How to ensure the best teachers?

Education matters more than ever. Policymakers, parents and other committed people ask themselves how to find and prepare extraordinary teachers who can help children acquire all the knowledge and skills they need. Recent research by Linda Darling-Hammond (emeritus at Stanford University and president of the Learning Policy Institute) highlights four countries with well-developed and inspiring teacher education systems.

Finland, Singapore, Australia (particularly Victoria and New South Wales) and Canada (particularly Alberta and Ontario) all have interesting ways of recruiting, preparing and supporting teachers. Amongst other things, they all:

  1. select only the best candidates
  2. prepare them in high quality programs
  3. support them in their first years of actual teaching, and during the rest of their careers
  4. highly respect teachers & compensate them well financially

Failing systems across Europe

“What I learned during my teacher training? Not much, really. It felt like a big waste of time, and it didn’t prepare me at all for the real world. When I started at my first school, there was no support whatsoever. I was overwhelmed by the amount of work and I didn’t feel capable of doing my job. I often felt like quitting, even though I’ve dreamt of being a teacher since I was little.” (Caroline, 26 years old, Belgium)

Sadly, this is still the reality in many European countries. In Belgium, teacher education focuses on theory rather than practice, and novice teachers aren’t supported in any way. What’s more, anyone can become a teacher. There is no quality control before, during or after the training. The French teacher education lacks a pedagogical and didactic base as well. Young teachers are assigned a mentor, but overall this is a shallow system that fails to address their needs. These systems are not capable of producing the most extraordinary teachers, or ensuring the best education for their youth.

Finland, Singapore, Australia (esp. Victoria and New South Wales) and Canada (esp. Alberta and Ontario) have well thought out and effective teacher education systems. At the heart of these systems lies the political will to ensure the best possible education for the nation, by training the best possible teachers. Their practices will hopefully inspire other countries that want to improve their their teacher education and education system in general.

Only recruit the best

In Finland, preparation at university is fully paid for by the government, and candidates earn a salary while they are in training. In turn, only the best candidates are selected, and they have to complete a comprehensive, rigorous programme. Among young Finns, teaching is an attractive career choice, and competition is high. Only 1 in 4 applicants to teacher training are accepted overall, that number being 1 in 10 for primary teachers.

The aim is not to select the brightest and cleverest individuals. Rather, it is to find the right people to become career-long teachers. The candidates need the right personality, interpersonal skills, and moral purpose. Singapore, Canada and Australia employ similar recruitment systems as Finland.

Prepare them really well

The four countries all offer some high quality bachelor and/or master programmes based on academic research. Two recurring focuses are a strong connection between theory and practice, and the capacities to teach a diverse group learners.

The university of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, for example recently created a two-year master’s degree program, that focuses a lot on practical experience and know-how. Just as in Finland, there is a strong emphasis on teaching students who struggle to learn. They strongly believe that if teachers can understand and respond to these students’ unique needs,  they will be able to teach all children successfully.

Studies showed that after a similar programme in Victoria in Australia, 90% of the graduates felt well prepared for teaching, as compared to about half as many new teachers nationwide. Teacher candidates in this programme all attend university for three days per week, and spend the remaining two days of the week in a school. This means they can connect what they learn at university with what they learn while teaching, in a similar way to doctors or nurses in a training hospital.

[More information on the content of good teacher education programs can be found in this article.]

Support them in their first years of teaching, and afterwards

Novice teachers learn a lot in their first years of teaching. Many societies therefore provide organised support for young teachers. Ontario, Canada, created a four-year model of continuing coaching and training. This includes mentoring, observations, debriefing, action planning and co-teaching. The teachers also engage in seminars regarding issues like classroom management, communication with parents, evaluation, and special needs students. This approach appeared to be successful: over 98% of the teachers wanted to continue after their first year of teaching.

The discussed countries also reduced the number of teaching hours for beginners. In Singapore, first- and second-years teach two thirds of the hours of an experienced teacher. This way, the teachers have time to attend courses, see their mentor and colleagues, and finish their work.

The Singaporean mentors themselves are trained in the National Institute of Education. It is one of the career and learning opportunities for experienced teachers. In the other countries, teachers are also offered possibilities to grow and learn during their career.

Finnish teachers can for example develop and improve the school’s curriculum in a systematic way. They also take on many of the roles that, in other countries, are conducted by consultants and specialists. Furthermore, they are encouraged to continue to study, and many of them earn a PhD in educational studies while teaching. Ontario, Canada, invests a lot on the spread of knowledge and good practices amongst classrooms, schools and the system as a whole. All these practices strengthen the entire education system, and thus help develop the pupils capacities.

Have the political will

These discussed high quality teachers education systems are the result of well thought-out political reforms. The educational reforms in Finland began in the 1970s. In a single generation, Finland leapt from a relatively poorly educated nation to one with one of the best education systems worldwide. Similarly, Singapore transformed the context for teaching decades ago. More recently, in Canada, the new government in 2003 chose to explicitly rebuild the profession and the public’s respect for teachers. The results where already visibly by 2007.

The four countries all deliberately celebrate teachers and treat teaching as an important profession, for which a broad base of knowledge and know-how is needed. Teachers get paid accordingly. This encourages highly capable people to join the educational field. Singapore for example emphasises teacher’s work and accomplishments through speeches, public ceremonies, the media, national competitions and scholarship programs, traditions and rituals, and the internet.

Ways to a bright future

Finland, Singapore, Australia (esp. Victoria and New South Wales) and Canada (esp. Alberta and Ontario) only recruit the best teacher candidates, prepare them in high quality programs, support them in their first years of teaching, and provide career long learning opportunities. These systems are the result of well thought out political reforms in the past, and the countries keep on rethinking and improving their teacher education. Hopefully, other countries will follow their path and ensure the best education possible for their pupils.

Sources

Darling-Hammond, Linda. “Teacher education around the world: What can we learn from international practice?”. European Journal of Teacher Education 40, nr. 3 (2017): 291-309.

Darling-Hammond, Linda, e.a. Empowered Educators: How High-Performing Systems Shape Teaching Quality Around the World. San Francisco, 2017.

McLean Davies, Larissa, e.a. “Masterly preparation: Embedding clinical practice in a graduate preservice teacher education programme”. Journal of Education for Teaching 39, nr. 1 (2013): 93-106.

Sahlberg, Pasi. “Q. What makes Finnish teachers so special? A: It’s not brains”. The Guardian, 31/3/2015.