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Michael Johnston: Briefing for the incoming Education Minister; The teaching profession is in crisis

Michael Johnston, The New Zealand Initiative,
Publish Date
Fri, 27 Oct 2023, 5:00am
Canterbury teachers consistently had high scores for emotional exhaustion, anxiety and social dysfunction. (Photo \ Getty Images)
Canterbury teachers consistently had high scores for emotional exhaustion, anxiety and social dysfunction. (Photo \ Getty Images)

Michael Johnston: Briefing for the incoming Education Minister; The teaching profession is in crisis

Michael Johnston, The New Zealand Initiative,
Publish Date
Fri, 27 Oct 2023, 5:00am

New Zealand’s teachers are operating under a lot of pressure.

Our schools face an acute shortage of teaching staff, especially in specialist areas like secondary mathematics and science. Earlier this year, the Post-Primary Teachers Association reported that a third of advertised teaching positions in secondary schools attract no applicants trained in New Zealand. One in seven attract no applicants at all. A third of advertised positions cannot be filled.

Principals report filling positions with unsuitable applicants just to get people in front of their classes. Thirty percent of Principals reported cancelling classes in some subjects because they couldn’t find specialist teachers.

Difficulty in filling teaching positions and high attrition rates increase workload and stress in schools. It threatens to become a vicious cycle as more and more over-stressed teachers opt out. Last year, a quarter of teachers resigning their positions did so to take jobs outside the profession. That figure has increased by half since 2019.

Teachers are the single most important component of any education system. The best curriculum in the world is of little use without high-quality teachers to deliver it. (New Zealand does not have the best curriculum in the world – but that’s a subject for another column.)

The incoming government will have to take the teacher shortage seriously.

Two interlocking strategies are needed to address the problem. We must do a better job of preparing teachers for the classroom. We must also find ways of keeping them in the profession.

New teachers need sound knowledge of the curriculum they are teaching, and the pedagogical skill to teach it effectively. They also need classroom management skills. Children can’t learn in chaotic environments.

The universities’ teacher education programmes, where 90% of new teachers complete their qualifications, are not delivering. A report from The New Zealand Initiative published this year found that the university programmes do not sufficient focus on effective teaching strategies. For primary teachers, who must teach across the entire curriculum, there is also insufficient attention to content knowledge, especially in mathematics and science. Classroom management skills barely get a look-in.

A key problem is that teachers in training spend too little time in the classroom. And what practical experience they do have is not always as useful as it should be. That is because there is no quality control on the mentoring they receive. The teachers who guide their classroom experience can have as little as two years’ experience themselves.

Our universities are under pressure. Most are facing severe financial difficulties and have cut staff. Education Faculties, which run teacher education, have taken a share of the pain. Victoria University of Wellington came close to closing its secondary teacher education programme. It now has a two-year reprieve, but has lost staff, which will inevitably compromise its quality.

We need a new model of teacher education. A promising new approach is partnership between groups of schools and teacher education providers. Two such models are already underway in Auckland. Teachers in training are employed by schools, fulltime, while they complete their qualifications. This gives them a much stronger grounding in practical classroom skills than their counterparts in typical university programmes.

Once teachers have qualified, their salaries depend almost entirely on their years of teaching experience. A mediocre teacher with more experience is paid more than an excellent teacher with less experience. This is no way to structure a profession. It must be demoralising for energetic and effective younger teachers to realise that more experienced but ineffective teachers are paid more than them, just because they’ve been around for longer. The current system offers little incentive to aim for excellence and little reward for those who attain it.

The debate on teacher salary has been too focussed on the unfortunate term, ‘performance pay.’ Critics of reform object to the idea with claims that teachers would be paid more based on narrow measures such as the test scores achieved by their students. That argument is a straw man.

Teachers don’t need ‘performance pay.’ What they need is a properly structured profession. The career structure for academics offers a useful model. When new academics commence their careers, they are normally appointed as Lecturers. After a few years, when they have established a creditable record in teaching and research, they can apply to be promoted to Senior Lecturer.

The application is a portfolio describing their accomplishments – a list of research publications, teaching ratings and service to the university. A committee of senior academics considers each portfolio and either approves or denies applications. By the same process, some academics go on to be Associate Professors, and a minority eventually become full Professors.

A similar system for teachers, with well-articulated professional standards for each professional tier, would go a long way towards providing better incentives and rewards for excellence. Excellent teachers are valuable and should be paid considerably more than they are at present. But serving time alone should not be grounds for pay increases.

A tiered teaching career structure would also help solve the patchy mentoring for new teachers. If teachers had a four-tier career structure, as academics do, it could be made a responsibility of the top two tiers to mentor teachers in training and provisionally certificated teachers – those in the first two years of their careers after qualifying.

The responsibility should be built into the job, with appropriate time allocation. That would ensure much higher quality mentoring than is typical at present.

Unfortunately, the solutions offered here are not quick fixes. New systems take time to develop and bed in. They must be carefully designed and implemented. There will be political, financial and practical obstacles to overcome.

The message for the incoming Minister is clear: There is no time to lose.

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