professional development of teachers

Teachers are NOT under-qualified and NOT under-educated: here’s what is really happening

Australian teachers are doing well. They are not under-qualified and they are certainly not under-educated, as some media stories would have you believe. They are doing an admirable job managing exhausting workloads and constantly changing government policies and processes. They are more able than past generations to identify and help students with wide ranging needs. They are, indeed, far better qualified and prepared than those in our nation’s glorious past that so many commentators reminisce wistfully about.

In fact, our teachers today are the best qualified ever. They are educational specialists. So are their teacher educators, people like us, who prepare teachers for their professional calling. Contrary to the opinions of some media commentators and politicians, our teacher educators are also better prepared and more qualified than ever before. They design and implement innovative, intensive and rigorous teacher education programs, they deal with constantly changing policy and government requirements, and they expertly mentor and supervise their student teachers’ classroom experience.

So let’s unpick this a little just to demonstrate the trustworthiness of our opening claim.

Teacher qualifications

A two-year course was enough to educate teachers in the 1970s. And this was an improvement on the “pupil-teacher” apprenticeship approach that preceded in the 1960s which allowed a person to start teaching before they finished high school.

These days, four or five years of tertiary education is the base line for preparation to be a teacher in Australia. This is followed by mandatory ongoing professional development. Teachers possessing a higher degree are also not uncommon. The profile of teachers in Queensland, for example, shows that 70% of QLD teachers in 2016 possessed higher degrees in the field of education beyond their initial teacher qualification.

Entrance to teacher education courses

The use of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) has come under scrutiny in the news recently as a measure for entry into teacher education courses in Australia.  However less than half of those entering teaching education rely on an ATAR in any way to indicate their academic suitability. Many others enter with a post-secondary academic qualification as their measure of academic preparedness for initial teacher education. That is, they have higher than Year 12 academic achievement as their claim to academic ability.

Further, ATAR as a measure alone is not used for teacher education entry in any institution in Australia. The ATAR has been shown to have limited value for teacher education as it oversimplifies the complex attributes that assist someone to start teacher education well, and it ignores the value of the teacher education program itself.

Students entering teacher education today are assessed carefully for their motivation and capacity for a teaching career before entry. They must demonstrate they have numeracy and literacy skills better than 70% of the population. Then candidates for primary teacher education programs in Queensland must have satisfactorily completed their secondary education with demonstrable achievement in maths, a science, and English. Indeed, each regulatory jurisdiction has their own set of requirements. New South Wales, for example, requires three band five ratings (better than 80% achievement) in their senior school results.

We think much of the public debate regarding the entry standards required for teaching programs is testament to an insinuation that a four-year teacher education course can somehow be devoid of any content, or development. If we just waited four years before letting teacher candidates loose on our poor unsuspecting students, then yes, the entry standards would be pertinent. But that’s not what happens of course.

As they are studying to become a teacher, student teachers today have to meet a stringent suite of requirements to develop and demonstrate pedagogical skills, theoretical understanding, conceptual and discipline knowledge across the National Curriculum, communication skills, planning and cultural development capabilities, and so on. This is coupled with substantial in-school teaching experiences and it is all assessed through a rigorous Teacher Performance Assessment.

Teacher education courses and teacher educators

But maybe the real problem is teacher educators and the courses they teach. Are teacher educators just academics who haven’t been near a classroom for years, or in the spirit of the statement “those who can’t do … teach”, are teacher educators just a crew of failed teachers? Certainly that is what some would have you believe. It is simply not true.

Take one of our institutions for example: in our teacher education unit we have 28 academics and all of us are fully qualified and registered teachers. Over 70% of us have been school leaders, heads of department, deputy principals, principals, and/or have held regional leadership roles. The remaining 30% are no slouches; they have all had long and successful careers of an average of 10 years in school classrooms before attaining higher degrees and moving to academia. All are deeply committed to providing a quality program to develop the next generation of teachers.

The teacher education programs we use are all heavily and nationally accredited. They are rigorous and vigorous. These courses are definitely not for the fainthearted. Every student that graduates with a teacher education degree has demonstrably changed and has developed as a professional in response to the program of study and experience we provide. Every graduate meets the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Their professional registration and our accreditation as a higher education provider depend on this. Teacher education institutions are required to provide clear evidence that this is always the case.

Coping with an exhausting workload

Meanwhile for teachers, curriculum areas have grown and the reporting and record keeping obligations have become more onerous. For the average Year 6 class where a single teacher is typically responsible for pulling the entire year of learning together, there are at least eight discipline areas aligning to the national curriculum, supplemented by no less than three cross curricular priorities and seven general capabilities. On top of this there may be cultural or pastoral studies if they are at a faith-based school. So that could be 13 teaching fields for the one teacher with the one class.

