Reading professional experience reports, written by teachers about the student teachers practising in their classrooms, is a disturbing part of my Head of School of Teacher Education role. These reports often contain surprises. I sometimes see disrespect, boredom and a lack of motivation. However, thankfully, these narratives of banality, compliance and conformity are outweighed by remarkable students, supported by outstanding associate teachers, who reach for excellence and achievement.
One of the most remarkable statements, made by an associate teacher in a report to an institution of higher education, was “nothing you learn at university has any relevance in a classroom.”
The associate teacher who wrote these words completed a four year teaching degree in the 1980s and never returned to any form of higher learning in the subsequent decades. When I read this statement, I was drawn back to my own first practicum experience.
I was not a young, inexperienced student in awe of my supervising teacher. By the time I had enrolled in an education degree, I had completed a first class honours degree in history at the University of Western Australia, a second degree in literature and communication, a research masters in history and was commencing my doctorate.
My supervising teacher, facilitating my pathway through a Year 9 social studies classroom, was icily cold about the student teacher in her care. She replied, with a flippant and sweeping hand gesture, that I would never finish the doctorate I was working on. She was wrong. I graduated within two years. More significantly though, why would a supposedly supportive teacher/mentor offer such a negative and discouraging comment?
That experience was a long time ago: 1993. But our students still return to university from schools with stories of their professional experience, repeating phrases such as, “you only need the one degree to teach,” “a masters has no purpose in a school,” and my personal favourite, “you are teaching now, you can stop reading.”
So much pressure is placed on student teachers at the moment, particularly with regard to literacy and numeracy. Therefore, the lack of scrutiny on teachers currently working in schools but with no qualifications beyond an initial degree, frequently gained from a college of advanced education rather than a university, is odd.
Yes, all professions eat their own young. But teacher education in Australia has become a zombie discipline. Its brains are being eaten by ‘experts’ that hold no proficiency in teaching and learning, but are offering a view because they attended school at some point. These ‘experts’ are instructing universities – holders of self accrediting authority – about the necessity to return to the ‘basics.’
Literacy and numeracy are important. That is obvious and playing to the peanut gallery. Literacy and numeracy are also important in medicine, law, nursing, social work and engineering. Yet no other degree in a university requires a student to complete a mandatory test in numeracy and literacy before their final semester and graduation. We learn much about the disrespect of teachers and teaching, that there is no trust in the professionalism, integrity and intelligence of education scholars.
Such surveillance of education degrees also shifts the blame and the problem. Instead of asking if already practicing teachers have remained current in and with contemporary knowledge, student teachers are the scapegoats for the perceived challenges and threats to Australian education.
I work with our student teachers each day. They are inspirational, aspirational and committed. Their desire to change the world and infuse this country with social justice and a love of learning is a great tribute to Australia. Yet such stories are displaced, silenced and lost.
Schools and universities matter. Teachers in all layers and levels of education are partners in the dissemination and development of knowledge. Abusing universities for being universities is like ridiculing a gymnast for being flexible. Our role in universities is to enable our students to reach the highest levels of reading, writing, thinking and creation. We must push our students to work – to dance – at the edge of knowledge and see connections between past and present, information and knowledge, ideas and applications.
Robert Frost once stated, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” Those of us who have the privilege to teach and learn must carry that joy, humility and belief in the future into every minute of each day.
Everything we learn in a university has relevance in the classroom, and that includes intellectual generosity for the great minds that paved our scholarly journey, and kindness and respect for the scholars and teachers that will take us to the future.
Tara Brabazon is the Professor of Education and the Head of School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University (Australia). She has worked in the United Kingdom, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Tara is the author of 17 books, over 170 academic articles and book chapters and is a writer for the Times Higher Education. An award winning teacher, Tara is active in social media and can be contacted via Academia.edu, GoodReads, Facebook, LinkedIn, her YouTube Channel, regular podcast series and Twitter feed. Visit her website. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org