Maxwell Smith

So who wants to teach these days? (Be surprised)

The quality of teachers is a growing focus of educational reform around the world, with new policies attempting to ensure that only the ‘best and brightest’ are selected for the teaching profession. In Australia the push is evident in government policy that is increasingly imposing regulations, at both national and state and territory levels, on who enters teacher education programs. If Finland requires that all teachers have a master’s degree and South Korea only accepts applicants from the top 5% of the high school academic cohort, then Australia needs to lift its requirements for entry to teaching, so the logic goes.

But underpinning these developments is the assumption that prospective teachers lack the desired ‘best and brightest’ academic and personal qualities. (If the ‘best and brightest’ already aspired to be teachers why would you need policies to attract them?) So we decided to look more closely at who, among school students, is interested in teaching and why teaching appeals to them.

We discovered that interest in teaching is widespread among school students in Australia, though exactly who wants to teach – and the reasons students expressed for wanting to teach – might be surprising to many. But most surprising of all is that Australia is not doing enough to capitalise on the interest of our would-be teachers.

The best and brightest

In policy and mainstream media in Australia the dominant narrative is that current and prospective teachers fail to make the ‘quality’ grade. This, in turn, is seen to contribute to an image problem that deters ‘the best and the brightest’ from seeking careers in teaching.

This narrative has been particularly virulent in the news media whereby universities have been accused, with some basis in fact, of setting poor academic standards for entry into teaching degrees and using teaching to make up shortfalls in enrolments, regardless of the academic achievement levels of applicants. Low academic standards are seen as making teaching a less attractive pathway for ‘high quality’ applicants .The extended logic is that declining ‘attractiveness’ combined with projected workforce shortages will only exacerbate this problem. Hence, addressing the problem of teacher quality is framed not only as a matter of keeping those deemed ‘inappropriate’ out but also finding ways to bring those with the desired credentials in.

In response to these concerns, in 2011, the Australian Government first introduced a national set of standards and procedures for the accreditation of initial teacher education programs, declaring that ‘it is expected that applicants’ levels of personal literacy and numeracy should be broadly equivalent to those of the top 30 per cent of the population’. Providers enrolling students not meeting this requirement had to ‘establish satisfactory additional arrangements’ to make sure they met the standard before graduation.

While entry standards is the primary focus, the former Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, portrayed teacher education programs as ‘too theoretical’, making for graduates who cannot teach effectively in key areas, especially literacy and numeracy. According to the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group in 2014, teachers are graduating without the requisite knowledge and skills to be ‘classroom ready’, and this shortfall in quality must be addressed in order to lift student outcomes and arrest a decline in the performance of Australian students in international comparative testing.

Some states and territories have developed their own mechanisms for achieving the necessary academic standards for ‘the best and brightest’. For example, NSW authorities have restricted school leaver entry into teaching degrees to those who graduate with three Band 5s in their Higher School Certificate including English, and, according to accounts in news media, will soon introduce mandatory ‘personality assessments’ to ‘weed out candidates unsuited to teaching before they begin their degrees’. By 2020, the South Australian state government seeks to establish a requirement for all new teachers to hold a master’s qualification.

So is it true? Do we not attract the best and brightest?

Much of the discourse on the poor quality of teachers rests on a thin evidence base. This has been particularly so in relation to current concerns about the admission of high school leavers into teaching with poor academic credentials.

Yes, ATAR ‘cut-offs’ for entry to teaching degrees have declined in recent years. But this fact is not useful when considered in isolation. Other factors that should be considered include: the small percentage of students coming into teaching with a low ATAR (less than 20%); the inadequacy of ATAR as a predictor of student performance at university; ATAR as a norm-referenced rather than criterion-referenced indicator of relative performance (meaning that no matter how high performances are, there will always be a top 10% or bottom 50%, etc.); and, ATAR cut-offs as an indication of supply and demand, rather than quality. For example, enrolments in teacher education in 2014 were 42% greater than 2001 enrolments. Moreover, average yearly increase in enrolments for the period 2002–2009 was 1.9% but for 2010–2014 it was 4.1%. During this latter period there was an intensified national push to widen participation in higher education, including for people from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, many of whom make their foray into higher education through teaching, nursing, and the arts.