Yet back in the 70s, at least in Queensland, teachers were responsible for only six or seven subject areas (depending on whether music was considered in the mix) and they were able to develop their own approaches. They did have more students per teacher: the student/teacher ratio was 24-1 in 1970 compared with 13.7 in 2016. But, there was less content to teach, and a markedly reduced requirement for record keeping, obligations to prepare for national standardised tests, and so forth.

The point is, teachers today are highly qualified professionals who cope with an astounding workload.

So, let’s stop distrusting teachers and stop questioning their qualifications to do their job. Teachers today are well prepared. They are qualified, caring and capable professionals who can be proud of their achievement in graduating from one of today’s rigorous teacher education programs.

And let’s stop distrusting teacher educators. They too are well qualified and are well placed to provide effective teacher education based on their own well-developed capacity to relate to classrooms and students.

Our teaching profession is healthy and strong, and providing a wonderful service to our children, youth and communities. Why is that so hard for some commentators and politicians to believe?


Professor Nan Bahr is Pro Vice Chancellor (Students), Professor and Dean of Education at Southern Cross University. In this role she is responsible for oversight and strategic management for improved engagement, experience and retention of students across the University. Professor Bahr also has specific responsibility, as Dean of Education, for the quality of the Teacher Education programs, research and service in the field of education for Southern Cross University. 

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.   Nan is on Twitter @NanBahr

Professor Donna Pendergast is Dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Her research expertise is educational transformation and efficacy, with a focus on: middle year’s education and student engagement; initial and professional teacher education; and school reform. 

Donna commenced her career as a school teacher working in secondary, P-10 and senior college settings before shifting to the role of academic, first at Queensland University of Technology, The University of Queensland, and since 2009, at Griffith University.  She has served in many roles associated with the profession including Chair of the Board of Directors of Queensland Education Leadership Institute (QELI) and Chair of the Queensland Council of Deans of Education (QCDE).  Donna has more than 160 refereed publications, 16 commissioned reports and 19 books, including the popular Teaching Middle Years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, now in its third edition and the recipient of an international Choice Award as an Outstanding Academic title. Donna played a pivotal role in preparing school leaders for the shift of Year 7 to secondary and the implementation of Junior Secondary in Queensland.  In 2015 she received the Vice Chancellor’s Research Supervision Excellence Award, and in 2017 she received a National Commendation from the Australian Council of Graduate Research for Excellence in Graduate Research Supervision. Donna has recently been awarded the Australian Council for Educational Leadership Miller-Grassie Award for Outstanding Educational Leadership. Donna is on Twitter at @pendergast_d

Associate Professor Jo-Anne Ferreira is Director of the Centre for Teaching & Learning and Academic Director, SCU Online at Southern Cross University. She is responsible for enhancing teaching quality and the student learning experience, both face-to-face and online. Prior to this, she was Director, Teaching and Learning in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. She began her teaching career as a secondary English and Geography teacher in South Africa and Australia.

Jo-Anne has developed and delivered award winning professional development programs in Australia, South Africa and across the Asia-Pacific region to teachers and student teachers. She has also taught in universities in South Africa and Australia. Her research interests are in online education and the sociology of education with a special interest in post-structuralist theories of identity, embodiment and power, in systems-based change, and in environmental and sustainability education. She has most recently led a decade-long research project on systems-based change as a strategy for embedding sustainability education in teacher education.


Teacher learning, not student test results, should be a national priority for Australia

Ongoing professional development of teachers is vital for the successful education of our children. At present, teacher learning is not given the sort of attention it deserves by governments in Australia. Our teachers are finding themselves increasingly reacting to a plethora of national, and other, tests. What they are ‘learning’ in the process is that tests and testing matters because school results have to ‘look good’ at school and system level. This can narrow the focus of the development of teacher professional skills and knowledge across a whole school, and, indeed, whole systems.

Substantive teacher learning (that is teacher learning that contributes to student learning) is essential for fostering students’ academic and social development and learning. Much is known and has been written about the sorts of ongoing professional learning that are necessary to cultivate productive learning on the part of teachers, for students. Such learning should be ongoing, systematic, shared with other teachers in a public but supportive context, build upon teachers’ understandings of students’ current needs (not just academic but also socio-emotional and personal needs) and designed to extend students’ understandings in robust ways.

