Positive personal attributes: why teachers need them and how teacher education can help (despite negative media)

By Nan Bahr

Positive personal attributes such as fairness, humour and kindness, I believe, should be considered necessary attributes for a teacher. Currently much of the discussion around ‘quality’ teaching, teacher entry and teacher education is about a suite of high-level competencies and standards. However the nature of teachers’ work and the uniqueness of the education profession should point us towards a different way of looking at ‘quality’ teaching, and, importantly, how we educate our pre-service teachers.

Of course a high level of professional competencies are vital. But positive personal attributes help provide the essence of ‘quality’ in teaching, that vital capacity of teaching to transform learners.

Here in Australia, for some years, there has been a move to suggest that selection for entry into teacher education programs might involve some sort of process to identify people who not only have professional qualifications but also have positive personal attributes. Peter Garret, when Federal Minister for Education was cited as saying:

“…the fact is universities need to be sure that the people who are putting up their hand to come in and do teaching have got not only the right qualifications but also the additional temperament, commitment, enthusiasm and directed strengths and real desire to do that job” (Queensland Times, 2013).

Building quality in teaching and teacher education report

An interest in the role of personal attributes of teachers and our involvement in teacher education led my colleague, Suzanne Mellor, and I to do a comprehensive review of ‘quality’ teaching, teacher accreditation and teacher education in Australia from a number of angles. We wanted to unpack what is happening and to put positive personal attributes firmly in the mix.

Our report, Building quality in teaching and teacher education, which was released two weeks ago, considers the accreditation processes and requirements for teacher education programs and the suite of capabilities that a pre-service teacher must demonstrate before graduation and teacher registration. We examine the nature of quality teaching, the elements that comprise and underscore this quality, and the importance and place of the role of teacher education and teacher educators to develop quality teachers for every classroom. (There is a link to the full report at the end of this blog post.)

Our message is that quality teachers combine positive personal attributes such as fairness, humour and kindness, with a suite of high-level competencies. We believe the new generation of 21st century learners calls upon academics, and the broader profession, to think differently about teacher preparation and what it is to achieve as a teaching professional.

The role of teacher education in choosing candidates with positive attributes

While there may be benefit in governments, schools and school systems choosing teacher candidates carefully, our report argues that it is important to recognise the vital role teacher education can and does play in the development and tailoring of these personal attributes for the greatest learner impact. It is not sufficient to identify these personal attributes at entry to the teacher education program. Teacher education has a role to show pre-service teachers how to bring these attributes to their professional tasks.

Effective teacher preparation programs develop pre-service teachers in ways that ensure that they see the value and have the skills to assess fairly, to plan and engage students with humour, to sensitively build confidence, and to be that cheerleader for each learner.

Teachers, have an enduring impact. Their ability to make the student think and feel in productive ways about their learning, and themselves as learners provides a transferable orientation to learning and thinking that has an indelible impact, beyond the moment. This is the essence of quality. And this is the teaching every learner can respond to and deserves.

The destructive role the media can play in the world of teaching

However, teaching, teachers and teacher education are suffering a thousand blows in the media in Australia. There is a persistent failure to recognise the incredible skills and personal traits of our teachers and the impact they make daily on the self-worth, aspirations, motivation to learn and holistic development of learners.

There is certainly no media congratulation for carefully designed teacher education programs. Teacher education can bring pre-service teachers to understand how they can lead learning efficiently and fairly while at the same time using high level interpersonal skills to make learners feel accomplished and aspirational. Sadly this is not something that sells newspapers or provides ‘clickbait’ online. Worse, as I see it, there is active antagonism toward teachers and teacher education in some of Australia’s mainstream media.

Our report was intended as an uplifting recognition of quality teachers and teacher education, with a few key messages about the ways we might develop even further. Alarmingly, the first media article, on the day of the release of our report, was inexplicably entitled “Teachers found lacking”. In support of this errant claim the author went further to put into quotation marks that we were advocating that “… too little training in how teachers win the hearts and minds of their students” (Gold Coast Bulletin, 28 July 2016).