In this context and with an increasing number of places available, simplistic accounts of declining ATAR ‘cut-offs’ tell a fraction of a much more complicated story. In terms of our argument, while ATAR ‘cut-off’ data indicate that academic requirements for entry are falling, there is no evidence that the quality of students in the top 30%, for example, is changing from year to year. Arguably, ATAR has been mis-used to strengthen critiques of the quality of entrants to teacher education and teachers in general.

What we did in our study

Our study investigated the career aspirations of 6,492 Australian school students who, at the start of the study, were in Years 3, 5, 7, or 9 at 64 government schools in New South Wales, Australia. In a survey administered annually from 2012 to 2015, participating students were asked to indicate their occupational interests and give reasons for their choices. We collected a total of 10,543 valid surveys.

We wanted to know if substantial numbers of ‘bright’ students (with high academic achievement) are interested in teaching. Of those who are interested, are they among the ‘best’ and do they have the ‘right’ kinds of motivations?

Recent research has demonstrated that children are forming career interests at an early stage of their schooling and that most young children have aspirations for, and can envisage, future careers. Of the participating students, 5,925 nominated at least one occupation in any survey. Our focus in this paper is on the 821 students who, in one or more of the surveys, expressed an interest in teaching.

We investigated which kinds of students named teaching, and why, using a range of student background and school-related variables. While careful not to provide an overly celebratory account, we acknowledge cause for cautious optimism about the future of teaching which, we argue, provides critical input into current debates that touch not only the work, but the very character, of teachers.

What we found

Widespread interest in teaching

Of all students who named a specific career interest, 13.9% named teaching, that is, 821 of the 5,925 students who named at least one occupation in any survey. Considering all survey responses in which a specific occupation was named, teaching accounted for 9.8% of all named jobs. Teaching was second in popularity only to careers in sports, and was ahead of other frequently named occupations such as: veterinarian; actor, dancer, and other entertainer; animal attendant and trainer; police; defence force; music professional; life scientist; and, engineering professional.

There were no significant variations in children’s level of interest in teaching when we examined socio-economic status, cultural capital, language backgrounds, school location, school ICSEA, prior achievement, self-perception of relative academic performance, participation in tutoring, and whether or not they had a parent who is a teacher.

Significant effects were found when we considered gender, Indigenous status, and cohort, indicating areas of concentrated interest in teaching. Specifically, the odds of girls naming teaching were nearly five times the odds of boys naming teaching, while Indigenous students were more likely to express interest in teaching than non-Indigenous students. Students in the ‘middle years’ cohort (moving from Year 5 to Year 8 during the study) were less likely to express interest in teaching than students in the younger and older groups. Despite this significant cohort effect, interest in teaching across the age groups was consistently high – between 8 and 13 % of all survey responses for the four age cohorts.

Bright students are interested in teaching

Prior achievement was not a significant predictor of interest in teaching, with students in the top quartile – the ‘brightest’? – being no less or more likely to name teaching as a career interest than students in the lower three quartiles. Indeed, there was slightly more interest among students in the top two NAPLAN quartiles compared with students in the lower quartiles. Moreover, when considering the NAPLAN quartiles from which students expressed interest in teaching, 255 of the 821 students who named teaching, or 31% of this sample, came from the top quartile.

It was similar in the self-rating of the students interested in teaching as a career: 52.4% rated themselves as ‘above’ (39.5%) or ‘well above’ (12.9%) in academic performance.

Not a back-up plan

Given the widespread interest in teaching among students in our sample, we compared three groups of survey responses: surveys in which a student expressed interest in teaching only (that is, teaching but no other occupations); those in which a student expressed interest in teaching among other occupations; and, those in which a student expressed interest in other jobs (not teaching). This analysis was designed to test the possibility that large numbers of students were naming teaching as a secondary or ‘back-up’ choice and that such students might have different characteristics from those who expressed singular interest in teaching.

The analysis showed that the characteristics of students interested in teaching only and those interested in teaching among other jobs varied little in terms of proportions, with the one exception being that Indigenous students named teaching only (8.5%) in higher numbers than those who named teaching in conjunction with other jobs (5.8%).

