Linda Hobbs on better ways to recruit Science and Maths teachers

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By Associate Professor Linda Hobbs, Associate Professor of Education (Science Education), Deakin University

The plan by Education Minister, Simon Birmingham,  seems to be designed to put pressure on universities to recruit maths and science graduates into teaching so that there are higher numbers of teachers specialised in these subjects. This comes from long-standing concerns about the high incidence of teachers teaching maths and science out-of-field (unspecialised) in secondary schools. The assumption is that teachers who are trained in these areas will engage students, and inspire them to take on science and maths subjects in the senior years of high school and then pursue science and maths related careers into tertiary education.

Teachers who understand the ways in which these disciplines are practiced are well placed to bring contemporary contexts into the classroom, particularly if they have had industry experience. They are more likely to be passionate about science and mathematics and to transmit this passion to students (although they may be disinterested in physics if they have undertaken a biology degree). Recruiting people with science and maths degrees into teacher education programs is thus an important policy response given there are clearly not enough of these teachers already in the system, particularly in rural areas.

It is encouraging to see that the Minister acknowledges the importance of teacher education, and that simply knowing content is not enough to ensure that students are inspired to learn. We need to have teachers with strong teaching skills alongside a strong science or mathematics background, and who are committed to making a difference in the lives of young people.

However, a barrier for the recruitment of teachers, especially from the sciences and maths, is that the remuneration of teachers and the working conditions within many schools are less attractive than what is offered within industry. This barrier is beyond the control of the university sector, so any requirements that universities attract more science and maths graduates should be accompanied by discussions around why it is so difficult to attract people to a profession that appears undervalued, under-remunerated, and constantly criticised.

It is also important to note that this push to solve the problem of out-of-field teaching by getting more science and maths teachers into the system is only part of the solution, and it is a long term one. More immediate action should be taken to work with the current out-of-field maths and science teachers to raise their expertise in these areas through the provision of funded retraining. Also, schools and the system should promote an expectation that out-of-field teachers become specialised in the subjects they teach, because it is this process of becoming specialized that provides expertise that cannot be learned from reading the textbook the night before! Therefore in order to ensure that our current teachers have the necessary skills, knowledge and dispositions towards maths and science, it would be more cost effective to offer funded, recognized, and rewarded professional development, especially additional teacher qualifications, to train out-of-field maths and science teachers to become disciplinary experts in these fields. Actual recognition of this additional training could be accompanied by increased pay or bonuses. Universities can therefore play an important role in ensuring that teachers already in the system receive additional education that achieves this aim of ensuring all maths and science teachers have disciplinary qualifications in these areas.

Minister Birmingham’s response, while well intended, fails to recognize the complexity of the recruitment pipeline. Attracting people to the teaching profession is the responsibly of universities, governments, schools, parents, and society generally. Distortions can occur in the system. For instance principals sometimes recruit less specialised teachers in preference to highly qualified maths and science teachers because they are less experienced therefore cheaper, or offer qualities that are valued higher than specialized knowledge, such as adaptability and inter-personal skills.

The influence of parents on students choosing a teaching career also cannot be overlooked – both positively and negative pressure. Career advisors also play a significant role in shaping students’ aspirations

In terms of government responsibly, for many years, initiatives, both state/territory and federal, have attempted to recruit high quality people into teaching through various incentives, such as funded fast tracked programs (such as Teach for Australia), scholarships, guaranteed employment etc. These do not always work, and in some areas where these incentives have been targeted, for example, getting teachers into hard to staff schools or regions, teachers stay only for the period required and then leave, resulting in a ‘revolving door’ of teachers coming and going, which can be very disruptive in schools.

Governments, however, play an important role in promoting public confidence in our education system so that teaching is seen as a rewarding career, where innovation and creativity is encouraged and not thwarted by accountability measures. Rather than the threat of withholding funding from universities, incentives for universities would provide greater opportunities for universities to think differently when considering what they can offer students and new ways of working together.

So what can universities practically do to recruit more science and maths teachers?

  1. Closer working relationships between education and science/maths/IT faculties might raise awareness of possibilities through, for example:
  • Offering education units to science students as tasters. Already in many education degrees, students undertake discipline-based units run by other faculties, usually because of accreditation requirements. The same might be promoted through science/maths/IT faculties.
  • Using students from science/maths/IT faculties as student ambassadors in schools, or through university outreach, to work with school children, assist teacher innovation, and promote their chosen career pathways. This can be especially useful for attracting girls to STEM. These initiatives can both attract young people to STEM, but also give budding young scientists and mathematicians a taste of working with young people.
  • STEM faculties can incorporate education experiences into their units, eg. a community project that might provide opportunities for students to work in schools or engage with young people in some other ways; or work with education students to develop innovative science or maths activities that involve contemporary science and technology contexts and discoveries, for example, activities that are based on real world problems that require scientific, technological and/or mathematical solutions.
  1. A more costly approach might be to offer scholarships for science and maths graduates for who are entering a graduate education degree, eg. a scholarship for a global experience program offered as part of an education course, grants for textbooks etc.
  2. Universities could work more closely with schools to recruit students into teaching maths and science. This has worked overseas, especially for recruiting groups within society that might not normally consider teaching as a career.
  3. The push to recruit young people into STEM careers has perhaps directed potential students away from STEM teaching opportunities. This is probably because students are familiar with teaching, but not other STEM careers, so the mysterious and novel is potentially more attractive than the mundane. Efforts to promote STEM careers might therefore include science and maths teaching as one of the pathways.

In summary, while attracting more science and maths teachers to the profession is an important action, requiring that universities make this happen fails to acknowledge the effects of teachers, schools, parents, and society’s general attitudes towards the teaching profession that can prevent highly qualified people from choosing to enter teaching.  Saying that, there are some things that universities can do, some of which will need additional funds, but some that might require changing the way education faculties work with other faculties to introduce education as a real possible career path for their science and maths graduates. Also, an education system where it becomes normalized for existing out-of-field maths and science teachers to be assisted (funded) with gaining additional qualifications places universities at the forefront of maintaining a highly effective teaching workforce.

[1]With contribution from Professor Russell Tytler, Deakin University.

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