This is an edited version of a public lecture presented by Professor Donna Pendergast, Griffith University Dean, School of Education & Professional Studies.
What makes great teachers?
There is no single variable that improves student achievement more than a great teacher. Evidence built on decades of research supports this statement as a fact. Being a great teacher means having predictable attributes which taken together make a high quality teacher.
Teacher quality – how teachers do what they do – is comprised of a clear professional identity and self-efficacy as an educator.
The presence of teacher quality is embodied in teaching quality, that is, what teachers put in place on a daily basis to improve student achievement. Importantly, students exposed to great teaching can achieve in half a year what a student exposed to poor teaching can achieve in a full year.
And, because the impact of highly effective teaching is cumulative, relatively modest increases in effectiveness can make a big difference in student learning.
Teaching quality brings together the three core elements of: personalised learning built on evidence based practices in a supportive classroom; delivery of a relevant curriculum; and the capacity to monitor and evaluate student learning.
Global education megatrends
Schools are intended to prepare students for their future lives but are based on what has been seen as successful in the past. This is increasingly challenging in the era in which we live where the acceleration of change is the most constant feature. By way of example of the rapidity of change, it is hard to believe iPads have only been available since 2010.
The OECD Horizon report for schools identifies games and gamification for learning in a two to three-year window – the same window it highlights the problem of rethinking the role of teachers and integrating ICT in teacher education. This issue is one of the global education megatrends in education at this time.
What should the school curriculum look like? What content or other learning is crucial? How does the great teacher achieve relevance of learning for students, now and in the future? It is difficult to be a great teacher if students do not see any relevance to their lives.
Teaching Generation Z and welcome the Alpha generation
In our classrooms at this time, the generation known as Generation Z, born from 1995 – 2009, and ranging from 6-18 years of age, pretty much have a monopoly on the school years. The Alpha Generation, born from 2010, are in our child care centres, prep and Year 1.
Making great teachers
What are the features of effective teachers for the Z and alpha generation? Teaching as a profession has evolved over time, in line with societal change and community expectations. In its earliest iteration, teaching involved conveying basic knowledge and skills and so quality teachers held a narrow core of specialist knowledge.
Over time, the focus shifted to teaching as a skilled, practical activity learned on the job and drawing from a knowledge base now with the added pedagogic knowhow for that field. This is when the importance of professional practice became fundamental to developing quality teachers.
In both of these models, the role of the teacher was to deliver the curriculum and the role of students was to learn. The teacher used assessment to establish how much the student had learnt.
More latterly, teaching has grown as a profession which has a high degree of accountability, is informed by evidence-based practice and is subject to professional self- regulation. Teachers are expected to use data not just to determine student learning, but to inform, reflect upon, and modify their teaching practice.
What this means is the great teacher of the 19th or 20th centuries, is unlikely to be the great teacher of today. It is also challenging for the great teacher of the 1990’s to be the great teacher of today – unless they have actively worked to stay abreast of the evolution of their profession.
Concomitantly, the great teacher of 2015 is also unlikely to be the great teacher of 2025 unless professional learning features in their repertoire. Hence, one of the key attributes of a great teacher is a willingness to undertake professional learning throughout their career.
One third of the workforce is expected to retire in the next five years and one half in the next 10 years. This points to a looming teacher – and principal – shortage in Queensland – and nationally, with 2018 being the crunch time in Queensland where the demand for teachers will significantly fall short of the supply.
Hence, the teacher workforce is about to undergo a literal facelift with an influx of new, mostly Y generation teachers, many of whom will not be career teachers like their predecessors, and who will engage in portfolio careers. They are less likely to display the strong loyalty to employers that has distinguished previous generations. Keeping teachers in the sector – but potentially moving into and out of teacher roles – will be important work in the decades ahead.
Selection, education, induction and ongoing professional learning are the tools to build a quality teacher workforce.
In early 2015, the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) released its report Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, which included a number of recommended improvements to the selection practices used for entry to initial teacher education courses.
While much of the debate about the quality of entrants to initial teacher education centres on academic capability as represented by the OP or equivalent, the issue of quality is relevant to all of the forms of admission, especially when we know that less than one fifth of commencements to initial teacher education are admitted on the basis of their OP. It stands to reason that there needs to be consideration of entry for all entry pathways.
Recent data provided by the Queensland College of Teachers provides an insight into the 3000+ graduates from teacher education programs in 2013.
77% were female with an average age of 28. Prior to undertaking the teacher education program, 41% were employed in a field outside of education, with just 18.5% straight from high school, and hence entering on an OP.
Griffith University educated around 22% of the graduates. 52% completed a four-year program with 48% a graduate of one or two year programs. 80% of the graduates are working in a school in Queensland, of which 48% are on a permanent full or part-time basis and 52% are on supply or contract.
Almost without exception these graduates entered a program in Queensland through a selection process that relied solely on their academic standing. Is this enough?
There is no doubt that academic capability – particularly verbal and cognitive ability – is a valid indicator of suitability for developing the attributes of a quality teacher.
Specifically, many studies have shown that students learn more from teachers with strong academic skills than they do from teachers with weak academic capability.
There is also a positive correlation between other non-academic capabilities that can be considered as part of selection. These include a motivation to teach, strong interpersonal and communications skills, willingness to learn, resilience, self-efficacy, conscientiousness and organisational and planning skills. But should these non-academic capabilities be a barrier to entrance into teacher education programs, or should they more properly be developed through the program of study and honed in the early years of their teaching experience?
High-quality teacher education programs
Initial teacher education sets the foundation for a high quality teaching workforce. Great teachers are known to have two key attributes: 1. a well formed professional identity; and 2. they are self-efficacious – confident and competent – which is the capacity to ensure the learning of all students.
The connection between theory and practice must be inseparable. Evidence-based practice is the key to effective teacher education programs and is crucial to make a difference to student learning. The idea of teacher-as-researcher underpins this thinking.
An important aspect of effective programs is extensive, well designed professional practice, and this is where many of the non-academic capabilities identified previously play an important role in the success or otherwise of student teachers, and more than likely their success later as a teacher.
Other important elements to creating great teachers are: high quality induction and support in the first two years of teaching; and professional learning throughout the teaching career.
There is a very high beginning teacher attrition rate throughout the western world, for example in Queensland an average of 20% leave within the first five years of teaching. This represents a five times higher attrition rate for new teachers than for their more experienced counterparts. This has been attributed in part to lack of self-efficacy and preparedness for the profession.
Beginning teachers are said to experience reality shock as they enter the profession with unrealistic optimism, to find challenges such as: the high demands of the professional teaching role; the often overwhelming workload; physical and professional isolation; conflict between expectations and reality; difficult initial teaching allocations; and inadequate induction.
This can be buffered by: more effective teacher education; more realistic expectations; a seamless induction from university to school; and development of teacher resilience and self-efficacy.
A commitment to professional learning
The global megatrends point to a world featuring uncertainty, change, and an acceleration of the pace of change. The demands this alone places on individuals and communities is directly reflected in school classrooms.
The need for resilience, growth mindset and a willingness to learn and conscientiousness – all of which are non-academic capabilities that have previously been identified as evident in great teachers – all point to the need for ongoing professional learning.
What do students say about great teachers?
Perhaps the final word on what makes teachers great should go to the Z generation students inhabiting our classrooms. In their opinion, great teachers:
- are caring and committed
- show responsibility to students
- make work interesting and relevant
- build relationships on mutual respect
- are interested in students’ outside lives
- support diversity
- balance fun and fairness
- know their subject matter
It is difficult to argue with that.