QITE report soon descends into yet another rather predictable damnation. 

Viv Ellis is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His latest book (with Lauren Gatti and Warwick Mansell), The New Political Economy of Teacher Education: The Enterprise Narrative and the Shadow State, will be published by Policy Press in November 2022.