What does this survey result really say?
It’s amazing how vividly I still remember the first days of my teaching career. I clearly remember the anticipation of having my own classroom; I remember developing course outlines, year plans and unit plans; I remember wrestling with big pedagogical questions and making foundational professional decisions about how I wanted to approach learning.
Those first days are an exciting and challenging time. I expect that you too can remember them — whether it was three years ago or 30.
Now, here’s an interesting question: would you say that, when you were a recent bachelor of education graduate, you were well prepared to meet the responsibilities of teaching?
I would like to think that I was. Yet no amount of university preparation could have prepared me for all the challenges I faced in my first year. No course would have helped me deal with a group of students who were baiting me with insolent behaviour while holding a video camera in my face. I had good days, I had bad days — but I would say I had a successful year.
What do you think? Were you well prepared? What do you think your principal would have said if asked?
According to a survey included in Alberta Education’s 2014–15 annual report, 64 per cent of principals agreed with the statement, “that recent bachelor of education graduates are well prepared to meet their responsibilities as teachers.”
In the long, slow days of summer this year, the survey result made its way into the news cycle. It was newsworthy in two regards: it suggests that a third of principals don’t feel recent graduates are well prepared, and the trend over time shows that the proportion of principals who feel that grads are well prepared dropped by 10 percentage points from 2013 to 2014.
There is no way of knowing exactly what principals were thinking when they responded to this question, as the survey did not ask any follow-ups. But the narrative most likely to emerge is that universities now lack the rigour or quality of instruction that they might have had once before. It is a common and dangerous sentiment that is pervasive throughout education — including post-secondary and K–12.
It would be impossible for universities to prepare teachers for all of the challenges of the profession. Universities must provide good exposure to the realities of teaching through substantive and high-quality practicum placements, but it can never be enough. The beginning years of teaching are valuable formative years that are jam-packed with irreplaceable on-the-job learning.
And so it is incredibly important that we support our beginning teachers. Beginning teachers should be placed into trusting, authentic, engaging and well-resourced mentorship pairings; they should have access to high-quality and ongoing professional development; and they should be afforded reduced assignments in order to provide additional time for planning, collaboration, reflection and professional growth.
I also wonder, though, to what extent principals were responding to changes in the quality of graduates and to what extent principals were responding to changes in the responsibilities of teaching. There is no doubt in my mind that the demands on teachers and the complexity of their work has changed significantly since I graduated with my bachelor of education.
According to international data, Alberta’s teachers face some of the most complex classrooms in the world. These classrooms contain more students and are more likely to include special needs and ESL students. Class size and complexity have grown significantly in recent years. In fact, the 10 point drop on the principal’s survey results coincided with a year when there were significant budget cuts and a significant increase in demands on teachers as a result of eroding conditions of practice. This cannot be ignored.
Should the public be concerned about this survey finding? Probably not. In the same survey, 100 per cent of principals said they were satisfied with the quality of teaching in their school. Principals likely know that their teachers are highly competent, diligent workers who are doing remarkable things with what they are given. The public should, however, be concerned about the extent to which teachers are being supported to be able to continue to do their best work. ❚
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