Four ideas for retaining Australian teachers

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This week, two articles have been published in Australian newspapers that relate to the problems with retaining teachers in Australian schools. In the first piece, a trainee teacher explains why she dropped-out of her course:

“I stopped seeing friends, attending my choir, going to gym class. My husband cooked for me every night while I desperately marked student work and scrabbled together a plan for the next day, trying my best to cater for these oh-so-different young people. He hugged me on the nights I came home crying, overwhelmed by the behaviour of the year 9 boys. Teaching, it seemed to me, was the hardest job in the world. What had I signed up for?”

The second article reports on a survey of teacher stress and claims that one in five had considered leaving the profession in the past three months:

“Teachers leave the profession for more complex reasons than just pay. Other reasons involve levels of professional support, a lingering lack of respect for the profession, casualisation, and a perverse situation where rookie teachers are often thrown the toughest assignments.”

I have a few practical suggestions that might make a difference.

1. Review marking practices

One of the largest components of teacher workload is marking. And yet there is surprisingly little evidence that writing comments in students’ books is an effective form of feedback. It seems normal because it is a cultural expectation, sustained by misguided ideas about treating students as individuals, and yet nobody would suggest coaching a football team by asking the players to play games in training and then writing an individual letter to each player afterwards. In a different context, our approach to marking seems bizarre.

There is obviously some value in responding to individual work. But we have neglected other effective feedback strategies. For instance, it is pretty powerful to simply read students’ work and then plan a phase of the next lesson to address any issues. After all, students often make similar mistakes or need to make similar next steps in order to improve. Feedback can also be gained in the moment using strategies such as asking true/false questions, using mini-whiteboards or requesting students to self- or peer-assess.

School marking expectations and policies need to be more reasonable and this will require a strategy for communicating the rationale to parents, given our cultural expectations. Individual teachers cannot address this.

2. Joint Planning

It is heartbreaking to imagine new teachers staying awake into the early hours planning less effective versions of lessons that have been planned many times before by more experienced teachers. Why do we make them do this? Is it an initiation; a rite of passage?

The dominant philosophy demands that teachers plan lessons to suit the individual needs of the students in their classes, as if one group of 12-year-olds needs an entirely different approach to learning about oxbow lakes than a slightly different group of 12-year-olds. This is incorrect: students have much more in common than that. Even if adaptation is needed for some students, it is better to start with a workable plan than a blank sheet of paper.

In my view, planning should be coordinated at the departmental level. Teachers should be assigned units of work to either develop from scratch or to improve upon from a previous version. Then all members of the team should use these joint plans.

3. Better behaviour management training

The number one concern of many new teachers is how they are going to manage behaviour in their classes. There are many moves that teacher may make at a classroom level. I agree with Phil Beadle’s comments in an interview with Dan Haesler (8.36 onwards in this podcast) where he suggests placing students in a seating plan in order to assert teacher authority. I also agree with his comments on shouting: it is not effective for all the reasons that he gives. I haven’t shouted since 2001 and, even then, I knew it was a mistake.

Seating arrangements are an antecedent. They stop behaviour problems before they arise. There are many other such examples in how you arrange your classroom. For instance, I learnt the hard way to spread practical equipment around the room rather than have all the students try and collect their equipment from a trolley at the same time.

And there are plenty of moves teachers can make that will address problems as they arise. The most effective ones use behaviourist principles and stress positive interactions and reinforcement. Schools should prioritise training in these strategies.

4. Better behaviour systems

However, strategies need to be supported by whole-school policies of various kinds. I dislike the term ‘no excuses’ because I think it is inaccurate but I do think there is a lot to be said for coordinating whole-school detentions. In a challenging school, running detentions can quickly eat into all of a teacher’s lunch breaks and time after school.

And you can’t just set up a whole school detention. There needs to be a policy that starts with classroom level interventions and moves through a graduated set of consequences. You cannot keep repeating the same strategy when it does not work. There need to be tiered levels of interventions. This is the thinking behind approaches such as School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support.

Permission to speak freely

There is a pervasive ideology in our education system that is naturalistic, constructivist and student-centred. It is the reason why we prioritise the individualisation that increases marking and planning workloads. This is embodied in our schools of education where primary teachers are not taught what they need to know about reading instruction or behaviour management. It is not that these aspects are avoided completely, rather their share of curriculum time is small relative to their importance. Speculating on why this may be the case for classroom management in Australian schools of education, this paper suggests:

“Farkas and Duffett (2010) found that instruction in classroom management was not considered a priority by some education professors in the US with only 37% believing that teacher preparation in maintaining order and discipline in the classroom was essential. Of the 716 professors surveyed by Farkas and Duffett, 50% believed that student disruptions in classrooms were the result of teachers failing to plan engaging lessons.”

So the view among some is that behaviour management issues are caused by failing to properly apply the student-centred plan. Anyone who has spend five minutes teaching in a challenging school will tell you that this is idealistic nonsense. Poor behaviour can kick-off because of something that happened at recess and well before you have had a chance to start enacting your engaging lessons. And your potential to enact the plan will require the cooperation of students who are sometimes quite jaded and do not necessarily share your objectives.

Interestingly, Phil Beadle acknowledges that he entered the profession inadequately prepared to manage behaviour. And yet he dismisses any criticism of education schools as a plot by the political right to destroy a left-wing power base. Really? Are we not allowed to criticise? Am I just a hapless patsy of a shadowy conservative conspiracy?

It is this kind of close-mindedness that prevents us making progress. I really would like teachers to be better prepared to teach reading, to manage behaviour and to do a whole load of other things. I don’t mind if education schools do this or some other route develops. It’s the issues I am interested in rather than preserving or attacking a notional power base. However, as long as it is seen in these terms, we will continue to struggle to address the issues.

