Teachers have one of the most important professions in society – some might even argue, the most important.
However, teachers have reported feeling overworked and underappreciated. Adding insult to injury for many educators, the NSW Government recently announced a cap pay increases for teachers and other public sector workers at 1.5%.
This is despite reports showing that teachers and school leaders are suffering under the weight of unreasonably high workloads and alarming rates of bullying, violence and intimidation.
Another study found that in recent times, many educators have been concerned about being able to support children to achieve their best. The survey of 3,500 teachers from all sectors from Australia and New Zealand revealed a lack of confidence from teachers in meeting students’ learning needs online during the pandemic.
Still, parents have given a big thumbs up to teachers during COVID as they gain a new appreciation for the role through their own experience with remote and flexible learning and better understand the tireless work being done by teachers in classrooms every day.
A new book published by Springer and authored by Associate Professor John Buchanan at the University of Technology Sydney examines the current status of the teaching profession and some important factors at play.
The book, titled: ‘Challenging the Deprofessionalization of Teaching and Teachers’ cites two intertwined reasons: a preoccupation with teaching basic skills, and an obsession with international school rankings.
Boring delivery means bored kids
Associate Professor Buchanan argues that the standardisation of teaching practices and content has forced teachers to teach unengaging, “basic skills” material, which in turn lowers student motivation and achievement.
“One alternative I see is recourse to a ‘trust ecology’,” Assoc/Prof Buchanan told The Educator.
“Currently, the system is top-heavy, with pronouncements coming from on-high, in the context of teacher failure to achieve ‘satisfactory’ student outcomes”.
He said this renders teachers timid, and less likely to take risks associated with creative teaching and lateral thinking – the pedagogy that is more likely to engage students and ‘lift their reasoning’.
“Instead, teachers might simply reinforce basic skill drills. High-stakes tests are particularly corrosive to creativity and risk-taking from students and teachers,” he said.
“The system serves to reinforce convenient compliance from teachers, and is unlikely to prepare young people for autonomy”.
‘Teaching is easy – until you do it’
Another important point that Assoc/Prof Buchanan raises in his book is that despite apparent worsening performances, and despite being prime stakeholders, teachers’ views are not taken into account when designing curricula.
“One premise of the book is that teaching is easy – until you do it,” he said.
“Many parents have witnessed this recently, through distance learning. Having glimpsed the complexity of teacher-aide-ing their, say, two children, they may have begun to wonder about, and wonder at, the complexity of also educating and nurturing 25 other people’s children simultaneously”.
Assoc/Prof Buchanan said this could be the beginnings of broader recognition of not just the importance of teachers’ work but its complexities.
“An ecology of autonomy might also operate here. If children are to be more autonomous than automatons, we could well extend more autonomy to their teachers”.
‘Change may come from unlikely places’
Assoc/Prof Buchanan said that in isolation during COVID-19, parents across the country got a taste of what teachers go through every day.
“Parents have come to recognise how complex teaching is. Parents doing distance learning have, say, two children and they realise the teacher has 20 or 30,” he said.
“The community has come to realise this: teachers are frontline workers. Without teachers, the economy implodes”.
The Australian Curriculum lists several cross-curriculum priorities, including critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding, and personal and social capabilities.
However, since these aren’t assessed, teachers tend not to focus on them, Assoc/Prof Buchanan said.
He believes that by making critical thought central to education, it might be possible to begin to restore the professionalism of teaching, and more engagement to students’ learning experiences.
Remote learning may be contributing to cultural change
Assoc/Prof Buchanan said the learnings should not be so much about teaching but about the culture and approach to education.
“Alongside the above two ecologies, a respect ecology might operate here. I say this cautiously – I want students, teachers and others to retain a healthy scepticism of all in authority, and of everything they say,” he said.
“Nonetheless, respect for teachers is sadly lacking in many developed nations – perhaps those nations where we see education as a burden [which it is; it embodies responsibilities], than as a privilege, to which our main entitlement is favourable birth-circumstances”.
He said that while cultural change comes slowly, COVID-19-necessitated distance learning may have helped.
“According trust, respect and autonomy to teachers will result from, and in, cultural change”.