If distance learning shows anything to parents, it is a renewal of appreciation for the work done by teachers. Now as teachers return to school in the coming weeks, at least in New South Wales, it is time to ask the following questions: What should teacher policies be in order to improve education in these uncertain times? Does teaching make the profession so attractive that there will be enough qualified teachers in all parts of the country? Can we promise that all children will have teachers who can teach them the difficult skills and knowledge they will need in life?
The short answer to all these questions is unfortunately “no”. Currently, Australia and many other countries are facing severe teacher shortages. Many teachers leave the profession before reaching their fifth year. At the same time, the number of young people interested in becoming teachers has dropped.
Another challenge is that the expected growth in the population in Australia means that a greater number of new teachers will be needed in schools. In NSW alone the authorities estimate a 20% increase in student numbers at the end of this decade. This means that thousands of well-educated teachers will soon be needed.
We need to urgently find ongoing ways to improve the employment situation in Australia. That requires a rethinking of current teacher policies that prioritize competition and compliance with policies designed to address interactive student learning technologies in schools. Importing teachers from overseas without improving the teaching conditions of existing teachers is the wrong answer to the real problem.
In Finland, where I started my teaching career, it is a tradition of professional collaboration that has done much to improve the performance of education in schools.
When I speak to teachers in Australian schools, I am amazed at the level of administrative and compliant work they need to do. Such work, often with minimal impact on the learning and well-being of children at school, is a major factor in overwork, reducing teachers’ time for students or working with colleagues. Not surprisingly, many teachers feel tired and frustrated.
Teachers in all effective education programs today spend less time completing forms or writing reports and more time working, like all other professionals, to improve teaching and learning in their schools. This happened in the great educational institutions of Asia such as Singapore and Japan, and was part of the school culture in Canada and Finland for a while.
Schools in Australia have become complex places for teaching and learning. Our most recent study showed that nine out of 10 teachers think that the number of students with social, emotional, and cognitive challenges has increased over the past five years. Teachers need time and support from their colleagues to find better ways to deal with these new challenges in the classroom.
In order to become independent and effective employees, teachers need more time to work together. And they need to take time to think about how they can determine which students have the most different learning needs and how they can best help them.
Professional collaboration is of great benefit to first-time job educators who need to get a good start in their careers. Research shows that the more teachers cooperate, the more everyone benefits, including students. In addition, when schools cooperate and help each other improve, the pace of change can exceed expectations.
International organizations are collecting information from various countries on how they have responded to the Covid-19 epidemic and how it has affected education. According to the OECD and Unesco, those education systems that regard teachers as trustworthy and flexible professionals appear to be working to improve education. They often find better instructional solutions faster to keep children learning during distance learning.
In other words, where teachers are trusted, schools are more likely to accelerate in times of crisis.
One of the drawbacks of this global epidemic is that politicians rely on virologists and health scientists to decide how to respond to the virus. Political decisions about dealing with this crisis and the way forward are made on the basis of the best that science and expert advice can offer.
One reason for the general frustration with educational reform is the failure to listen to education professionals in the design and implementation of these reforms. Politicians need to trust teachers and their ingenuity to share in deciding how to improve teaching and learning in schools.
As NSW teachers return to the classroom, their work deserves more than thanks to grateful parents, politicians and society at large. When teachers are truly respected and listened to and have the time they need to work together, we are more likely to give good answers to the following questions.
And let’s be real. Poor pay of teachers is an important reason why many young people consider other career options before teaching. Teachers deserve a remuneration that properly reflects the responsibilities they face in a job that continues to be complex.
By doing this we are also sending a powerful signal to the public that teaching is the right job to dedicate your working life to.