We also compared the proportion of survey responses in which students named a singular interest in teaching (49%) with the proportion of survey responses from our larger sample in which students expressed singular interest in other popular occupations (Arts professional 56%, Nurse 54%, Veterinarian 54%, Architect 52%, Engineer 52%, Teaching 49%, Law 49%, Science 49%, Medicine 47%, Social/Welfare professional 47%).

We found that students who considered teaching were no more or less likely to name multiple occupational interests than students considering other occupations requiring a university degree, thus providing further evidence against a ‘back-up plan’ as an explanation for the high level of interest in teaching.

In summary, these data challenge the contemporary policy view that teaching is no longer attracting ‘bright’ or academically capable students. Indeed, 31% of those interested in teaching were in the highest achievement quartile. More broadly, we found a high level of interest in teaching that is widespread among students across the range of demographic and educational variables that were investigated.

Teaching appeals for the ‘best’ reasons

When asked why they wanted to teach, students’ explanations were primarily related to: ‘liking’ or ‘loving’ children (18%), the idea of teaching/being a teacher (14%), and/or a particular subject area (6%); a desire to help children to learn (16%); a perception that it would be fun or enjoyable to work as a teacher (12%); and/or, because they consider themselves skilled or otherwise suitable for teaching (8%). In general, altruistic concerns to help children learn and intrinsic motivations based on the attractiveness of teaching as a rewarding job dominated students’ explanations for their interest. These findings indicate that despite negative representations of teachers, school students who were interested in teaching expressed overwhelmingly positive views of the job and confidence in their own suitability.

The main differences among students were: girls more frequently referred to ‘liking’ and ‘loving’ children (20% females; 5% males); boys more often declared their interest in a particular school subject (14% males; 5% females); and, Indigenous students more often named their desire to help children learn (19% Indigenous; 15% non-Indigenous) and their affection for a particular teachers (19% Indigenous; 14% non-Indigenous) but less often declared themselves to have the personal skills that made them well suited to the role (5% Indigenous; 8% non-Indigenous) or to love a particular subject (4% Indigenous; 7% non-Indigenous).

How can we use this widespread aspiration to be a teacher?

Our point is not to take a particular position ‘for’ or ‘against’ current policy, nor to suggest we can identify the ‘real’ ‘problem’. Rather, our data provide a counter-narrative about who seeks to teach and selection policies that constitute teachers as the problem.

We question whether current resource-intensive efforts to lift the quality of aspiring teachers are warranted. If a considerable proportion of students interested in teaching come from the top academic quartile (31%), and the majority of students interested in teaching see themselves as ‘above’ or ‘well-above’ average in comparison with their classmates (52%), and many have a high opinion of their academic capacities and broader suitability as conveyed in the reasons given for interest in teaching, there should be plenty of high-achieving applicants to teaching.

Maintaining interest in teaching among school students may present a greater challenge than locking in academic achievement as the key problem, particularly if aspirants are bombarded with rhetoric that lowers esteem for teachers and teaching.

Rather than investing so heavily in the regulation of who can teach, Australian education policy makers might consider ways to capitalise on the widespread interest in and enthusiasm for teaching that appears to exist among school students, including high-achieving students and those in the later years of high school.

Our findings present a counter-narrative to the portrayal of teachers and teacher candidates as unsuitable for the job. As one of the only studies, internationally, of school students’ interest in teaching, this alternative representation of who wants to teach suggests a more hopeful future of teaching being in good hands.


Here is the full text of our paper Who says we are not attracting the best and brightest? Teacher selection and the aspirations of Australian school students



Jenny Gore is a Professor in the School of Education and Director of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle. In addition to research on student aspirations, she is currently leading a research agenda focused on teacher professional development through Quality Teaching Rounds.





Rosie Joy Barron is a former Research Assistant at the University of Newcastle. She is currently undertaking research higher degree studies at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests include therapeutic education, political theory, and shifting understandings of equity and social justice. 


KATHHolmes copyKathryn Holmes, a former member of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, is a Professor of Education at Western Sydney University. With a PhD in Financial Mathematics and a background in mathematics education, her research focuses on the application of technology in education, increasing participation in STEM disciplines, and improving quality, equity, and access in schools and higher education.



Maxwell Smith is a Professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle and a founding member of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre. With expertise in complex quantitative analysis, Max’s research interests extend from child development and pedagogy to measurement and evaluation in education.