The National Exceptional Teaching for Disadvantaged Schools Program
Dianne Toe and Lynette Longaretti
Students in vulnerable communities deserve the best teachers. This view resonates with the findings of the Gonski review (2011) and with John Hattie’s mantra that teachers make a difference (2003). Attracting the best new teacher graduates to work in disadvantaged or low SES schools as graduates has not been easy in the past (Lampert & Burnett, 2017). Although some outstanding new teachers might be enthusiastic for what they perceive to be the challenge of working in schools in more vulnerable communities, many would fear they were underprepared for this work. Moreover, these new graduates are frequently wooed or “cherry picked” by both private and more affluent government schools (Lampert & Burnett, 2017).
Jo Lampert and Bruce Burnett, both then teacher educators at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) grappled with this very issue back in 2009 and cleverly devised the Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged School program. They identified the highest academic achievers when they were half way through their 4-year Bachelor of Education course and invited them to join the Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools (ETDS) program. For the remainder of their degree, these preservice teachers not only completed their regular ITE course but came together in a Community of Practice model to explore issues related to poverty and disadvantage. They also completed all of their remaining school experience placements in low SES schools. The program defines low SES schools as those with an ICSEA of below 1000 (What does the ICSEA value mean?, 2014). At the completion of their ITE undergraduate course they were strongly supported to seek graduate positions in low SES schools in Queensland. The program achieved a very high employment rate with approximately 90 per cent of these high performing NETDS graduates gaining employment in low SES schools in Queensland.
In 2013, Lampert and Burnett worked closely with Social Ventures Australia and successfully secured funding from the Origin Foundation to expand the program to other social justice-oriented universities in Australia including University of New England, University of Newcastle, University of South Australia, Victoria University, Western Sydney University and Deakin University. The program was renamed as the National Exceptional Teaching for Disadvantaged Schools. Deakin University joined the National Exceptional Teaching for Disadvantaged School Program in 2014.
The NETDS program at Deakin University
The NETDS program commenced on the Geelong (Waurn Ponds) campus at Deakin University in 2015. Preservice teachers in the Bachelor of Education (Primary) Course are identified at the end of their second year of their four-year degree on the basis of their high overall marks and placement reports and invited to join the program. They complete the same degree as the rest of their cohort but they come together for two of their core units as a single seminar group. In these seminars, in addition to the required course work, topics related to working with vulnerable communities are unpacked and these preservice teachers are prepared for their placements in low SES schools. This program is based on a Community of Practice model; strong relationships between the NETDS participants and with the program coordinators are established and maintained during Year 3 and Year 4 of their undergraduate course. In addition to the seminar work and placements in low SES schools, the staff who coordinate the NETDS program visit each PST on placement and run a “Yack after Prac” following each of their placements. These reflection sessions are a cornerstone of the program, enabling the group to share their experiences on placements, swap anecdotes and learn strategies from their peers. The first two Geelong cohorts joined the teaching workforce in 2017 and 2018 with 80 per cent of the 40 graduates employed in low SES schools.
In 2017, we added an additional NETDS cohort to the Bachelor of Education (Primary) course on the Burwood Campus and in 2020 we have piloted a small cohort in our combined degrees; the Bachelor of Science/Master of Teaching (Secondary) and the Bachelor of Arts/Master of Teaching (Secondary) courses. This small pilot cohort of 8 preservice teachers will graduate as secondary teachers at the end of 2020 (COVID19 permitting!). We hope they will be not only keen to seek positions in low SES secondary schools but also be highly sought after by these schools.
The NETDS program has been financially supported by the Department of Education and Training in Victoria since mid 2017, both at Deakin University and Victoria University. This partnership has made the program viable at a time when universities in other states in Australia have struggled to sustain their NETDS program. The partnership with the DET highlights our shared commitment to social justice and providing the highest quality teachers for the students who need them most.
The strengths of the Deakin NETDS program
Building a Community of Practice
The NETDS program uses a Community of Practice model (Lave & Wenger, 1991) to build strong bonds within the group of preservice teachers, as well as further developing preservice teachers’ skills, knowledge base and reflective practice skills. This has been a key strength of the program. After each school placement, PSTs come together to reflect on their experiences, learning new ways of thinking about students and families. Graduates report that engagement in the NETDS program has significantly impacted on their teaching identity, shaping their practice and attitudes to students with challenging home lives. These comments from graduates capture their experience (pseudonyms have been used).
The NETDS program definitely helped me…. not just your own placements, but being able to come back and have those discussions with others and yourselves as well, really helped solidify your own understanding of what someone might be going through, or how to support a child that might be having some sort of issues, or just even how to support a class that’s from a low SES background in general.
(Zac, Deakin NETDS Cohort 2)
You're not going through it on your own, that it's a shared experience, that others have … they're having similar experiences. Perhaps sometimes if it's challenging, I think it's easier to deal with when you can experience it through a shared experience.
(Samantha, Deakin NETDS Cohort 1)
School placement experiences
While some of our NETDS preservice teachers are inspired to be part of the program because of their own experience of growing up in a vulnerable community, the vast majority have no experience of living and working with disadvantage. Our task is to challenge their preconceptions and to develop a strength-based approach to education calling on research from sources such as the Fair Go program in Western Sydney. This project identified having high expectations and prioritising relationship building as two essential qualities of effective teachers in disadvantaged schools (Munns, Sawyer & Cole, 2013). It is, however, the professional experience placements in low SES schools that truly transform these preservice teachers. Quality mentoring and supportive school leadership is a crucial component of their experience. Their teaching placements build their resilience. They develop an understanding of the needs of diverse learners and the way that our great schools provide a range of differentiated programs to support more vulnerable families. Ruth, from our third NETDS cohort, helps to tell this story.
