“I found myself essentially having to start all over again.”
That was the experience of primary teacher Stephanie Martin when she took on her first teaching job - a story echoed by many beginning teachers.
“In one of our early meetings, my mentor teacher asked me what I was planning to teach in my mathematics programme when the new term commenced.
“I realised that I had absolutely no idea, nor any concept of where to begin to work it out. I didn’t know the stages of learning that these children would likely be at.
“I didn’t know what I should plan to teach them.”
Martin graduated from the University of Auckland’s Master of Teaching course in 2016 and was quickly confronted by the holes in her training when she took on her first fulltime teaching role.
“A large majority of my content knowledge had been gathered during my practicum experiences, yet I found myself teaching in a Year 4 classroom after spending the bulk of my practicum in a mixed Year 1 and 2 class.
“This meant that all the junior school content knowledge that I had gained was of little use. And because I didn’t have the generalised content or pedagogical knowledge that I needed to plan for other year groups, I found myself essentially having to start all over again.”
Martin said teaching around the content of the curriculum was hardly there during her studies - only about 10 hours each were spent on science and social studies during the year.
“You’re a teacher, you’re teaching content knowledge, so it’s almost the most critical thing, but it’s the first thing to drop,” she said.
“Every other beginning teacher or student teacher that I’ve spoken to about this has said exactly the same thing, that the content knowledge is just hardly there at all.”
It was thanks to a committed mentor teacher that Martin found her feet during that first year - but many new teachers aren’t so lucky, she said.
‘Beginning teachers feel overwhelmed’
Teachers’ unions report hearing the same story from their members and are calling for changes to initial teacher education (ITE).
Primary teachers’ union NZEI released an initial teacher education discussion document in 2021 outlining the changes it would like to see in the area, and this year the Post Primary Teachers’ Association established a taskforce to explore the issues around teacher training.
“We are hearing over recent years that some beginning teachers do not feel as prepared as they were hoping to be when they begin working as teachers,” PPTA acting president Chris Abercrombie said.
NZEI said they were hearing the same thing and, coupled with the high workload, it was “completely understandable that many beginning teachers feel overwhelmed when they enter this pressure-cooker environment”.
Now, a new report by the New Zealand Initiative, released today, has looked into the teacher training process in New Zealand to identify the problem areas.
The report, Who Teaches the Teachers? Reforming Initial Teacher Education in New Zealand, is critical of the content offered by the seven New Zealand universities that offer teacher training and the lack of rigour around mentor teachers.
Authored by Martin and New Zealand Initiative senior fellow Dr Michael Johnston, the report looked into the content of the 221 academic teaching papers offered by the universities and found ‘curriculum’ was the most common keyword, followed closely by ‘diversity’ and ‘diverse learners’.
Pedagogy, defined as the method and practice of teaching, was ranked way down the list below assessment, inclusion, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, cultural responsiveness and te reo Maori.
Johnston said he was concerned about the weighting given to curriculum and pedagogy. which was particularly reflected in the teaching of maths and science in primary schools.
“Unlike in secondary school, where people have specialist subjects that they teach, primary school teachers have to teach everything,” he said.
Research carried out by the Royal Society into mathematics and statistics in 2021 found poor mathematics knowledge among primary school teachers, with one of the authors describing our maths education as a “goddamn mess”.
One of the four areas that needed change was teachers’ maths knowledge and how they taught it, the report said.
The panel said it was “deeply concerned” that teachers were spending too little time learning to teach maths during their initial teacher education.
The teaching of science in primary schools was in much the same state, Johnston said.
The New Zealand Initiative report summed it up by saying that “to teach effectively, teachers must themselves understand the knowledge they are to teach, as well as the processes through which it will be best learned”.
“New Zealand’s university-based ITE programmes do not pay sufficient attention to pedagogical content knowledge, especially in mathematics and science.”
However, Otago University College of Education dean Associate Professor Vivienne Anderson said its programmes were structured into three strands - education studies, curriculum and professional practice - the latter two of which had an explicit focus on pedagogical content knowledge.
Nevertheless, it was important teachers understood how social, cultural and historical factors impacted children’s learning, she said.
Waikato University School of Education deputy head Dr Maurice Cheng said all their programmes included papers focused on the curriculum but agreed diversity, inclusion and culture were important factors in making subjects like maths and science relevant in order to lift achievement.
Auckland University head of initial teacher education Dr Paul Heyward agreed diversity, inclusion and culture were important parts of effective teaching.
However, 60 per cent of the focus of the graduate diploma in primary teaching was on subjects in the New Zealand Curriculum, as was 37.5 per cent in the bachelor’s programme.
With 90 per cent of trainee teachers going through university programmes, the report suggested greater competition in the provision of teacher training was needed to improve the quality.
While the unions agreed changes were needed, they believed there needed to be less variance and more co-ordination between programmes.
PPTA acting president Chris Abercrombie said the organisation had “serious concerns” about initial teacher education in New Zealand - particularly around the variation in the programmes of at least 11 different secondary teacher education providers who offered 21 different graduate diplomas, four post-graduate diplomas and nine master’s programmes.
“It is really important for schools to know that the new teachers they are hiring have a foundational standard of education. Currently, there seems to be little in the way of ensuring this,” he said.
“Providers need to deliver common basic elements of teacher education so provisionally certificated teachers across the country equally feel qualified and competent as teachers for their first year.”
The NZEI discussion document suggested one bicultural entity responsible for co-ordinating the training system.
“Competition between providers has been unhelpful for the needs of beginning teachers, and for the consistency of ITE outcomes overall,” the document said.
“Principals and leaders need to have confidence that those entering the profession are equipped to deal with the challenges of day-to-day teaching and the knowledge required to provide quality programmes across all areas of the curriculum, regardless of where, and who, they are teaching.
“ITE needs to be transformed to ensure consistent graduate outcomes, and to promote a unified teaching profession.”
Mentor teachers critical to training
Another criticism of the system was around the reliance on schools and teachers to be teaching and assessing teachers during their studies and in their first two years of work, Johnston said.
He believed there should be more rigour around which teachers students were placed with.
The report said associate teachers had the greatest influence on the quality of in-school placements, with trainees learning from their experience, attitude and teaching practices.
The report said classroom-readiness depended greatly on the quality of those placements. However, trainees could be under the tutelage of someone with as little as two years of teaching experience.
Reports written by associate teachers then determined whether a student passed or failed the placement, meaning there was a wide degree of variability.
In the same way, the mentor teacher a provisionally registered teacher was paired with could have a huge influence on how effective they became as teachers.
Both unions and universities agreed improvements could be made in this area.
Anderson said the importance of mentors needed to be better recognised through more professional development and better pay or career pathways.
Heyward said there were “deeply systemic problems regarding the status and pay of mentor and associate teachers that can only be remedied by significant funding increases and career structure changes”.
The only criteria for eligibility was the okay of the school principal, while associate teachers were only paid an extra $51.60 a week, meaning the best teachers often moved into management roles.
NZEI agreed mentors and associate teachers needed to be better prepared and recognised for their roles, but trainees needed to be integrated into “the team” and able to learn from the expertise of all staff.
Amy Wiggins is an Auckland-based reporter who covers education. She joined the Herald in 2017 and has worked as a journalist for 12 years.