It appears that many high achieving students are shunning a teaching career these days.
More than half the Year 12 students offered places in teaching degrees this year had university entrance scores below the average of 70, with one in eight scoring 50 or less, according to a recent article in The Australian.
Arguments about the ability of ATAR scores to predict the quality of graduating teachers aside, I suspect this trend has less to do with university “standards” and more to do with the perceived attractiveness and public face of teaching.
Why do I say that? Well, that is what made me change course even though I believe passionately in education and in teaching. This is my story.
I was about 15 when I first thought I might like to become a teacher.
I have to admit it wasn’t the result of rigorous consideration. It came to me as I sat in maths class bored out of my brain, wondering what I was going to do with my life and realising that there were only two things that I liked: English and Modern History.
There didn’t seem to be much that you could do with these subjects though, apart from being an author or an archaeologist. As the ancients never appealed to me and I was pretty sure I’d never make enough money to survive as an author, I settled on English and History teacher. That decided, I returned to drawing on the desk, wishing the day away.
That was mid-Year 9. A year later, I walked out of school after a blistering encounter with the principal, determined never to return. So much for that teaching career. But return I did. In a manner of ways.
At the age of 21, I decided that the corporate world was lacking in meaning and substance. I was searching for something more; something that my Dad believed I would find at University.
Believe me, it is a convoluted path to get into university when you don’t even have a Year 10 Certificate. But I knuckled down, studied a little more than I partied, and managed to complete Adult Matriculation at TAFE with quite a high Tertiary Education Rank (TER).
That rank, together with a Diploma in Marketing from TAFE, gave me a world of options. I considered equine science, genetic counselling, law, and even film make-up artistry … and teaching.
Again, I couldn’t escape from my love of literature and history, so it was back to my dream of being a teacher. I enrolled in a BA Double Major with a Dip Ed.
During my time at uni something strange happened. I fell out of love with literature and in love with the study of education.
I did better in my Education subjects than in anything I’d ever studied. In my third year, I received a letter of offer, as did others in the top 5% of my cohort, to join a fast-track Honours program, while completing my Dip Ed, to become a teacher.
I did neither.
By this point in my degree, something was clear to me. Schools hadn’t changed since I’d left. If anything, they were worse.
I wanted to be the teacher in Dead Poet’s Society. I wanted to make a difference. To change the world. Instead of drawing on the desks, I wanted to stand on them and shout “My Captain! My Captain!”
Basically, I wanted to enjoy teaching and for the kids in my class to enjoy it too. It just did not seem possible.
So instead of becoming a teacher I did what many women my age do, I took time out to have a baby.
Two years later and I was back to do a Masters, still entranced by everything Education but ever more convinced that I didn’t have what it now took to be a teacher. By this time it was the early 2000’s, before we really entered the throes of “performance pay”, PISA, NAPLAN and My School.
Even then, it was clear that teaching was a high-stress, high-responsibility but relatively low-paid and low-status profession, particularly if one happened to teach in the “dreaded” public system.
I used to watch various Education Ministers – aided and abetted by sections of the media – vilify teachers as lazy, unintelligent and poorly qualified in order to justify policies that sought to “teacher proof” the learning and teaching process.
Who would want to buy into that?
Like most people who think of going into teaching, I had family members who were public and private school teachers who could tell me what it was really like. The hours they spent marking, writing reports, following up with parents. The countless times they spent their own money buying resources and replacing children’s forgotten lunches.
They didn’t often speak of the joys of teaching but I’m glad to say that I now understand that for myself.
I did a PhD and entered the world of educational research.
After many years as an academic, observing in classrooms, interviewing teachers, researching with kids and working with creative and innovative principals, I sometimes regret not becoming a teacher.
I now know it is possible to make a difference – perhaps not in the revolutionary and immediate way that I wanted to – but in different ways and at different times for many hundreds of kids.
But that is not the public face of teaching.
That is not what aspiring school students with ATARs that function like a deposit on their future see when they scan the UAC book as I did exactly 20 years ago.
Perhaps this is why we have so few applicants with +75 ATARs entering teaching? Not because universities are seeking lower achieving students but because higher achieving students are scanning the environment, like I did, and are saying, “No thanks! I’m not signing up for that!”
Ultimately, if we do not respect and reward teachers for the public intellectuals that we need them to be and trust them accordingly, then why would anyone with the means to obtain that respect, reward and trust elsewhere be expected to enter teaching?
It is an image problem that increasing ATAR cut-offs won’t fix. This will simply work to reduce the pool of applicants.
The only way to attract high-achieving students to choose teaching is to treat the teaching profession with the respect it deserves.
Associate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). This research has been published as: Graham, L. J., & Buckley, L. Ghost hunting with lollies, chess and Lego: appreciating the ‘messy’ complexity (and costs) of doing difficult research in education. The Australian Educational Researcher, 1-21.