I think the school I had placement in was the third most disadvantaged school, I think, in Victoria, and it was very tough and then finishing that placement I felt like I could almost go into just any classroom and just deal with the pressures and be resilient
The success of the NETDS program relies on the support of local schools which are willing to accept these preservice teachers for their placements, mentor them and help them to develop the skills they need to work as graduates in low SES schools. This is not always an easy road. Although the group has been selected on their academic performance in their teaching degree, it is their placement experiences, their teaching practice, and the opportunities to reflect on their learning that can really grow them into exceptional graduates. Strong partnerships with local schools are critical. This work is further enhanced by the Deakin Alliance program that has been a fundamental element of ITE at Deakin University since 2015. The Alliance program builds strong partnerships between networks of schools and the School of Education at Deakin University. The alliance program employs supportive “boundary crossing” academic staff members known as Site Directors (Toe, Ure & Blake, 2020). Many of the Deakin Alliances include substantial numbers of low SES schools and site directors provide additional opportunities for preservice teacher support and reflection.
Challenges for the Deakin NETDS program
The NETDS program was originally conceptualised in Queensland, a state with a much more centralised approach to the employment of graduate teachers. In Victoria, our self-managed state schools advertise each graduate position individually. This creates significant challenges for the NETDS program. It is not always easy to match up these high performing graduate teachers with the low SES schools they are keen to work in. These high performing young teachers are often the keenest of all to secure a job for their graduate year and the jobs they want may not be advertised when they are job hunting. As a consequence, they apply for a wide range of positions and are often snapped up by more middle-class schools. Getting this timing right is a challenge for everyone. We have more work to do in this space by building stronger relationships with our school partners. This program has often flown “under the radar” in the school and university communities where it has been operating and it deserves a much more prominent position. We think it can also play a role in matching great graduate teachers with rural schools. We plan to encourage more of our NETDS preservice teachers to consider rural and regional graduate roles and, as a consequence, we are further exploring ways of enhancing the program with some more rural placement opportunities.
A last word from our NETDS graduates
The research we have undertaken with our NETDS Preservice teachers and graduates suggest the program is having a significant impact. More that 80% describe themselves as effective graduate teachers who are both resilient and well prepared for working with vulnerable families. They can articulate the strong pedagogical skills they adopt to meet the needs of diverse learners. Not all of our NETDS graduates find or seek employment in those locations and we have more work to do in that space. Nevertheless, the learning they have done about the impact of poverty and trauma on young people and their understanding of the foundational nature of relationship building for quality educational outcomes makes them an excellent asset in any school. The impact of the program is best heard from the graduates themselves.
Just from the perspective of being a NETDS graduate, I think the amount of confidence it gives you as a teacher. It does give you the skills needed to go into any classroom. I feel like you are exposed just to a lot more experiences that you wouldn’t normally and that prepare you for situations that you won’t necessarily experience, you might not ever experience them in your teaching career.
(Peta, Deakin NETDs Cohort 2)
The NETDS program helped expose me to a range of behavioural issues, even parent conversations. … having that exposure to just sit and watch restorative chats with students with the teacher, as well as restorative chats with the parents. The program really helped me to see … the child as a whole and see the child as a part of their family within our community at school.
(Amy, Deakin NETDS Cohort 4)
What does the ICSEA value mean? (2014). Available at (https://docs.acara.edu.au/resources/About_icsea_2014.pdf)
Gonski, D., Boston, K., Greiner, K., Lawrence, C., Scales, B., & Tannock, P. (2011). Review of funding for schooling: Final report. Canberra: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.
Hattie, J.A.C. (2003, October). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Paper presented at the Building Teacher Quality: What does the research tell us ACER Research Conference, Melbourne, Australia. Retrieved from http://research.acer.edu.au/research_conference_2003/4/
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York, NY : Cambridge University Press.
Lampert, J., & Burnett, B. (2017). Forward to Special Issue: Teacher Education for High Poverty Schools. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 42(4), i-iiv.
Munns, G., Sawyer, W., & Cole, B. (2013). Exemplary teachers of students in poverty: The fair go team. New York: Routledge.
Toe, D. M., Ure, C., & Blake, D. (2020). Final Year Preservice Teachers' Views of Professional Experience in Partnership Schools. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 45(2), 104-127.
Dianne Toe is the Deputy Head of the School of Education and Academic Director of Professional Practice at Deakin University. Dianne’s background is in psychology, audiology and education. She has worked as an academic for 27 years at the Universities of Melbourne, Newcastle and Deakin University with a focus on social justice and inclusive education. Her role as Director of Professional Practice supports the strong alignment between theory and practice in all of the teacher education courses at Deakin University. She is a respected presenter in teacher professional development as well as publishing in international journals.
Lynette Longaretti is Senior Lecturer in Education, Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. Lynette coordinates the National Exceptional Teachers for Disadvantaged Schools (NETDS) project at Deakin University and her work addresses the social issue of educational disadvantage and is explicitly focused on the preparation of high-quality teacher graduates. Lynette has worked as an academic for 20 years at the Universities of Melbourne, RMIT, and Deakin University. Her research interests lie in the the promotion of health and wellbeing within schools, transition and in improving the quality of Initial Teacher Education.
This article appears in Professional Voice 13.2 Learning in the shadow of the pandemic.