With the COVID-19 pandemic beginning to flatten in most parts of Australia, now is the time to seriously consider how we best support teachers and students in schools for term 2 and the rest of the year.
Our schools and teachers have been under intense pressure to reinvent the way lessons are delivered to students in a home environment, at school or in a blended mode. While media reports have focussed on changes to ATAR and schools being open or closed, there has been little attention given to a very real opportunity presented by the COVID-19 situation – namely, the contribution to schools that thousands of pre-service teachers (PSTs), or “teachers in training”, could do to assist in schools in the coming weeks and months.
These PSTs have already been studying and undertaking professional experience placement (what most people know as “prac”) in schools. There were some universities that decided early in the reporting of COVID-19 to cancel all professional experience for term 2 of the school year. Others waited and others planned. It now seems clear that PSTs should be viewed as an asset rather than a liability in the provision of education right now. At the very least, they can provide valuable assistance to teachers in the design and delivery of online material as an interim measure.
COVID-19 gives us an unexpected opportunity to reconsider how we view and value not only teachers but also our teachers in training.
There are currently 83,339 PSTs studying across the country, with 26,605 residing in NSW, 20,110 in Victoria, 15,933 in Queensland, 10,035 in WA, 6,938 in SA, 1351 in Tasmania, 1506 in ACT and 665 in NT. These programs are regulator-controlled professional degrees. The courses have point of entry requirements in terms of literacy and numeracy benchmarks that are not seen in any other professional degree.
Perhaps if recommendation 35 of the December 2014 Report: Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers had been adopted, which was to pre-register all entrants to initial teacher education programs on a nationally consistent basis, we might be in a different space now. The public, and universities themselves, would be naturally receptive to the idea that PSTs could be mobilised to assist in the education of students in schools at this time.
Perhaps there is appetite now? Perhaps there is a general agreement that no school student should be disadvantaged by public health responses at this time? One would certainly hope so.
While various state governments have opted to fund “volunteers” to assist in schools, these good people usually have little or no training in child development, pedagogy or curriculum. The opportunity exists now to seriously and proactively engage our PSTs in schools beyond mandatory initial teacher education requirements. This engagement could be supported by an appropriate and realistic level of funding.
A proactive engagement of PSTs could take many forms. It would satisfy what is required in each school across the nation rather than a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach. That might mean PSTs work for one day a week, or three days a week, whatever is required by the particular school. It’s a move away from the traditional “block” of prac that PSTs normally do, and it’s the sort of agility we should be considering in the COVID-19 setting.
To speak to the very important public safety issues at stake here, PSTs could be assigned to a specific school for the rest of the year. This would mitigate the current carousel of PSTs from different universities moving from school to school based on different arrangements. The schools would be supported by the universities in making this happen.
Any discussion about students and teachers going back into schools attracts worthy comment about health and safety considerations. My recommendations here are obviously couched in the same concerns about strict adherence to physical distancing guidelines and infection control prevention.
With more than 83,000 PSTs at our disposal and more than 9000 schools in Australia, the additional support potentially provided by PSTs could be systematically allocated according to need. And they could be exceptionally helpful in the online environment. Many PSTs already study in an online environment and understand what works and what doesn’t when trying to engage students.
As one school principal recently stated at a roundtable meeting here in WA, the education of our youth requires a moral purpose and for us to act as corporate citizens. This year all is not lost for our year 12 students, nor for any school student.
COVID-19 represents an opportunity to value and respect the value of education, the value of schooling and of the potential of our “teachers in training” (our PSTs) to step into the breach. These are people who could not only provide tremendous assistance to our teachers on the frontline, but also to our kids in schools. And they of course could gain an immeasurable quality of learning experience as a result.
Ministers of education and regulatory bodies need to have an appetite for the positive role our PSTs can and do have to engage and support teachers with the education of our young people in Australia.
Professor Stephen Winn is Executive Dean of the School of Education at Edith Cowan University. This article was first published by The Australian.
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