Undoing Myths about Teacher Education Effects and Protecting New Teachers as they Begin to Teach
By Beatrice Avalos-Bevan, University of Chile.
In different geographical contexts one often finds sweeping statements about teachers that are not always entirely valid or that misrepresent situations that would require more careful analysis based on evidence. I have been worried for some time about headlines in policy documents or media reports prefaced with the dictum that “teachers matter”. Generally, this statement is immediately followed by the word “but”: “teachers are not performing as they should”, “teacher preparation is at fault”, or, “we are not recruiting the best candidates”. Little is said in relation to this about teacher working conditions, for example, about the ratio of their time in classroom and time for other teaching duties, their salaries, or what exactly are the problems of teacher education that should be corrected and how this should be supported. These kinds of statements have been around in Chile for a long time and tend to be addressed by a variety of policy instruments of the “carrots and stick” type.
More recently teacher education in Chile has been the target of criticism on the assumption that new teachers, based on their initial preparation, have quasi decisive effects on school learning results. To check the quality of this preparation a new proposed law will have future teachers examined through multiple-choice pencil and paper tests on their content and pedagogic knowledge prior to employment in publicly funded schools. Furthermore, those who get better results on the test will get a better starting salary according to the new career structure proposed by the law, as opposed to those who do not. The underlying assumption is that once these checks are in place, new teachers and their teacher preparation can be held accountable for their students’ results as measured in standardised tests. In my opinion, this assumption is flawed. Taking the case of Chile, I argue against such an association using evidence based on studies of the trajectories of new teachers into schools.
It is inaccurate to assume that new teachers will be contracted by schools that will provide them with the opportunity to practice and give evidence of what they learned in their teacher education programme. This assumption is only a half truth, as new teachers are often asked to comply with established practices in the school, regardless of what they learnt and appropriated before:
“Claudia found both innovation and teaching as recommended during teacher education to be a source of some problems at her new school. She wanted to use the ‘project planning method’ for her first grade lessons, a tool she had learnt to use at university. However, when she suggested this during a meeting of first grade teachers, she was told: ‘I have been 11 years in this school teaching first grade … you don’t know how things are here, you don´t know the children. So let’s plan our way, not yours’.” (Avalos & Aylwin, “How young teachers experience their professional work in Chile”, Teaching and Teacher Education, 23, 515-528)
The fact is that what new teachers learn in their initial preparation interacts with what the school culture and established practices require. This interaction may be a positive one; which blends the new teachers’ knowledge and competence base with what experienced teachers in the school have to offer. But it may not be so. I illustrate this with the narrative of an extreme case of school moulding over a new fully certified primary level teacher. Upon being contracted into the school, the teacher was allocated to the first grade – not to teach, but to observe the existing experienced teacher and carry out diverse assignments as requested. At first it was interesting, but after half a year of not being able to teach at all, the young teacher expressed his frustration as follows:
“I no longer feel the novelty I did at the beginning. I really want to move on and teach. I am a professional not a technician. This whole situation has entirely driven away my early enthusiasm of coming to this school. In fact, I don’t want to stay here. I want to teach, not waist my years of study and preparation in a place where I am not even given the responsibility to teach one single subject”.
The effect of new teachers and of their teacher education programmes presumes that they will not just have a fair opportunity to teach, but that they will have sufficient time to prepare adequately and learn about the many non teaching tasks that are part of school life, such as interacting with parents as well as with other teachers. Moreover, that the new teacher will be able to count on some form of mentorship in the school. In Chile, despite lengthy discussions over establishing a system of mentorship there is still not one in place. But also the contracting of new teachers is variable in terms of time allocation. New teacher may be contracted for a few hours in one school (especially the case with secondary teachers), a few hours in another and so on, until they complete a reasonable salary. Or if they are lucky to have the usual 32 hours per week contract, this will involve 75% or more of direct teaching time. The rest will be taken by supervision during breaks or lunch and attending established teacher meetings.
The effect of new teachers on the learning results of their pupils and indirectly the effect of teacher education on their teaching performance is related to the degree to which they remain as teachers in the educational system. As we know, attrition of beginning teachers is a worrying fact given its considerable effects on the quality of learning in classrooms and the planning and running of schools and school districts, especially for more socially vulnerable students.
In the course of our research on teacher trajectories in Chile, we mapped out the rates of new teacher attrition over a period of ten years. By using official data on teachers we traced the trajectory of a teacher through the school system and detected when he or she stopped working in any school within the education system. We found that over the period 2000-2009 there was an attrition rate of 56% altogether. Though the pace of increase was slower in the first part of the decade, it increased in the second four years, and was also higher in secondary vocational schools more than arts & science secondary schools. We also found a moderate rate of school turnover of around 14% during the 2005-2007 period. The reason why new teachers leave may be related to the conditions under which they begin to teach and may or may not be related to the quality of their initial teacher education.
The above facts about new teachers’ trajectories into schools should serve as a warning not to assume – wrongly – that learning problems in the education system can be traced back only, or mainly, to inadequacies in the teacher education provision. While it is important to monitor the quality of this provision it also important to establish forms of protection for new teachers. Policy makers need to examine more closely not just how effective or not teacher education is, or how effectively or not new teachers perform in the classroom, but to consider how and in what conditions new teachers’ prior learning interacts with the conditions in which they begin to teach and the opportunities offered to continue learning in their schools.
This blog draws on a paper that will be presented at the 12th UKFIET International Conference on Education and Development 10-12 September 2013: B. Avalos-Bevan, J.P. Valenzuela & Alejandro Sevilla, Teaching and Learning “For All”: Future Teachers and Teachers in Chile.
Beatrice Avalos-Bevan is an Associate Researcher at the Centre for Advanced Research in Education, University of Chile. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org