Our schools have been thrown into the spotlight as the Covid-19 crisis has unfolded and, like all sectors, education has rapidly and repeatedly transformed into a ‘new normal’.
When whole systems switched to remote learning, educators began repurposing their lessons to suit new modes of delivery, learning new pedagogies and upskilling on the use of technology to give students the best chance of continuing their learning. In addition, as parents and carers were thrust into the role of teacher almost overnight, schools became a much-needed source of social and emotional support, highlighting the critical role they play for the community as a whole.
This is particularly true for schools with large cohorts of students experiencing or at risk of vulnerability, according to a series of reports commissioned by the Australian Government. The number of students in these categories is not insignificant; Professor Natalie Brown from the University of Tasmania estimates that 46% of Australia’s learners fall into at least one of five vulnerable groups. That’s approximately two million children and young people who will experience exacerbated risk as a consequence of learning from home.
As educators navigate these challenges, how has the nation responded? How does this compare to existing perceptions of the profession? There are lessons to learn during this period that can guide advocating for a future where educators are not only given license to adapt and innovate to meet the needs of their students but are recognised and rewarded for doing so.
Existing perceptions of the profession
Teachers have been increasingly recognised in the media as one of the unsung heroes of the Covid-19 crisis. However, there is a paradox around this perception. The 1998 inquiry into the status of the teaching profession by the Australian Government found that while most community members will value individual teachers and the work of their schools to educate young people in the moment, the teaching profession is often blamed for problems in the wider education system. It also found that the community perception of teachers was one which saw teachers working short hours and having long holidays. Over ten years later and a further inquiry identified that, despite the increasing complexity of the role of an educator, there was still evidence of a deficit model and a need to promote teaching and education, particularly in the media.
Professor John Hattie’s well-quoted visible learning meta-analysis helps us extrapolate why this perception is such a problem. It states that quality teaching is the number one in-school factor on positive student achievement, yet poor public perception leads to difficulty attracting new teachers and retaining existing teachers who need to have the confidence and motivation that comes from feeling valued and respected. Countries with high-performing education systems have a perception of teaching as a profession that provides high levels of autonomy and intellectual challenge and they celebrate this through public recognition and communication campaigns.
In their submission to the inquiry into the status of the teaching profession, the Australian Council of Deans of Education quote that the majority of media reports and opinion pieces convey the message that education is in a perpetual state of crisis, amplifying concerns about the academic attainment of Australian students and focusing on the problems within the system rather than the solutions. They share a study of 270 Queensland media headlines over a one-year period which shows the negative outweigh the positive 54% to 31%. Where positive news stories exist they tend to focus on individuals or individual schools and celebrate teachers for their care as opposed to their expertise and professionalism.
Schools and educators are responding
The SVA Bright Spots Schools Connection Alumni Hub connects a network of school leaders positioned in low socio-economic communities to collaborate, innovate and share expertise. In sessions convened for these leaders, it is clear the response of educators to Covid-19 is one of resilient, innovative professionals mindful of the impact on their most vulnerable families:
“Early career teachers are really shining in this space. There are teachers standing up and delivering professional learning [around technology use] who are only a couple of years out of university which is exciting to see.” – Principal, SVA Bright Spots Schools Connection, New South Wales
“Staff have been real problem solvers, coming up with different ideas of what we can do to make things work better for our students, for themselves and for the parents.” – Principal, SVA Bright Spots Schools Connection, New South Wales
And this is being responded to by their communities:
“Our parent community have really shown support for the staff and for the school … it has brought to the fore that we really are there for the community and we really are there for the kids and their learning.” – Principal, SVA Bright Spots Schools Connection, New South Wales
If we are to really tackle the paradox, this positive response needs to go beyond local communities.
While managing the day-to-day uncertainty, many leaders are already looking forward and considering what education might look like on the other side. From deeper, more transformational uses of online tools, increased student resilience and staff agency to maintaining staff and student wellbeing there is a sense of positivity around the learnings that have taken place.
“We realise we’re never going back to how we worked… We get to make some choices about what’s on the horizon, what we are going to keep, what we want to hold on to and what we value.” – Principal, SVA Bright Spots Schools Connection, South Australia
Is the Covid-19 response the lever that educators need to ensure that in ten years the recognition of expertise, appreciation and celebration of teachers reaches beyond the local school community and is reflected in the perception of the profession as a whole?
“I’m optimistic that we are going to be getting a new form of education at the end of this.” – Principal, SVA Bright Spots Schools Connection, SA
These are the leaders who are going to take the profession forward beyond Covid-19, who have the ability to shift the narrative and influence the public perception. And it is for us to consider how those of us in a position to advocate for educators use Covid-19 as a deliberate tipping point. How can we share what we already know broadly in the community – that educators are adaptable, entrepreneurial, critical thinkers who should be consulted with for their expertise and professionalism? Let’s support schools to share their stories of innovation, their reflections and their learnings and invite them to weigh in on the bigger issues. It is time to begin to shift the perception of a profession who has been one of the bedrocks of communities in this time of crisis.