It is hard to understand how such an outrageous misreading and reporting of the argument can occur. I suggest that it is an indication of the deep well of negativity surrounding the popular discourses on teaching and teacher education.

This same negative and incorrect message regarding our report was replicated across networks. For example, in the Daily Telegraph, Sydney, the article announcing the release of our report was entitled: “New teachers should be given ‘training wheels’ and more help to connect with students”. As the old adage warns, when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. Unfortunately when it comes to teachers, teaching and teacher education, some parts of Australian media have a firm grip on the hammer. I understand that there may be a retraction published, but the damage has been done.

It is hard to understand what a society can possibly gain from demonising the profession that holds its future. Acting to demoralise teachers and to discredit the profession can only dismantle and devalue education as a community asset.

Australia seems to be unique in having a national sport, in some parts of the media, of teacher bashing. If we look to the most celebrated contemporary education systems in the world, such as Finland, we find a very different picture. That is, teachers in Finland are highly regarded, well paid professionals. They are respected and enabled to design the learning for their students based on their own professional evaluation of the student needs. Student outcomes in tests such as PISA show Finnish students to be world-beaters. Teachers, teaching, and teacher education in Finland are not subjected to the kind of media negativity for the profession found here in Australia.

We are hoping any further news and media comment on our report will bring a more appreciative lens to the education profession in Australia. I would like to see more positive media news stories, in general, on the quality work being done by our teachers.

As our report suggests, it is so important to acknowledge and focus on the positive personal attributes of teachers, those that transform children into learners who, in turn, can contribute to the success and wellbeing of our nation.


Here is the full report Building quality in teaching and teacher education.


Nan-Bahr_250pxProfessor Nan Bahr is Dean (Learning and Teaching) for the Arts, Education and Law Group at the Griffith Univerity. She is responsible for the quality of design and implementation of programs across the Arts, Education and Law Group, both undergraduate and postgraduate and development programs, including higher degree research and coursework. The role works with the Pro Vice Chancellor with decision making responsibilities regarding students issues and applications.

Prior to joining Griffith University in 2015, Nan was Assistant Dean (Teaching and Learning) and Professor of Education for the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology. This position followed from her role as Director Teacher Education with the University of Queensland. Nan has a background as a Secondary School teacher for Sciences, and the Arts, particularly Music. Nan holds a PhD in Educational Psychology and Music Education from the University of Queensland and has postgraduate and undergraduate degrees majoring in Biology, Music, Special Needs Education, and Educational Psychology. 

Professor Bahr has a national and international profile for educational research with over 100 publications including four books (one a best seller). Key research has been in the fields of music education, educational psychology, teacher education, adolescence, resilience, and teaching innovation in higher education. As a University Teacher, she has been awarded the University of Queensland Award for Excellence in Teaching, has been a finalist (twice) for the Australian Awards for University Teaching, and has been awarded for extended service with the Australian Defence Force.   


7 thoughts on “Positive personal attributes: why teachers need them and how teacher education can help (despite negative media)

  1. Bruce Lyons says:

    Nan as a retired school principal I share your sentiments. My experience tells me that pre-service teacher educators do a pretty good job but it also has shown me that we in the field must welcome the graduates into a rich environment of a teaching team that is always learning and striving to be the best that they can. Teachers learn a lot from each other given relevant in-service opportunities within a school and it is into this rich vein of professionalism that the graduate teachers can be welcomed.

    I also feel that your emphasis on qualities like humour and kindness sit well in the growing trend to ensure student wellbeing within schools. My top criterion of school effectiveness is a school that ensures student wellbeing such that students daily feel safe, respected and even loved. They want too come to school. A team of enthusiastic best practice teachers is essential to student wellbeing.

