May.23.2022

What we really mean when we talk about teacher quality

By Nicole Mockler

Anyone who’s being paying attention of late can tell you that we’re in the midst of a critical teacher shortage, and that attracting people into the profession is a problem, as well as retaining them into and beyond mid-career. Some people, like education workforce researcher Barbara Preston, have been predicting the current situation for years now, even while Governments of all persuasions have simultaneously castigated universities for preparing too many teachers, but that’s another story for another day.

Teaching has an image problem, and while this isn’t entirely the fault of the media, my research suggests that the print media both creates and amplifies discourses about teachers that aren’t helpful to the profession or to society more broadly. 

For research about to be published in an upcoming book, I created and analysed a corpus of over 65,000 articles published in the twelve national and capital city daily newspapers from 1996 to 2020. The Australian Teacher Corpus (ATC) comprises every article from these sources including three or more references to ‘teacher/s’. 65,604 articles – or about 63 every week for 25 years – felt like a lot to me, and one of the first things I did after creating the ATC was to look into how many articles would be included in a similar corpus about other occupations. As Figure 1 highlights, there were more articles published about teachers in the Australian print media over this timeframe than about any of the other occupational groups I investigated, and over twice as many than for nurses, the occupation often thought to be commensurate with teaching in terms of professional education, working conditions and status. 

There’s a density of media coverage about teachers that exceeds that of other professions, possibly because of the inherent ‘human interest’ factor in stories about schools and teachers: we pretty much all went to school, have children and young people dear to us who go to school, and/or are involved in school as parents. School is something the vast majority of us understand, for better or worse, and that’s reflected in the amount of media coverage of teachers and their work. 

In my analysis of the ATC, the issue of quality, and specifically teacher quality emerged as significant. Quality is in the top 1.5% of words in the ATC by frequency – there are over 200,000 different ‘word types’ in the corpus, and quality comes in at around rank 300. About 200 of those top 300 words are grammatical words like the, at, in, of, etc, so that means quality really is quite prominent in the ATC. In one part of the analysis I identified discourses shaped around the quality of teachers, teaching and education as three key concerns within the corpus and set about tracing these over the 25 year period, looking at how prominent each was over time. 

Figure 2 shows the growth of these discourses of quality particularly over the years from 2007 to 2013, from the Rudd-Gillard Education Revolution of the 2007 electionto the Australian Education Act of 2013. At almost every point from the mid-2000s to 2020, teacher quality was the most prominent of these three discourses. 

There’s a problem with the problem of teacher quality. Over this same period of time, it’s been used to justify tighter controls on who comes into the teaching profession (almost like it’s too hard to criticise the quality of current teachers, but prospective teachers are fair game); to pivot discussions about education from difficult questions of equity and funding to easier questions of performance and quality (Mockler, 2014); and to justify ever-increasing mandates and performative accountability measures for the teaching profession and initial teacher education (Barnes & Cross, 2020)

None of these are great, but the biggest problem of all with teacher quality is that it links poor performance (on international tests such as PISA, literacy and numeracy outcomes, or whatever the flavour of the day is) to teachers themselves rather than to their practices. When it happens so consistently over such a long period of time, the discursive effect is to make teachers look like a bad bunch, a club we could forgive the ‘best and brightest’ for not wanting to become a member of. 

When we talk persistently in the public space about needing to improve teacher quality there is an implied, consistently negative judgement about the intentions and actions of teachers themselves at work. A negative judgement about teachers’ hearts and minds, rendered even more problematic than it might otherwise be because teachers are largely in it for the love of the job rather than for the enormous salaries they don’t earn or the 55+ working hours per week they do put in (Stacey, et al., 2020). 

Discussions of improving teaching quality, on the other hand, assume that teaching is practised rather than embodied (Gore, Ladwig & King, 2004), and that good teachers can and will work over the course of their careers to  continue to develop and shape their practice to the benefit of their students. It’s the difference between denigrating the profession as a pack of ‘dud teachers’ and recognising that teaching is a complex, difficult endeavour, a craft that takes time and intellectual effort and commitment to master. 

The teacher shortage will not be solved by attempting to shore up teacher quality, and any media outlet or political party that thinks it will is barking up the wrong tree. 

In just the last week, we’ve once again had bipartisan agreement that teacher quality is an election issue, with solutions proffered on both sides of politics and widely reported in the media as evidence of the ongoing crisis of teacher quality. If, to quote the Shadow Minister for Education Tanya Plibersek last week, “having an acting education minister who calls public teachers ‘duds’ doesn’t help keep highly experienced, highly competent people in the classroom”, neither does banging on about how teacher quality is an enormous problem in need of a fix. 

What might get us out of this current squeeze is a real commitment to addressing teacher burnout and demoralisation (Santoro, 2018), to improving teachers’ working conditions and to extending the kind of respect to them that understands that teaching is hard, that teaching is complex, and that the quest for teaching quality is one that extends over the course of a career. Now there are election promises I could get behind. 

Dr Nicole Mockler is an associate professor of Education at the University of Sydney. Her research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas. Her new book Constructing Teacher Identities will be published by Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) in June this year.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “What we really mean when we talk about teacher quality

  1. What does the research from other countries tell us? Is this a Western cultural phenomenon? Does the teacher quality theme get traction elsewhere and what are its consequences for retention?

    One of the prevailing (and demeaning) ways of speaking about the work of teachers is to refer to their “capacity”. As if their “capacity” is somehow limitless; a a bottomless cup to be filled ad infinitum. I try my best not to get sucked into this use of terminology and prefer ‘adaptability’. Experienced Teachers have a well-developed skill set. Our job as school leaders is to support teachers to adapt these skills for the ever-changing classroom, school and educational landscapes. When we talk about ‘building capacity’ in relation to the work of teachers, we actually erode their professional esteem and confidence. Unwittingly (and sometimes not) we send the message that they are not good enough and they have more work to do to meet the seemingly ephemeral standard of the teaching profession. We strip them of their agency.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.