Improving teaching in rural schools - we need to stop borrowing approaches from overseas

Simone White

Professor Simone White

While statistics might show Australia has an oversupply of teachers, this masks the reality that many rural schools find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain teachers.

This has dire consequences for the life opportunities for rural students, and contributes to the widening gap in educational results and pathways for young people born in rural communities compared to their urban counterparts.

While some policymakers might tend to look to countries such as England and the US for solutions, such models require further investigation before being adopted in to the Australian context.

Stop borrowing approaches from overseas

Australia needs a new approach to solve the rural staffing churn, and a solution might lie closer to home in investing in teacher educators' professional learning rather than borrowing approaches from overseas.

Fast track teacher “training” programs such as Teach First in England and Teach for America seem like an appealing solution to solve the rural (and indeed remote) staffing crisis. But the logic is somewhat flawed.

The model presupposes that some people need less preparation time before being placed in the hardest to staff schools. It also only requires these people to stay for a maximum period of two years.

And while some make a very positive contribution, few stay in rural communities beyond their initial post.

No matter how intelligent someone might be, why place the least prepared teachers into the most neediest schools and communities for short periods of time? Surely teachers in rural schools require the same level of preparation as those in urban settings.

Is preparing teachers on the ground effective?

Another solution being proposed is for a move towards a school-led teacher preparation model, similar to what has been implemented in the form of charter schools in the US or academies in England.

These models claim to allow for greater staffing control by schools who can fast track someone and then “train” them on the ground. At first glance, this model is appealing to principals keen to adequately staff their schools with committed recruits.

While enthusiasm is an important quality, so too is the wide-ranging experience that universities and multiple school placements offer. These stimulate an open, critical and discerning teacher workforce.

Research reveals that fast track, school-led models can create teachers who are poorly prepared beyond the narrow apprenticeship of their own school experience. This has lasting effects for their own career opportunities and the learning opportunities of their students.

They also tend to follow the teaching formula set for them, rather than following a creative, professional approach that responds daily to students changing needs.

In the US, where there appears a widening educational opportunity gap students in poorer communities are more likely to be taught by under-prepared teachers who must attend to regimented teaching of commercially-based “back to basics” programs.

Meanwhile, children in more affluent communities benefit from teachers who have been fully prepared and have the professional agency to stimulate their curiosity and creativity by adapting their teaching to meet the diverse needs of their students.

Rather than continue to borrow solutions from other countries like the US and England (which both perform below Australia in PISA results), our rural students and schools deserve a solution that will meet the needs of all communities.

We need models that works for Australia

The current model of teacher education needs improvement and it is time to address “the one size fits all” approach to teacher education. It needs transformation from within rather than turning to reform models from other countries.

To do this, a new approach would involve a number of changes across the education system. These would place teacher educators as key to solving the widening gap between rural and urban (and indeed between poor and wealthy schools).

Teacher educators (those who teach the teachers) are an under-researched occupational group. But they are gradually gaining more policy recognition for the role that they play in trainee teacher and students' education.

All teacher educators (no matter if they are based at a metropolitan or regional campus) require better preparation to understand the rural places and communities that students might come from.

They also need to know how to connect their discipline-based knowledge with place-based teaching methods in innovative ways. An Australian Learning and Teaching Council funded project, now known as RRRTEC has created the foundation of such a knowledge base. More professional learning resources are needed.

Going against the recruiting trend

There are excellent examples of rural schools going against the trend of recruiting and retaining teachers.

An Australian Research Council study that investigated 20 such cases from across Australia highlighted new models where rural school communities were partnering in innovative ways with universities, creating purposeful teacher education models.

This collaboration involved connecting teacher education curriculum units of study into rural schools and their communities.

Principals in these cases were outward-looking and progressive in their thinking, actively seeking the expertise and wealth of resources universities could bring into their schools.

Such approaches showcase the exemplary practices in rural schools and highlight the best of what is happening in universities with teacher educators.

We do not need to borrow approaches or commercial products from overseas that do not best serve the needs of our rural schools.

We have the capacity to create a transformative and joined up teacher education model, we just need to focus our attention now on teacher educators and invest further in their professional learning.

Professor Simone White is the Chair of Teacher Education at Monash.

This article appeared in The Conversation.