Why practical experience is key to education

04 February 2021

Last year, the Australian Government’s Department of Education, Skills and Employment identified Teaching as one of the national priority areas of higher education for 2021.

We need more people studying education in order to fill gaps in the workforce – particularly in teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). More than that, the COVID lockdowns of 2020 have taught us the value of our schools and teachers. Educating the next generation is harder than it looks and teachers make up the backbone of our society, alongside healthcare and other essential workers.

So how can we best prepare future teachers for their important role? Professor Caroline Mansfield, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education, Philosophy & Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, says practical experience is key – and she’s not the only one who thinks so.

As the Head of Professional Practice at the John Therry Catholic College in NSW, Gavan Martyn has co-ordinated and worked with teacher education students at the college for over 10 years and says: “It is vital for the effective progression of pre-service teachers into the workplace that they complete practical experiences and immerse themselves into the life of the school as pre-service teachers. The student teachers develop important teaching skills in the classroom during this ‘live’ pedagogical environment and have the support of the supervising teacher to mentor them throughout the practicum.”

With almost 30 weeks of practical experience built in, the undergraduate Education programs at Notre Dame offer the opportunity to gain more real classroom experience than is possible at most other Australian universities. The aim being to produce more job-ready teachers come graduation.

“We want to provide our Education students with the maximum amount of practical experience possible because we know that giving them the opportunity to transfer what they learn at university to a real classroom setting leads to students feeling more confident and competent in their roles as teachers,” says Professor Mansfield.

“Primary and Secondary Education students will have nearly a year of experience by the time they finish their bachelor degree so they can hit the ground running when they find a job, and that’s what principals look for.”

Dr Amy Parish, a Professional Experience Liaison Officer on Notre Dame’s Sydney Campus, agrees that in the job market experience equals employability. “Our longer practical placements mean our students better understand and are better prepared for the demands of the profession,” she says.

“Classrooms are dynamic and often unpredictable places. Effective teachers need to be able to know their theory, content and how to plan for effective teaching and learning, but it is also incredibly important to be given opportunity to practice ‘thinking on your feet’ – being sensitive, responsive and adaptable to the diverse and ever-changing needs of your learners,” adds Dr Parish. “These qualities are really at the cornerstone of what makes a great teacher, and professional experience is absolutely integral in developing this capacity.

Over his years at John Therry Catholic College, Mr Martyn has worked with more than 50 Notre Dame students and says there are currently 15 teachers who have progressed from being student teachers from the University to permanent members of staff at the college.

“In the Maths faculty we have hired four student teachers in the past five years. We often say that we have to ‘grow our own’ staff, as there are staff shortages in particular subject areas. We have a number of staff who were former Notre Dame students that actually now supervise current Notre Dame students when they are on their practicum. We also have Notre Dame students who add to our casual pool once they finish their practicums and they provide valuable support for the school when staff have leave or are out of school on sick leave,” he says.

Schools are ever-changing, increasingly busy and collaborative places, so teachers who are adaptable, open to change, able to receive and respond to feedback and able to work effectively as a team are highly regarded by employers. “Our placements give students an opportunity to develop and demonstrate these coveted attributes to potential employers,” says Dr Parish. “The fact that so many of our students are offered work straight out of their placements indicates that the qualities valued in an education student align with the attributes sought after when hiring a new teacher.”

The benefits extend to the host classrooms, too, according to Professor Mansfield. “The amount of practicum we do at Notre Dame gives our Education cohort the opportunity to develop solid relationships with their students and make a real impact. That’s the difference between a five-week placement and being placed for the majority of a school term; the extra time allows the cohort to understand and get to know their different students and respond to problems presented in the classroom, developing that skillset.”

Find out more about Notre Dame University’s Education programs here.

Media Contact
Nancy Merlo : +61 2 8204 4044 | nancy.merlo@nd.edu.au