Mastering teaching the way to a new career in post-Covid world

The Covid-19 upheaval has combined with global trade scuffles to lift the number of professionals eyeing school-teaching as a potential career-changer. In uncertain economic times, thousands of Australians swing towards teaching as a secure career, and this year has been no exception.

Matilda Harry, though, is inspired more than economic security. The 22-year-old is taking full-time master’s degree at Western Sydney University to qualify as a teacher.

She already has a bachelor of arts degree with an education studies major, and as a proud Wiradjuri woman she says that after finishing her master’s degree she hopes to find a job in a remote primary school, teaching indigenous children and combining cultural knowledge with the standard curriculum.

“I always wanted to become a teacher; I’ve always been passionate about education, making positive social change through education,” she says. “I think being a teacher is one of the most important jobs in the world. They’re really setting up the next generation and ensuring they’ve got the knowledge and skills to meet their aspirations.”

The first in her family to go to university, in fact, the first to finish high school, Harry says she wants to get a firm foundation in the theory of education before she starts teaching. “I wanted to complete my masters to make sure I have that real theoretical and practical knowledge,” she says. “There is better employability with a masters.”

Professor Michele Simons, dean of the school of educationat WSU, says that as well as a master of education degree for teachers, the university offers three masters of teaching courses, one for early childhood teaching, one for primary teaching and one for secondary teaching, for professionals with degrees in other disciplines.

“The master’s of teaching is also becoming much more flexible, because of Covid and because many career-changers are holding down fulltime jobs as well,” she says. “We’ve had lawyers, we’ve had people from the defence forces.”

WSU has as many as 1500 master’s students studying in the education field, Simons adds, most of them career-changers from different fields.

Although the pandemic forced the university to offer much of the curriculum online this year, Simons says there is now a blended approach of both online and offline tuition.

“A lot of the students value the opportunity to network and come together, it can be where they do presentations or we might run symposiums,” she says. “One of the reasons why teachers do further study is the value of the networking and the relationships they build; the professional connections, because that can be as valuable in advancing your career as the education you receive.”

She says the sophistication of teaching and learning technology, which has boomed during the pandemic, has been a revelation. “I think that’s been one of the benefits of Covid – it has accelerated reform in delivery by five or ten years, and that’s exciting.”

With federal government subsidies in the form of Commonwealth Supported Places, the master’s degrees are seen as good value. “Teaching is seen as a recession-proof occupation, so people will flock to it in times of trouble,” Simons says. “But I also think we starting to see a bit of purchase around the teacher shortages that have been around for a while.”

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics census data, more than 35,000 teachers were employed across the nation in 2016, and about 19,000 of them had a master’s degree. In 2019, according to the federal department of education, skills and employment, nearly35,000 masters students were studying in the field of education. The number of these master’s degree students has grown each year, an increase of 22 per cent since 2015.

Professor Sue Gregory, head of school for education at the University of New England, says the northern NSW institution had a big advantage in this year of distant interaction: it has been providing comprehensive online education since 2006. All the lecturers and tech staff at UNE had a full and sound understanding of how best to teach online and how to fix tech glitches long before the pandemic took hold.

“In the school of education we’re over 90 per cent online, the other eight per cent is face to face, and they’re all undergraduate students,” Gregory says, adding that good online teaching requires technological expertise.

“Going online doesn’t mean uploading your lectures and converting information into a PDF-downloadable file,” she says. “It’s a lot more immersive than that and we’ve been doing this for 14 years; we have already set up really great systems so our students have an engaging and immersive experience.”

UNE offers a range of master’s degrees for both teachers and graduates of other disciplines, and about 500 students are enrolled this year. Three new master’s courses will be introduced in 2021. Two new education (applied leadership) master’s courses will be offered, one specifically for assistant principals and principals in schools, and the university will also introduce a new master of comparative and international education degree, offered online to international students.

Professor Barbara de la Harpe is executive dean at the University of Southern Queensland’s faculty of business, education, law and arts, where teaching in the field of education has been largely on-line for many years.

She says the online legacy has given USQ a head-start on many other universities, particularly in this year of social distancing. “Students don’t want to do it any other way,” she says, of the university’s student body across Australia and abroad.

Education is one of the university’s biggest programs, de la Harpe says, with nearly 800 students studying master’s degrees in the field.

A great deal of effort went into ensuring students could get relevant experience in practice settings, de la Harpe adds, including teaching home-bound children via Zoom, in a lesson supervised by a teacher.

USQ students have taken the Covid-19 disruption in their stride, de la Harpe says. “Students don’t necessarily want to learn in the traditional way, in big lecture halls,” she says, adding the technology allowed small group discussions, chats, videos, and online assessments. “We will stay online, but we will have a lot more competition because a lot more universities will teach online.”

Professor Beryl Exley, deputy head of school (teaching and learning) at Griffith University’s school of education and professional studies in Queensland, says about 200 students master’s students are already registered teachers and about 800 are enrolled in master’s degrees to qualify as teachers.

“We have scientists in our master’s of secondary teaching degree who have worked as scientists for 20 years with a PhD,” she says. “Imagine what they can do in a classroom with gifted children.”

The increased intake of graduates in other disciplines represents a slow but inexorable change for the profession of teaching, Exley says.

“It’s going to be a huge shift and the people who will be most surprised are the people who have a bachelor of education, they have experience under their belt, but they will start to see about half the early career teachers coming into their school will already have a master’s. Your least experienced could very well be your most qualified.”