Australia loses approximately 30 per cent of teachers in their first five years of teaching. Vast amounts of taxpayer money and resources are wasted on training teachers who will leave the profession, without considering what would make them stay.
To date, research has addressed the reasons teachers are leaving, including burnout, workload pressures, physical isolation, and disillusionment. We also know from research studies that induction and mentoring programs can help. However, these programs are often removed after one or two years so do not support the teacher long-term.
Our research shows something else is making a difference.
With fellow researchers Kate Coleman, Maurizio Toscano and Sarah Healy, we have been involved in a longitudinal research study following early career secondary teachers who maintain a practice in their subject area. These are teachers who ‘do what they teach’, such as the art teacher who makes art on weekends or the science teacher who takes photographs of their garden for their biology class. They are practitioner-teachers who work, research and educate in their fields, and perceive the quality of their teaching as being enhanced by their practising in the field.
We have found that early career teachers who ‘do what they teach’ and see themselves as being good quality teachers also have higher expectations of remaining in teaching. This could be a crucial element in keeping our teachers beyond those first five years.
Teacher As Practitioner (TAP) for visual arts teachers
The research we’ve been conducting is part of the Teacher as Practitioner (TAP) longitudinal study. Since 2010, this project has offered a community of practice for early career visual arts teachers. It supports and encourages the continuation of their art making as they follow their art teaching career. Qualitative data collected as part of the TAP annual survey suggest that participation minimises the sense of isolation experienced by artists, and creates a connection between graduates that extends beyond the teaching profession:
“[I’ve participated] each year since my graduation because to me it is important continue my connections with past students of Melbourne University and Master of Teaching as well as with the staff… I am very much a dedicated and professional artist and wish to share and connect with other graduate artists” (TAP 2017 research participant).
Whilst other participants expanded on the reciprocal benefits of TAP participation:
“Everything I do in my practice affects my teaching because it provides me with more insight, which transfers into for example, empathy with the students as they make work. I believe that any accumulation of knowledge shifts who we are, even if very subtly and would therefore change who we are and what we have to offer, as a teacher” (TAP 2017 research participant).
Art educators from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Rita Irwin and Donal O’Donoghue suggest that “preparing secondary school art specialists is not just about preparing educators for teaching art, it is also about artists preparing to teach and artists preparing to produce art while teaching”. Art teachers in this Canadian study reveal the difference that practitioner inquiry made in their professional practice, their understanding of student learning, their content area knowledge, and their career trajectories.
Our longitudinal study joins the extensive work by visual art researchers to help inform a wider conversation about teachers becoming active practitioners.
How the conversation has widened
Our work with the Teacher As Practitioner study is evolving to become an examination of how practitioner inquiry impacts professional practice, school culture, and career trajectories of teachers across other disciplines. We are looking to embrace the use of complexity and network theories to understand how practitioner inquiry is able to create its ripple effect, and are seeking greater use of testimonies from educators with experience as inquirers. Our study is extending its scope to include practices from other school settings, classroom and leadership roles, general education and specialist settings. Teacher As Practitioner is not only working across traditional disciplinary boundaries, but also across the arbitrary distinction between practice and theory.
Expanding our Teacher As Practitioner (TAP) to early career science teachers
Over the past two years we have begun the process of examining if and how the idea of practice, as elucidated from the experiences of early career art teachers as practitioners in our study, might also apply to early career science teachers as practitioners.
In many ways early career teachers in the sciences encounter issues not unlike art practitioners. For instance in the way they negotiate that continuous movement that spans their disciplinary training, their practice within the community defined by that discipline, their experiences of learning about and enacting the teaching of that discipline, and how this comes to define who they are in the space of teaching. Do these roles and disciplinary identities overlap? Is the actual day-to-day work of each very different? The context, audience and purpose dramatically shift away from the teacher, to the artist or scientist students and to other practitioners in each role.
We are looking at how spaces like the studio and the laboratory play a role in negotiating practice across a lifetime – bearing in mind that such spaces are very often shared with colleagues, students, outsiders, peers, mentors, family, friends, and others. Thus, the research is likely to inform other explorations and inquiries into the disciplinary and trans-disciplinary practices of teachers, and their relationships to education, professional life and identity, and community, amongst other things.
Expanding Teacher As Practitioner (TAP) to other disciplines
We are exploring the potential for other learning areas to also be included in TAP in the future.
As TAP has continued to shift in recent years, significant changes in the team structure of the project has resulted in new ways of exploring the phenomena that is TAP.
It is no longer seen as a project, but rather a methodological approach to teaching teachers in both institutional programs, and supporting their early careers as a community of practice. TAP has become (necessarily) an entangled force in initial teacher education at Melbourne Graduate School of Education and inEdith Cowan University’s visual arts & design learning areas.
Since 2010, TAP’s longitudinal research design has explored the hypothesis that maintaining an early career teacher’s personal practice in the discipline in which they were trained and now teach, increases the quality of their teaching, as well as their expectations of remaining in the workforce. This can be a powerful influence for anyone embarking on a career in teaching.
Evidence points to the quality of teaching as the most significant factor in improving student learning outcomes according to John Hattie, Chairman of the Australian Institute for Teaching and school Leadership (AITSL). Evidence also supports the view that efforts to understand and promote the retention of early career teachers beyond approximately five years in the workforce are an international concern. Hence TAP’s significance in addressing Australia’s need for quality teachers, and its need to keep teachers practising positively in both the classroom and also in the school, during and beyond the critical early years after graduation.
Teacher As Practitioner (TAP) can be part of the solution
Being a practitioner-teacher doesn’t mean you need to maintain an onerous professional practice in your subject area, but it does mean actively engaging in the subject beyond your expectations of being a teacher. We know workload for teachers can be one of the forces that drive early career teachers to quit, so our TAP intervention promotes supported participation in just one exhibition or exposition per year.
Producing just one artwork or subject output per year can enhance a teacher’s perceptions of the quality of their teaching and therefore significantly affect whether they see themselves as continuing with their teaching career.
Teacher As Practitioner intervention is low-cost and effective. It could yet be the solution to the teacher exodus here in Australia, and internationally.
Julia Morris is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Course Coordinator for Visual Arts Education (Secondary) at Edith Cowan University, and an Honorary Fellow with the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. Her main research interests include engagement and evaluation in applied education research, with an emphasis on developing and utilising evidence-based measures to improve educational practice. Since 2015 she has secured over $500,000 in research funding, has published over 35 peer-reviewed journal articles, conference publication, research reports and has had numerous non-traditional research outputs. She is currently supervising eight higher degree by research students, with a specific focus on supporting students to apply research methodologies in innovative ways within educational research.
Wesley Imms is an Associate Professor in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, is the Head of Visual Art Education, and the Research Higher Degree Coordinator for Curriculum and Teaching. He is the lead Chief Investigator of the ARC Linkage Project Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change which will run from 2016-2019. He has been involved in a range of solo and collaborative projects since 2000 involving approximately $11 million of external funding, has published over 70 peer reviewed articles, chapters, conference papers and books, numerous reports and invited lectures here and overseas. He is an experienced educator and is involved in teaching subjects spanning visual art curriculum and studio practice, innovative learning spaces, and Masters-level learning spaces capstone and teacher/practitioner subjects, in addition to supervising 19 Doctoral, Master of Education/Philosophy and Master of Teaching honours theses.