A quick fix?

It should be apparent that there is no quick systemic solution to these issues because they stem from deep-seated views about what teaching ought to be. The most promising approach is for individual schools to try to address them. Even then, I am not promising a magic bullet. Marking, planning and behaviour are certainly key components in teacher retention but so will be school location, the availability of permanent contracts, pay, housing and a whole host of other factors. However, schools have some control over marking, planning and behaviour and so that, if nothing else, should make them a priority.

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8 Comments on “Four ideas for retaining Australian teachers”

  1. Alex Brown says:

    Matches my experience in eight years as a classroom teacher. Biggest barrier to my effectiveness has been weak or uninformed leadership.

    I’m starting as a Head Teacher in Term 4 at a ‘tough’ school. I was encouraged by the repeated use of the phrase ‘high expectations’ throughout the application process.

    I would implement a contextual application for all of the above issues and hope I receive support :).

  2. Chester Draws says:

    I really don’t get the whole idea of “lesson plans”.

    I plan my units, so that they come out in a sensible order and fit the time allotted. At most I write Day 1 = terms and adding, Day 2 = multiplying, Day 3 = like term etc, although these days I normally just keep them in my head. (Although since I always overlap the previous day into a lesson, that lesson counting is really only a very rough guide.)

    I pre-prepare resources, generally cobbling them together from previous years and/or fellow teachers at my school and/or the internet. Only rarely do I make anything from scratch, and that’s generally a holiday job.

    But planning an individual lesson? Not once since my first year teaching. My colleagues appear to do the same, judging by the cryptic notes in their planners and the fact that I have never once heard them talk about a lesson plan (and we discuss unit plans often).

    Who knows what is going to happen in any lesson – fire alarms, too many away to do something new, shortened lesson for assembly etc. And that’s before finding out how well they get it, which is what usually determines my pace,

    And I pretty much always have separate work for different ability levels, if that makes sense in the context, so that isn’t the issue. That’s what the resource planning is for.

    If teachers are planning individual lessons on a regular basis, no wonder they are stressed. It’s not necessary and no-one thanks you for it. If you follow a set plan regularly then you are not adaptive to your students. If you plan includes multiple options for various contingencies, then you might as well wing it anyway.

    Just getting rid of the whole idea of individual lesson planning would help.

    • Alex Brown says:

      Agreed – there’s a martyr complex in teaching where not only do teachers lurch about fishing for attention because they have ‘so much to do’ but also spend inordinate amounts of time on student ‘experiences’ that, as you say, are rarely appreciated.

      Joint construction is the best approach, as experienced teachers like yourself can pass on resources and ensure students get as consistent an experience as possible.

      Ideally, look at the timetable and once per cycle teachers of a course should plan the next cycle together.

  3. Good points, Greg. You quote an article which mentions ‘the perverse situation where rookie teachers are thrown the toughest assignments.’ I have seen this happen more than a few times, beginning teachers given the toughest classes to teach. For what reasons, I can only guess….a self-serving desire by the HOD to keep the easiest ones for themselves or a belief in baptism by fire? It clearly serves neither the students in those classes or the beginning teacher.

    Regarding student-engagement, a friend of mine was once told by her principal that if a student has their phone out in class it is because the teacher’s lesson was not engaging enough. This sort of upside down thinking is widespread in one form or another. It has allowed senior management teams to shift the blame for poor student behaviour to teachers while failing to acknowledge their own failure to create effective school-wide discipline systems, and more than anything, their failure to build and maintain a school culture in which adults are treated with respect. Teachers can be Bill Roger style experts in classroom management…but they shouldn’t have to be.

  4. monkrob says:

    I was concerned when this statement in the first article you referred to above was questioned; “Half of all new teachers leave within the first five years.”
    When some tweeters asked for a fact check on this statistic, it turns out we don’t actually know the real number. In a paper produced by AITSL (Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership), the figure was said to be somewhere between 8% and 50% of teachers leave teaching within the first five years. https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/aitsl-research/spotlights/spotlight-on-attrition-august-2016.pdf?sfvrsn=6

    That is a large error range.
    If 8% of new teachers are leaving the profession in their first 5 years that is probably acceptable. Especially if they are the 8% who find they are clearly not suited to the job. Some people are just not cut out to be teachers.
    If 50% of new teachers are leaving we have a real problem.
    We need a more accurate picture on teacher retention.

    Some of the data in this report is from overseas studies of teacher retention. I’d suggest that is useful for comparative purposes but not useful for knowing the accurate picture in our local context.
    So we don’t know what the actual rate of teacher retention is in Australia.
    We also speculate on reasons why teachers are leaving.
    Obviously, we can speculate on factors we think would contribute to a teachers quitting. Pay, tenure, leadership support, workload, discipline problems, lack of parent and community support come to mind easily.
    For most teachers who leave it would be a combination of factors.

    But we don’t actually know.

    We need some of our academics or teacher registration authorities or AITSL to actually do the research and find out.
    Without data all we have are opinions.

    It is a study that needs doing.

  5. Mike says:

    Good advice all round. The marking aspect is certainly important and I think that part of the reason why teachers load themselves up with so much unnecessary marking is, frankly, sheer martyrdom. It’s unfortunate when first-year-outs feel they have to live up to this and thereby burn themselves out.

    As for the shouting, one of my proudest moments as a teacher was at a Year 8 camp once when two kids were whispering to each other at the back of the bus comparing different teachers, and they got onto the subject of “shouting”. When my name came up, the one who was in my class said, “Oh no, he never shouts”. I felt a little flush of satisfaction!


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