Interview with Leesa Wheelahan (William G Davis Chair of Community College Leadership at the Ontario Institute for Studies for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto), 2 THE AUSTRALIAN TAFE TEACHER • AUTUMN 2014, http://bit.ly/1PxqmQR
PF: You have a fundamental appreciation of the breadth and significance of the work of TAFE and the importance of the professional and industrial conditions of the teachers who work in the sector?
Leesa Wheelahan: I think all those things are linked, I think that one of the biggest problems that we’ve got is that we don’t have enough people doing research in vocational education or on TAFE. This is not just mere academic interest. Unless we do research into what TAFE is, the nature of the education it provides, how best it provides that education, and the role and contribution it makes, we’re not going to know what those roles are, what those functions are. And we’re not going to be able to use our research to help think through what our practice should be. I always tell students, it drives them mad but, there’s nothing as practical as a good theory, because it helps you understand and make sense of what you’re seeing and what you’re doing.
A lot of policy on the face of it sounds really sensible and commonsense but when you scratch it, it’s not. For example, who could argue with the proposition that people need to be skilled? No one. But if you reduce education to just skills then you reduce their options, you reduce their possibilities, that’s why trying to build up the research capacity of TAFE teachers who can undertake some of this research themselves is such an important part of what we need to do for the future. And I think the union has always seen that and always supported that notion, and that idea. This means that TAFE teacher qualifications are important for a whole lot of reasons. They’re important because people need to be appropriately qualified to teach. But they also need to have the appropriate knowledge and skills so that they can shape the future of our profession. And unless they’re helped to learn what they need and the knowledge to do that then we’re cutting the profession off at its knees. That’s one of the reasons I think qualifications are so important.
PF: In focusing just for a moment on the question of teaching qualifications for teachers in the sector and on the profession, if you were in the privileged position of being able to advise government and policy makers about the future, what would you say in terms of TAFE teachers? How would you advise government about what it should do in terms of policy and the profession?
LW: We need to construct a qualifications framework for TAFE teachers so that it consists of a scaffold of qualifications that enable people who are experts in their field of practice to enter the field of teaching, and then gain qualifications that support them in becoming experienced and leading teachers in the sector. Whilst in an ideal world I think it would be fabulous to insist that people have full teaching qualifications before they enter the sector I think in practice that would limit opportunities for TAFE students to get access to the kind of expertise that they need. But if we have in place appropriate entry level support, so that teachers actually do have a little bit of development before they enter the classroom, this would help. When I first entered the classroom I had no help in understanding what teaching was about, and the first time I went in to a classroom to teach was my first engagement with teaching. So at least teachers need some support before they enter the classroom and then they need structured teacher development which is embedded in qualifications, and they could do these while teaching. Now what that looks like I think is more of an open question.
My own particular view is that teachers need to have qualifications that are differentiated, that reflect their level of responsibilities, their teaching domains and what they’re doing. So I think that those who are teaching disengaged kids who returning to TAFE after two years in the wilderness need to be the most highly skilled teachers in the sector. Those who are teaching higher education also need to be highly skilled, but they need a different set of skills. So, I think we need to have a differentiated approach to development, but one that provides teachers with access to the knowledge base and the theories that will help to become expert teachers in their field. So that’s one aspect of it. The other aspect of it, which I don’t think anyone has done really well anywhere (although some countries have done it better than others) is to engage teachers in learning the theories and associated practice within their vocational field of practice. For example, electricians need to be supported to learn what relevance new insights from engineering have for what electricians do and the work of electricians. The same goes for accountants, or any professional field of practice that you can think of. Teachers need to be exposed to and learn and engage with theoretical knowledge base of their practice. The current way that it works is that once you’ve had industry experience that’s deemed to be sufficient, but that’s not sufficient. All teachers need to be supported to gain the qualifications that will deepen their theoretical understanding of their field of practice and their theoretical understanding of teaching and how to bring those two together in vocationally informed pedagogy. So that’s a very long answer.
PF: How different do you think the challenges that face TAFE and TAFE teachers are than the challenges that face those who are teaching or lecturing in the two other sectors — schools and universities?
LW: I’ve always thought (and this has got me in big trouble) that teaching in TAFE is far more complex than teaching in the other sectors, although teachers in the other sectors challenge that notion. The reason I think it’s more complex is because the diversity of contexts in which TAFE teaches is far wider than either the schools or the higher education sectors. In schools, teachers mainly teach in schools. In higher education, you’ve got a lot of work based learning, distance education, online, mixed mode, all that sort of stuff and so those contexts are much more diverse, particularly those who teaching in the professions. But it’s still nothing like VET. They still mainly teach in universities. The number of higher education students outside of universities is only six per cent. So most higher education teaching is mainly in universities.
In TAFE, the contexts in which teachers teach are wildly divergent. From the neighbourhood house, to the TAFE campus, to the workplace, to the school, it could be the same teacher in any of those contexts. And that requires different skills in all those contexts. And then you’ve got the diversity of students in your classroom. Now while it’s true that you have diversity in most schools and in higher education, I don’t think that there is anything like the diversity that you get in a TAFE classroom. Now I got challenged on that when I was presenting some work on the quality of VET teaching to a very senior board and the board said to me “But, yes, that might describe TAFE teaching overall but not a single classroom” and that certainly wasn’t my experience of teaching at TAFE. When I taught in TAFE, most of my students were from non-English speaking backgrounds; I had some that were from Australian backgrounds but the range I had was very wide… I had early school leavers, long term unemployed and people who had degrees coming back. One year I had women who had been in the home for many years and also refugees coming from El Salvador, Vietnam and the Middle East… the diversity was really complex including people with severe disabilities in the classroom. Some had high levels of literacy, while a lot of others didn’t. I don’t think higher education is like that, even though it is diverse, and I don’t think schools are like that.
The TAFE teachers that I speak to say that the level of diversity they have in their classroom is very high. So the notion that you can teach to the middle in TAFE class just doesn’t wash. I think within TAFE the challenges are different. I don’t think I’ve got the skills to teach early school leavers. I don’t think I’ve got the skills to teach students who are newly arrived refugees. I’ve got the skills to teach refugees who have been here for some time, who would be training to be community development workers but I don’t have the skills to teach them initially when they come.
Even within TAFE, one of the policy problems has been that there is this expectation that TAFE teachers can do everything, and yet the only qualification they’re offered is a Cert IV training and education. The whole idea is laughable. So I think we have this unrealistic expectation of what TAFE teachers should be able to do, but what we should be doing is recognising the diversity that all TAFE teachers face in their classrooms, but also recognise that the diversity extends beyond that and that TAFE teachers need to be equipped to teach in their specialist field of teaching. Now that might be teaching early school leavers or refugees, or it might be teaching accounting. It depends. So, I think we haven’t come to grips yet with that diversity.