How first-year uni students could help solve the teacher shortage crisis

by Dr David Hastie, 24th July 2022

A new proposal has arisen to solve the teacher shortage crisis – embedding trainee teachers in classrooms six months into their training. The first image that came to many on hearing this suggestion was shivering, utterly unprepared 19-year-olds crying helplessly in front of wild classes of year 9 students.

But as a long-term educator, I give three cheers to NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell for promoting a national Initial Teacher Training (ITE) model that embeds trainees as long-term “para-professionals” (that is, teachers’ aides), in their first year of teaching. New federal Education Minister Jason Clare has also indicated support, and has convened a meeting of all ministers, some principals and other experts on August 12. This is not surprising: local educators like me remember that in the first three months of being elected in 2007, he personally visited every single school in his electorate of Blaxland, public and private. His hour has come round at last.

As the NSW government knows well, the workplace training model has actually been humming along brilliantly in a number of places around the country. Initially piloted as a community-based “Teaching School” in the large St Philip’s Christian College network in the Hunter region, it has now been running for five years with the first cohort having recently graduated with a 95 per cent retention rate and 40 more currently in training. The model has quickly expanded across the country, with seven “hub model” teaching schools expected to be running in 2023 (three hubs were funded by treasurer Dominic Perrottet in 2021).

This model of a teaching school – like a teaching hospital – essentially selects students from the locality of the schools’ cluster, employs them as teachers’ aides one day a week under close mentorship, with half their tertiary fees subsidised by the schools. They join the school family, as “clinical teachers”, like “clinical interns” in medical training.

Both school and student work out within three weeks of their first year of teaching if teaching is their bailiwick – forget about waiting until third year. Even though minister Mitchell’s proposal waits for six months before placement, it is big news, as it proposes to scale the idea of “clinical teaching” to a national standard. A number of other universities have been running other variations on the “clinical teaching″⁣ theme over the last few years.

But a word of caution: as part of the team at Alphacrucis University College who co-designed the St Philip’s model, we have learnt that workplace ITE is hard to do well, and it does not come cheaply. It requires four key elements that are not currently mainstream.

First, universities need to partner closely with local school clusters, and radically adjust their own ancient rhythms, budgets and work practices to accommodate the local rhythms of the schools. For 800 years, the reverse has been true – locals have had to adapt to big tertiary.

Second, our massive state education departments need to genuinely trust local school principals to run the program on the ground, on their own terms, in local clusters of mutually aligned schools. Those schools need to select who takes part in the program – you can’t just have principals being ordered by head office to employ some random unknown ITE student as a teacher’s aide. For 150 years in NSW, this massive centre has controlled everything, from school budgets to school dunnies. Teachers trained to teach “anywhere” are accredited and sent out, only to discover that they have to teach “somewhere”. Many are ill prepared for local needs, and leave. And the current teacher supply crisis demonstrates that the centre cannot keep hold – the model has been falling apart for years. If the idea of “clinical placement” becomes the national standard, and if ITE becomes nationally standardised, then it must not be forgotten that one size does not fit all. Teachers need to be prepared for different needs in different areas, and, indeed, where appropriate, different school sectors.

Third, governments need to ensure that ITE doesn’t devolve to some kind of grunt practical trade. Teaching is an intellectual profession at the core of our cultural strength, dealing with and transmitting complex ideas to complex children, in incredibly complex, noisy and, indeed, often smelly settings. It is essential that schools and ITE maintain close contact with university research and innovation.

Fourth, if these clinical ITE students embedded in schools are not wrapped around with a sophisticated teacher mentor program, with teacher-mentors well-trained and well-supervised, then many students will flounder. Teaching unions are right to be concerned about the risk of unprepared trainees being left in unsafe conditions, and existing teachers being expected to do unprepared extras. Crucial to this care is a cohort experience for students – they need to be in a group of more than 10 learning side by side, or they may quickly become isolated and lose heart. Teaching is a communal profession, and those who teach, and learn to teach, are driven by the need to contribute to, but also grow within, community.

A carefully planned workplace based ITE model, with well- mentored students incentivised to work as teachers’ aides in schools from day one, will not solve the teacher supply model tomorrow. However, it would make the career pathway far more attractive, and could see significant changes in both volume and quality of new teachers five years from now, and perhaps bring an age where the lonely cries of prac teachers in front of the blank and pitiless gaze of year 9 students are heard no more.

First published 24th July in the Sydney Morning Herald.

About the Author

Dr David Hastie is Associate Dean, Education Development, at Alphacrucis College. This is a strategic role in establishing school partnerships, teacher recruitment pathways, research, advocacy and thought leadership, as they seek to build the first Australian Protestant University.