The value of teachers
Everyone should have in their lives at least one teacher who finds the spark that starts the bonfire.
In Professor Diane Mayer’s case, it was a teacher in a two class-room school in the one pub town of Ilfracombe, a dot on the map in western Queensland.
“My education up until then had been at home with my mother and via School of the Air,” she says.
“I lived on an isolated sheep station near Longreach where my father was the manager.
“Then I went to live with my grand parents so I could attend this tiny little school in Ilfracombe.
“Having come from such an isolated early childhood, I was very shy and it took me a long while to settle in, to become comfortable being around the other students.
“Fortunately for me, there was this teacher who stayed back after school to help me with my reading and to find out what else I could do.
“From that, well I guess that was the start of the process that enabled me to go to secondary school, to teachers college and then ultimately to University.
“I am the first member of my extended family to get a PhD.”
So it’s not surprising then, all these years on, Professor Mayer – now the Head of Deakin University’s School of Education – has such a passionate belief about the importance to a globalised society – to a smooth working democracy - of properly trained, professional teachers and their ability to “value add”.
So passionate in fact that she is now determined to put an undeniable measure on that “value addedness”.
“There is not a lot of funding available for research in teacher education, not in the way there is for science or medicine for instance,” she explains.
“That means that teacher educators often research the effectiveness of their own programs in small projects. The result is that policy makers can easily reject that research on the basis that it is serving only the interests of the person doing it and that such small projects are not generalisable. Also, these small projects sometimes even produce findings that are at odds with each other. This is something that policy makers don’t easily cope with.
“What we have decided to do at Deakin University, with the Victorian Council of Deans of Education, the Victorian Department of Education and the Victorian Institute of Teaching, is to undertake a large scale research project to examine the ‘value-addedness’ of teacher education.
“We want to first define what the value added nature of professional, properly trained teachers might be, then we want to work out ways to measure it.
“These things are never easy, which is why education is always such a hot topic, but we can make it that important step easier if we know what it is we are looking for.
“Because everyone has been to school, they feel they know something about what it means to be a good teacher, whether they’re politicians or other community leaders.
“However what worked, or didn’t work for them as students, might not be the appropriate method for everyone. The transition from thinking about teaching as a student to thinking about teaching as a teacher is huge and largely underestimated.
“So what we want to do is to work out ways that we can look at a range of approaches to learning to teach and effective teaching, and develop a method that is able to identify what it is that highly trained and effective teachers add, in terms of student learning outcomes.
“If you can put those sorts of hard ideas and measurements to the policy makers, who have all sorts of other pressure on them as well, some political, some financial, than you have a better chance of getting your argument across.”
Professor Mayer is keen to get the project up and running as quickly as possible because of what she sees as an impending move to “de-professionalise” teaching.
“This is happening overseas, and I saw it during my time in the US when I was at UC Berkeley,” she said.
“In some areas, particularly like the Bay Area around San Francisco and UC Berkeley, there is a significant shortage of qualified teachers. The argument is that a person with minimal or no teaching qualifications is better than no one at all.
“However, there is a danger associated with this. Some very committed teachers will work incredibly hard and make it work no matter what, because they are so committed to these communities. Policy makers can then be seduced into thinking that no or minimal qualification is okay using the argument that some students are learning just as well as those in classes of more highly qualified teachers. Unfortunately, these people burn out very quickly and are lost to the profession.
“And because of the lack of preparation, these “de-professionalised” teachers are made to work within very strict teaching programs. They are required to follow scripted curricula with detailed lesson plans that must be enacted just as they are written, irrespective of the context within which the lesson is being taught.
“This is not conducive to the sorts of learning we want our young people to have, where an experienced, well-qualified professional teacher draws on a wide range of knowledge and skills and uses their professional judgement to ensure optimum learning experiences for all students in their care.
“There is a danger with this approach of more and more students falling off the edge. The schooling system will fail them. In addition, a formulaic approach to teaching and learning will not ensure we are preparing future citizens with the knowledge and skills to fully participate in a democratic society.”
Professor Mayer says there is no doubt that this “de-professionalising” of teaching is creeping into Australia.
“So it is vital we are able to present to policy makers important information detailing the advantages to the nation of having highly trained teachers,” she says.
“To put our arguments clearly and concisely to the policy makers, we need to have the sort of research that says these are the things that properly trained, professional teachers provide and this is how we measure that. And that’s going to be a key part of this incredibly important research partnership.”
And after spending time at a research rich university like Berkeley you can sense its exactly the sort of hard-edge research she wants to see Deakin involved in.
“Berkeley was an amazing experience,” she said. “A long, long way from School of the Air or that class room in Ilfracombe, where incidentally, I grew up in the same house as the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce.
“Her family lived in the house before my grand parents did.”
These days the girl from the Queensland bush via San Francisco lives in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond.
She hasn’t yet decided for which footy team she will barrack. However, she has taken the first step. Professor Mayer understands that having a footy team is an essential part of the Victorian milieu.
“I was told that when I crossed the border into Victoria that I would have to have a footy team,” she laughed. “I haven’t got that far yet, but I have really enjoyed being at Deakin. It’s hard work, but exciting.”
And exciting enough hard work that will make worthwhile burning the midnight oil as she combines big picture research ambitions with her role as Head of School.
Especially if it continues to help produce the next generations of professional, highly-trained teachers who can find the spark that produces the bonfire.
For further information on Professor Mayer and her research: