Teacher professional learning (PL) is a topic that has been debated by school leaders, teacher learners, teacher unions, teacher leaders, universities, education institutions, and governments. This article examines the future difficulties for teacher PL from the perspective of teachers as researchers. Here are seven challenges that present significant challenges to educator PL. It is the role of school leaders to establish prospective pathways for teachers in order to overcome these difficulties.
The first issue is that schools are being expected to perform more with less. There is a rise in pressure on schools to raise student achievement in all categories, including academic criteria such as reading and arithmetic competence, as well as social and democratic values like bullying behaviors, involvement in decision-making processes, and obesity rates. With schools and school leaders also advocating for teacher-led systemic reform, teacher professional learning is seen to be of even greater importance.
Furthermore, owing to teacher fatigue or perhaps outright resistance, in-service training as we know it will become less effective in the future. When masses of teachers are forcibly “disposed” onto conference sites without any interaction, networking, or collaboration, conferences will go out of style. A key question that has arisen is what is the alternative approach? This second issue focuses on providing a more job embedded PL approach. This is where the teacher as researcher notion is being more prominent in meeting teacher learning needs.
Third, governments are placing greater expectations on teacher education institutions, resulting in programs becoming more focused on accreditation rather than ensuring that graduates will be both competent instructors and school ready when they graduate. The fact that educator preparation continues to focus on teachers rather than pupils, despite the fact that both students and instructors need attention, reflects a lack of interest in future educators. How can universities and our educational agencies ensure that future teachers are prepared as professional educators who prioritize student learning?
Fourth, Australian schools are currently caught in a series of changes that occur on a regular basis. Despite these “waves of change,” school leaders are constantly bombarded by the demands of ensuring that lessons and learning are effective across many classes and year levels, as well as curricula and testing that teachers confront every day. The consequence is that teachers are unsure about what they should be doing, as well as if it has anything to do with student learning. What role can school leadership expertise and knowledge play in assisting instructors at all phases of their careers?
Fifth, teacher professional learning has been thought of as a teacher-focused endeavour rather than one that involves interactions with other stakeholders such as teacher educators, school leaders, parents, and students. When teachers work alone instead of collaboratively with their colleagues, it causes a slew of disconnections: lack of interaction or sharing ideas, among others. So what can teacher education institutions do to provide opportunities for systemic support for teachers’ PL?
The sixth challenge lies with the shift from traditional teacher preparation programs being based on knowledge transfer rather than enabling teacher candidates to engage in ongoing personal reflection as a basis for their professional identity formation. The shift from knowing about teaching and learning through lectures, seminars or even practicums where subject matter experts tell them how things should be done often results in disconnections between theory and practice. How can we support teachers as researchers who are able to navigate through externally driven teacher professional development so they are able to ask questions of their own practice? This leads to ask: How can universities ensure that school-based teacher research is supported and valued by the wider school community? A major issue with teacher education institutions is to understand what teachers actually do as researchers such as how they go about collecting data, using models such as praxis, action research and inquiry .
The final challenge lies with all teacher leaders being reflective practitioners who demonstrate evidence of engaging in ongoing personal reflection leading to change in their teaching practice. As well as understanding this complex process, we also need to better understand how teacher leadership teams develop and sustain their teacher professional learning.
Overview: Schools, universities and teacher education institutions face a number of challenges in ensuring teacher leaders are able to provide an effective teacher professional learning and development programs that supports teachers at all stages of their career. These educational professionals particularly need assistance in understanding how teacher research is conducted from understanding their self improvement needs, the process of how they gather and analyse data and finally, considering implications for teacher practice.
So what can we do? The following section provides some suggestions arising from extensive research undertaken on teacher research and leadership. It’s not an exhaustive list but one aimed at stimulating discussion across universities hoping to work more closely with schools in providing effective teacher leadership programs for school staff.
Potential Teacher Improvement Initiatives
First, teacher education institutions can continue to play a key role in teacher professional learning by offering teacher education programs that systematically address the individual needs of teacher leaders rather than simply a teacher training program. Using a ‘credential’ focused learning approach, individual learning needs of teachers can be developed and tailored to suit their improvement goals.
Second, teachers may provide opportunities for both their colleagues and even pre-service teachers to participate as a professional learning group within a school setting so they have the opportunity to observe and learn from effective teachers in action. This provides an opportunity for them to begin developing their own inquiry skills into areas of growth in their teaching practice. In addition, providing structured support through induction programs would benefit all new teachers.
Third, many different things can go wrong with the way teachers learn. This includes how it is applied in schools and how it is used to teach different subjects in different contexts. The main points for reflection include: teacher development versus teacher education, teacher as teacher versus teacher as learner, pre-service versus in-service, learning about teaching versus learning with teaching and learning from textbooks versus learning with teachers.
Finally, principals need opportunities to engage in constructive professional conversations that will provide them with a better understanding of how teacher research is conducted rather than just focusing on existing knowledge and expertise through their own experiences or what they learn through conferences and courses.
One final point I would like to raise is the need to forge partnerships between schools and universities when it comes to working together to impact teacher professional learning. Most teacher educators will acknowledge that schools are by far the best institutions to understand what young people need in their schooling years and how universities can help them reach their full potential. While universities have a key role to play in teacher research and leadership there needs to be more close contact to the school context.
In summary, schools, universities and teacher education institutions face a number of challenges in ensuring school leaders are able to provide an effective teacher professional learning and development program that supports teachers at all stages of their career. These leaders particularly need assistance in understanding how teacher research is conducted from developing an idea for a study, the process of how they gather and analyse data and finally, considering implications for teacher practice.