    I sense that in your pre-service efforts you are trying to show the trainee teachers how to bring wonder into learning such that students are inspired. The best teachers know how to do this. They provide regular what I call light switching on moments that cause students to thrill at what they are hearing and doing.

    Principals work hard to convince their teachers that theres is a profession in every sense of the word with unique attributes that mark it as a profession. They want their teachers to want to come to work and also feel safe, appreciated, respected and loved.

    The media is pretty good at teacher and principal bashing but there are journalists who research the material and are fair in their comments. The battle ground is complicated by the NAPLAN pressures and the narrow view of politicians for academic results to make Australia competitive. We need to become our own publicists and through our associations get the good news stories out there. The latest good news story was Kambrook High School highlighted in a small series on ABC TV. It inspired me. They are big on student wellbeing and have succeeded in lifting academic performance in this context.

  2. Nan Bahr says:

    Absolutely Bruce! I agree.

    I guess pre-service initial teacher education is designed to set candidates up for entry to the profession, and a bit beyond the starting gate. For that first step it is important that university teacher educators and school based professionals work together to build the competencies, productive behaviours and personal attributes that make the difference for learners. Pre-service teacher education just gets them going and hopefully through their first professional challenges. However, I firmly believe that the community of professionals and the collaborative environment/s that they become immersed in are vitally important for honing the capacities and strengths of each teacher as they launch into their first teaching appointment, and at every point of their career. The professional teams that they join will provide that interpersonal context and sense of positive community that makes learners (and teachers) excited to go to class. I think it would be useful though, for teachers to continue to engage with teacher education, and teacher educators specifically, beyond initial teacher preparation programs. I think we often consider that some sort of umbilical cord has been broken when teachers leave their pre-service programs and step into their own classrooms. I think this is a shame, and an opportunity lost for the profession as a whole.

    Teacher educators can be excellent partners with school based professionals. By working alongside teams of teachers and individuals, and sharing in the development of applied theoretical perspectives, discipline content knowledge, awareness of international pedagogical and technical innovations, both teacher educators and teachers themselves can benefit. Teacher educators need to have intimate knowledge of the incredible successes achieved in schools, and teachers need to have a deep and critical understanding of the cutting edge research being pursued. We need this partnership as we provide a positive public voice to celebrate achievements and to garner true respect for the profession.

    Onward and upward.

  3. Bruce Lyons says:

    Apologies for the typo. “…….their teachers that theirs is a profession……”

    My proof reading needs sharpening up.

  4. Viviana Golding says:

    Thank you for this very insightful article about teachers and teachers education.

    I do believe that teachers give a lot to our community and need to be treated at the very least, with respect, by the community and by the media.

    I also believe that there is a lot of misunderstanding in relation to what teachers actually do and the amount of work and commitment that is required by teachers, every single day at school level.

    I think in Australia we are very far from the level of understanding and appreciation given to teachers in countries like Finland.

    In relation to Languages, which is my area of expertise, I also believe that we need to invest more resources, especially at tertiary level, to prepare our teachers, to enable them to deliver engaging and effective programs to our students.

  5. Nan Bahr says:

    Yes Viviana. Teacher education and ongoing teacher development is so important, yet the funding tends to be disappointing.

  6. Chris Warren says:

    Great article Nan. The media and politicians who frequently criticise teacher quality, rarely define quality in both terms that can be understood and can be justified by research. This makes it all too easy to attack teachers. One of the personal attributes that you haven’t mentioned in your article is academic courage. In this heavily scrutinised environment, teacher quality is compromised by the unwillingness to take a risk and possibly fail.

  7. Nan Bahr says:

    Agreed Chris, but when you are constantly criticised, it’s much more of a challenge to take risks. There has been so much negative public banter about teachers, teaching, and teacher education over recent years. I think we have a disheartened profession in many quarters. I’m always hopeful that this tide can and will turn.

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