The Early-Career Teacher

Recently, I mentioned the Australian Research Council (ARC) grant scheme, which recognises that people who have had their PhDs for less than five years are regarded as early-career researchers (ECRs). ECRs have a separate grant scheme (now, they used to have a different way of being dealt with in the grant application scheme) that recognises the fact that their track records, the number of publications and activity relative to opportunity, is going to be less than that of more seasoned individuals.

What is interesting about this is that someone who has just finished their PhD will have spent (at least) three years, more like four, doing research and, we hope, competent research under guidance for the last two of those years. So, having spent a couple of years doing research, we then accept that it can take up to five years for people to be recognised as being at the same level.

But, for the most part, there is no corresponding recognition of the early-career teacher, which is puzzling given that there is no requirement to meet any teaching standards or take part in any teaching activities at all before you are put out in front of a class. You do no (or are not required to do any) teaching during your PhD in Australia, yet we offer support and recognition of early status for the task that you HAVE been doing – and don’t have a way to recognise the need to build up your teaching.

We discussed ideas along these lines at a high-level meeting that I attended this morning and I brought up the early-career teacher (and mentoring program to support it) because someone had brought up a similar idea for researchers. Mentoring is very important, it was one of the big HERDSA messages and almost everywhere I go stresses this, and it’s no surprise that it’s proposed as a means to improve research but, given the realities of the modern Australian University where more of our budget comes from teaching than research, it is indicative of the inherent focus on research that I need to propose teaching-specific mentoring in reaction to research-specific mentoring, rather than vice versa.

However, there are successful general mentoring schemes where senior staff are paired with more junior staff to give them help with everything that they need and I quite like this because it stresses the nexus of teaching and research, which is supposed to be one of our focuses, and it also reduces the possibility of confusion and contradiction. But let’s return to the teaching focus.

The impact of an early-career teacher program would be quite interesting because, much as you might not encourage a very raw PhD to leap in with a grant application before there was enough supporting track record, you might have to restrict the teaching activities of ECTs until they had demonstrated their ability, taken certain courses or passed some form of peer assessment. That, in any form, is quite confronting and not what most people expect when they take up a junior lectureship. It is, however, a practical way to ensure that we stress the value of teaching by placing basic requirements on the ability to demonstrate skill within that area! In some areas, as well as practical skill, we need to develop scholarship in learning and teaching as well – can we do this in the first years of the ECT with a course of educational psychology, discipline educational techniques and practica to ensure that our lecturers have the fundamental theoretical basis that we would expect from a school teacher?

Are we dancing around the point and, extending the heresy, require something much closer to the Diploma of Education to certify academics as teachers, moving the ECR and the ECT together to give us an Early Career Academic (ECA), someone who spends their first three years being mentored in research and teaching? Even ending up with (some sort of) teaching qualification at the end? (With the increasing focus on quality frameworks and external assessment, I keep waiting for one of our regulatory bodies to slip in a ‘must have a Dip Ed/Cert Ed or equivalent’ clause sometime in the next decade.)

To say that this would require a major restructure in our expectations would be a major understatement, so I suspect that this is a move too far. But I don’t think it’s too much to put limits on the ways that we expose our new staff to difficult or challenging teaching situations, when they have little training and less experience. This would have an impact on a lot of teaching techniques and accepted practices across the world. We don’t make heavy use of Teaching Assistants (TAs) at my Uni but, if we did, a requirement to reduce their load and exposure would immediately push more load back onto someone else. At a time when salary budgets are tight and people are already heavily loaded, this is just not an acceptable solution – so let’s look at this another way.

The way that we can at least start this, without breaking the bank, is to emphasise the importance of teaching and take it as seriously as we take our research: supporting and developing scholarship, providing mentoring and extending that mentoring until we’re sure that the new educators are adapting to their role. These mentors can then give feedback, in conjunction with the staff members, as to what the new staff are ready to take on. Of course, this requires us to carefully determine who should be mentored, and who should be the mentor, and that is a political minefield as it may not be your most senior staff that you want training your teachers.

I am a fairly simple man in many ways. I have a belief that the educational role that we play is not just staff-to-student, but staff-to-staff and student-to-student. Educating our new staff in the ways of education is something that we have to do, as part of our job. There is also a requirement for equal recognition and support across our two core roles: learning and teaching, and research. I’m seeing a lot of positive signs in this direction so I’m taking some heart that there are good things on the nearish horizon. Certainly, today’s meeting met my suggestions, which I don’t think were as novel as I had hoped they would be, with nobody’s skull popping out of their mouth. I take that as a positive sign.


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