If remote learning has shown parents anything, it is a renewed appreciation for the job that teachers do. Now as teachers return to school in the coming weeks, at least in New South Wales, it’s a chance to ask some consequential questions: Are the teacher policies what they should be to improve education in these uncertain times? Is teaching such an attractive career choice that there will be enough qualified teachers in all parts of this country? Can we promise that all children will have a teacher who is able to teach the complex skills and knowledge they will need in life?
The short answer to all these questions is unfortunately “no”. Right now, Australia and many other countries are facing serious teacher shortages. Many teachers are leaving the profession before they reach their fifth year. At the same time the number of young people interested in becoming teachers has declined.
Another challenge is that the expected growth in the population in Australia means a significant number of new teachers will be needed in schools. In NSW alone the authorities estimate a 20% increase in student numbers by the end of this decade. This means that thousands more well-educated teachers will be needed soon.
We need to quickly find sustainable ways to improve the status of the profession in Australia. That requires a rethink of current teacher policies that prioritise competition and compliance over policies designed to address collaborative professionalism for student learning in schools. Importing teachers from overseas without improving the teaching conditions of current teachers is the wrong answer to a real problem.
In Finland, where I began my career as a teacher, it is the culture of professional collaboration that has done so much to improve the educational performance of schools.
In talking to teachers in Australian schools, I am amazed by the level of administrative and compliance work they are required to undertake. That work, often of little value to children’s learning and wellbeing at school, is a significant factor in the excessive workload they have, limiting the time teachers have for students or collaboration with their colleagues. It is no wonder that many teachers feel exhausted and overwhelmed.
Teachers in all high-performing education systems today spend less time filling in forms or writing reports, and more of their working time, just like all other professionals, improving teaching and learning in their schools. This is happening in Asian education superpowers like Singapore and Japan, and it has been a part of school culture in Canada and Finland for a while.
Schools in Australia have become complex places to teach and learn. Our recent research showed that nine out of 10 teachers think the number of students with social, emotional and cognitive challenges has increased during the last five years. Teachers need time and support from colleagues to find the best ways to cope with these new challenges in classrooms.
To be independent and responsible professionals, teachers need more time to collaborate with one another. They also need to have the time to consider how they can determine what students with vastly different needs are really learning and how best to support them.
Professional collaboration is particularly beneficial for early career teachers who need to have a successful start in their careers. Research shows that the more teachers collaborate, the more everybody benefits, including students. Furthermore, when schools collaborate and help one another to improve, the pace of change can exceed expectations.
International organisations are collecting data from different countries about how they responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and how it has affected education. According to the OECD and Unesco, those education systems that regard teachers as trusted professionals and have more flexible structures seemed to adjust more successfully to disrupted education. They often find better pedagogical solutions faster to keep children learning during remote learning.
In other words, where teachers are trusted, schools are more agile during turbulent situations.
The other takeaway from the global pandemic is that politicians have trusted virologists and health scientists in deciding how to respond to the virus. Political decisions about coping with the crisis and the way ahead have been made based on the best of what science and expert advice can offer.
One reason for common disappointment in education reforms is failure to listen to education experts in designing and implementing these reforms. Politicians need to trust teachers and their collective professional wisdom more in determining how to improve teaching and learning in schools.
As teachers in NSW return to the classroom, their profession deserves more than thanks from grateful parents, politicians and the community at large. When teachers are truly valued and listened to and have the time they need to collaborate, we are more likely to give positive answers to the consequential questions above.
And let’s be honest. Inadequate teacher pay is a significant reason for many young people to consider other career options before teaching. Teachers deserve a pay that fairly reflects the responsibilities they face in an increasingly complex profession.
By doing this we also send a powerful signal to the community that teaching is a profession worth devoting your working life to.
Pasi Sahlberg is professor of education policy, University of NSW