Strengthening teacher quality and retention through pre-service preparation

Many teachers consider their pre-service training as too theoretical and inadequate for the practical demands of their work. This blog outlines the endemic issues within teacher pre-service education and emphasizes the urgency of rectifying these deficiencies to address the global teaching crisis effectively.

February 06, 2024 by Mary Burns, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti, Ana Pinheiro, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti, and Ana Poças, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti
5 minutes read
Teacher and children interacting during a class at the Early Learning Hub supported by GPE in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Credit: GPE/Federico Scoppa
Teacher and children interacting during a class at the Early Learning Hub supported by GPE in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.
Credit: GPE/Federico Scoppa
"I was not impressed with my pre-service education. It was transactional – me paying money for a piece of paper."
U.S. teacher interviewed

The primary objective of higher education is to cultivate expertise, ensuring that graduates possess a strong foundation and skill set to excel in their chosen fields.

Within higher education, pre-service teacher preparation programs play a crucial role in fostering the beliefs, practices and professional commitment of young people who will become effective and confident teachers. Well-prepared graduates who enter the teaching force are more likely to feel competent, find fulfillment in their work and remain in the teaching profession.

However, despite this imperative, many graduates of teacher education programs lack this essential level of competence. Over the past 3 years, I (Mary) have conducted interviews with teachers regarding their pre-service education, initially as part of the 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report1 and now as part of my role within a teacher education institution.

These interviews, involving 80 teachers from 19 countries, reveal a troubling pattern: many teachers express almost uniform dissatisfaction with their pre-service preparation, regarding it as excessively theoretical and inadequate for the practical demands of teaching.

These challenges are pervasive across pre-service education systems worldwide. This post, co-authored by two pre-service teacher educators (Ana and Ana), outlines the endemic issues within teacher pre-service education and emphasizes the urgency of rectifying these deficiencies in order to address the global teaching crisis effectively.

What’s wrong with so much of pre-service education?

"Pre-service was a lot of lectures with PowerPoints."
South African teacher interviewed
"The [professors] lecture at us for hours about making learning engaging, fun and active for children. They don’t seem to see the irony of this."
Irish pre-service student interviewed

Globally, teacher pre-service systems suffer from a great deal of variability, particularly in lower-income countries. For instance, in Sub-Saharan Africa, Cabo Verde and South Africa mandate a 4-year degree to teach, yet many teachers across the region, including both contract and volunteer educators, enter classrooms without any form of initial training—especially those in conflict zones or rural areas.

The pressing need for teachers, combined with quality issues in primary and secondary education, leads to inadequately prepared teacher candidates in areas with the most acute need not just for teachers, but for excellent ones. However, lapses in teachers’ initial preparation are evident everywhere.

As the above quotes emphasize, lecture-based instructional methods are pervasive in teacher education globally. Such practices leave new teachers ill-prepared for the realities of teaching young learners.

Poor teaching at teacher education institutions has multiple origins: “the apprenticeship of observation” where instructors teach as they were taught (Lortie, 1975); teacher educators being—and feeling—unprepared for learner-centered approaches; teacher educators lacking relevant teaching experience; and limited professional development and support for teacher educators.

These factors are compounded by the prioritization of research over teaching, further contributing to an overly theoretical—versus practical— focus on effective teaching.

High-quality school-based teaching practice that is seamlessly integrated throughout pre-service education is critical for effective teaching.

Yet for many pre-service teachers, their practice teaching placements, when they occur, are often poorly planned, of short duration, mainly concentrated on a single intensive experience towards the end of a pre-service teacher training program and offer minimal mentoring from teacher educators or cooperating teachers.

Building quality pre-service teacher education

Donors have often attempted to reverse-engineer poor teaching quality through ongoing professional development programs. Yet to meaningfully improve both teacher retention and the overall quality of teaching, governments and donors must focus on teacher pre-service education system as a whole.

