Opinion: A degree alone will not guarantee a successful career

by Emily Hehir11 Jan 2017

Increasingly, a tertiary qualification alone will not guarantee a successful career. It is merely the first step on a long road of professional learning. Most workplaces recognize this: hospitals, investment banks and allied health clinics promote their comprehensive graduate programs as part of a strategy to attract and develop the best of the best in the early stages of their career.
Undoubtedly these programs are resource intensive, but reflect a willingness to invest in the development of those with skills and enthusiasm but very limited experience.
On the 19 December, the Federal Government confirmed it will invest a further $20.5m in the Teach for Australia program over the next three years. In October, the Peter Ramsay Foundation announced an $8.3m private gift to the Teach for Australia program. Those candidates who learn to teach in this fast-track to the classroom experience support, feedback, mentorship and leadership coaching along the way reflective of best practice graduate programs.
As an early career Victorian teacher, I did not experience systematized quality coaching or development in my graduate year. It was the Year 8’s versus me, and pure determination got me through, self-confidence and optimism barely in tact.
For most of Term 1 at least, I fumbled my way through. Some experienced colleagues laughed when I conveyed dismay at wanting to be more effective than I was. ‘I could have ran that activity so much better!’ I would despair with hindsight. They would dismiss me matter-of-factly: ’I don’t think my students learnt much at all in my first year. You’ll get better.’ There were ad hoc moments of goodwill from generous and empathetic teachers who helped me, but this was my luck, rather than reflective of a routine, time-allocated program.
In a prior life as a graduate lawyer in a top-tier commercial law firm, my daily work made a minimal contribution to the final outcomes we provided clients.
My drafts were ultimately completely changed by more senior lawyers. However, each fortnight I had a meeting with a ‘buddy’ one year my senior and each month a professional development meeting with a mentor lawyer. These meetings were highly structured and focused on professional goals related to improving my performance. I received frank feedback. I had the opportunity to ask questions.
In contrast, in my first year as an English teacher I was responsible for the outcomes of approximately 120 students’ literacy development across multiple year levels, including VCE. Only the internet provided some answers to my constant questions: ‘How do I get my students to listen to me?’ ‘How do I cater for dyslexia?’ Of course some of this was included in my pre-service degree, but the abstract nature of tertiary study can only prepare one so much.
The process of receiving full professional registration through the Victorian Institute of Teaching was a ‘tick the box’ exercise, disconnected from any meaningful relationship to the professional goals I had for improving what was happening in my classrooms day-to-day.
Teachers can and should learn from each other; however, currently, they rarely have the opportunity because they don’t have the structures or time available to do so. Imagine if all early career teachers received quality induction to the profession. This would ensure expertise housed within a school was effectively shared. New teachers would have the opportunity to learn how to be effective systematically, rather than by chance.
Teachers are often swamped with supervision and administration on top of their teaching load: there is consensus that teachers’ professional responsibilities have grown increasingly varied and complex in recent decades: administration, student supervision, attendance monitoring and reporting has become excessive. Graduate teachers are not exempt from any of these duties. In comparison, some junior doctors now benefit from what is called ‘protected time’: an hour or so a day is devoted to them following up cases with senior doctors rather than being responsive to the myriad administrative demands of being on the ward. Teach for Australia candidates work four-day weeks, to ensure they have the necessary time to reflect and develop as professionals.
TFA CEO Melodie Potts Rosevear says there are a number of TFA practices which schools could consider adopting, but of course barriers exist. The biggest barrier is the fact how a school approaches the development of their graduate teachers is currently their own domain, and principals see little benefit in investing the significant resources required to improve the status-quo.
In 2015, the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) released its first list of recommendations, which included the importance of schools identifying highly skilled teachers to ‘mentor, assess and guide’ beginning teachers. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), chaired by Professor John Hattie, are developing resources to improve the quality of teaching in this country, including graduate teacher induction. But currently these resources are up to individuals and schools to decide if and how to use. There is no mandated, consistent approach to developing our early career teachers in schools.
The resources and time required to develop into an expert teacher should be available to every graduate. We would see a direct positive impact on student outcomes. Whilst Teach for Australia is an interesting, unique addition to our education system, it cannot be the answer to our myriad challenges. Neither will simply raising the ATAR to tertiary teaching degrees. We must invest appropriately in the development of every teacher.
We cannot continue to allow early-career teachers to decide to depart the profession in their first five years at the rate they do, citing burnout and feelings of professional incompetence, just as it is plainly inefficient to allow experienced teachers to fail to share their expertise.
Emily Hehir is a Victorian secondary school teacher.