As teacher educators, we suggest that they begin with the following 3 reforms:

1. Mandate and support teaching excellence

"We teacher educators need to up our game."
Pak Tee Ng
National Institute of Education, Singapore

Effective teacher preparation programs prioritize learner-centered teaching, peer instruction and small group learning. Meta-evaluations have shown their positive impacts on pre-service teacher achievement and attitudes towards cooperative learning.

Blending strong instructional modeling with active feedback, support and guidance for pre-service students has also been linked to improved teaching once these pre-service candidates move into schools.

Modelling good teaching doesn’t just help pre-service teacher candidates understand good teaching; it also helps the “modelling” instructors because it forces them to reflect on and pay attention to purposeful design, improving their instructional repertoire.

Incorporating simulation-based instruction such as micro-teaching can significantly enhance clinical skills, offering a more pragmatic preparation for future teachers rooted in the reality of classrooms.

2. Recruit actual teachers as instructors

"The best pre-service class I had was taught by a 5th grade teacher. It was so practical. He went through his lesson plans with us and explained why he did what he did."
US teacher interviewed

As the above quote suggests, actively recruiting current or former teachers with substantial classroom experience can bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application in teacher preparation.

Establishing centers of excellence that help instructors teach well and connecting pre-service instructors with experienced classroom teachers can ensure that the pre-service teaching methodologies employed are relevant and aligned with how children actually learn.

3. Ensure early and prolonged classroom exposure

"(Pre-service teachers) should spend more time in actual schools. And their instructors should be here more often too—not just when they are supervising their clinical teaching practicum."
Portuguese teacher interviewed

Both traditional and alternative teacher certification programs2 consistently show that more time spent on student teaching correlates with improved teaching skills and instructional quality. Early exposure to real-world teaching can include sustained observations, assisting teachers, co-teaching and tutoring children.

Strong supervision and mentoring from a teacher educator and in-school cooperating teachers can enhance practicing teachers’ career commitment, job satisfaction, positive attitudes toward teaching and overall performance.

The transformative potential of sustained and high-quality exposure of teacher candidates to actual classrooms goes beyond shaping teaching skills. It cultivates teacher mindsets and initiates the process of defining what a teacher does and is.

We know from research, and from talking with teachers, that graduates from quality teacher education programs are better prepared for teaching. They stay in teaching longer than their counterparts from low-quality preparation programs. More critically, they are more effective educators.

In the face of the current global crisis in teacher quantity and quality, reforming and revitalizing teacher education is not just necessary—it is imperative.


  1. GEM Report research involved interviews with 70 teachers across 17 countries. The author has continued these interviews with teachers in additional countries following publication of the Global Education Monitoring Report.
  2. A traditional teacher preparation program typically occurs via a university or teacher education institution. It focuses on theoretical knowledge and structured coursework, leading to certification to teach. Alternative programs, such as those run by the network partners of Teach For All, often collaborate with universities and governments to bring in teachers through non-traditional routes to certification, which prioritize classroom-based practice and coaching alongside pedagogical theory and coursework (Kopp, 2023).


  • Kopp, Wendy (2023, November 29). CEO Teach for All. Personal communication. WISE Conference, Qatar.
  • Lortie, Dan C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. University of Chicago Press.
  • Ng, Pak Tee (2023, November 27). Associate Dean at National Institute of Education at Nanyang Technological University Singapore. Personal communication. WISE Conference, Qatar.


Read this blog in Portuguese.

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The global reduction in the focus and breadth of pre-service pedagogical training [and for that matter, in-service/continuing development training] in favour of 'data-farming' performance data [usually chronological-age-related and therefore unreliable] has restricted teachers' abilities or opportunities to support 'learning as student development' [Boyle & Charles 2014]. Equipping teachers with models and strategies for planning and supporting 'learner-centred' teaching has almost been suffocated by this system. For inclusive access for all learners, teachers need to be trained to understand and plan from formative teaching and learning principles, specifically the importance of multimodal and differentiated teaching to support learning most effectively. Professor Bill Boyle

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