However, teachers’ learning is also influenced by the broader political and policy conditions within which they work. Some of these influences, such as having to constantly respond to standardised test results, can be counter-productive. They make it difficult for teachers to sustain attention to more long-term approaches focused on students’ actual work. This actual work includes students’ bookwork, extended assignment work, and extended responses in curriculum-based tests and other forms of assessment.

In Australia, the problem is most obvious in relation to national literacy and numeracy testing practices associated with NAPLAN (National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy). On the recent 10th anniversary of NAPLAN, we witnessed debates at the highest levels of government about the efficacy or otherwise of the program. Education Minister of NSW, Rob Stokes, (NSW is Australia’s most populous state) criticised the value and benefit of the national testing program, arguing for it to be replaced. The criticism was timely because reforms to schooling recently recommended to the Australian Government emphasised smaller, more ‘low-key’, modes of assessment in schools. Minister Stokes’ criticisms led to the federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, defending NAPLAN as a necessary vehicle to inform parents about students’ progress.

The ‘problem’, however, is not just isolated to practices around NAPLAN. Australian schools use other forms of quantified, standardized measures of learning such as Progressive Assessment Tests (PAT-tests) in reading, mathematics and vocabulary. There is also increased use and reliance on various ‘levelled’ readers as markers of students’ achievement. (Levelled readers are a series of reading books written to a formula of increasing difficulty usually from level 1 to level 30, with level 30 considered appropriate for students around 12 years of age). Schools often use these readers as a ‘quick’ way to ascertain whether students appear to be reading at year level, although they can be very limited in their content and foci, and do not necessarily serve as the best resources to inform teachers about students’ actual comprehension and reading fluency.

Of course all of these forms of data can be useful to indicate where students need further assistance and opportunities for development and learning. However, in a broader context in which national testing practices are simultaneously deployed for accountability purposes (most obviously through the ‘MySchool’ website), the more educative functions of using the data can be significantly reduced.

Increasing concerns about performance for performance sake can effectively cruel the potential of this array of tests and instruments to be genuinely educative.

Nevertheless, teachers are constantly creative in their efforts to learn from such markers of student learning. My research shows how teachers endeavour to use standardised data in conjunction with a much broader and more substantive array of student ‘data’ they collect during their everyday practices. This broader array of data includes extensive examples of students’ work, including various samples of students’ bookwork, as well as responses to formative and summative assessment tasks. Formative assessment tasks are designed to check on students’ understanding on an ongoing basis in class. Summative tasks are used to measure students’ understandings, often at the end of a unit of work, and for more formal reporting purposes.

Useful data can also include teachers’ notes about student academic progress more generally, their level of attentiveness in class, as well as about their well-being and social engagement with their peers, and other adults in the school. Seeking to work productively with a wide and deep array of data, beyond simply standardized measures, is the key to fostering substantive teacher learning for student learning.

So what can school authorities and teachers do about this?

First, school system administrators and school principals should actively talk about the need for teachers to collect and collate a wide variety of data, beyond simply test scores. They need to ‘give permission’ to teachers to be doing more than simply responding to the latest set of NAPLAN scores, and areas in which students fall short.

This will help build cultures in schools that ensure data are diverse, rich sources of evidence of students’ learning. If we are serious about encouraging the sorts of complex skill development and empathetic social capacities and understandings that are often promoted as the necessary 21st Century skills of the future, we need to encourage teachers to look for and promote the development of a wide array of understandings about student learning. This, in turn, will assist teachers to provide learning opportunities to help ‘future-proof’ students for an increasingly fluid job market, and cultivate the sorts of civic capacities so necessary in and for a genuinely inclusive, sustainable and global world.

Teachers can help to bring such a system of rich diverse data into being by insisting that principals, system administrators, parents and members of the wider community take a much more active role in thinking about what successful student learning actually looks like. Success includes the ability to communicate with others from backgrounds and cultural groups different from one’s own, having the confidence and resilience to keep striving for improvement and success in the face of adversity, and developing a sufficiently robust moral compass as a bulwark to avoid potentially exploitative circumstances in which students of today – citizens of tomorrow – might find themselves.

Such capacities are reflected in what the Australian Curriculum refers to as ‘general capabilities’, which were strongly supported in the recent Gonski school reform recommendations (Through Growth to Achievement). The capabilities include and emphasise strong literacy, numeracy and ICT capabilities, but significantly are not limited to these alone.

Governments need to more actively refocus policy upon a much richer conception of teacher and student learning. We need to move away from constantly reporting and comparing test results to providing and advocating for a wide range of substantive teacher professional development opportunities for all Australian teachers. Our children’s futures depend on us getting this right, just as we will surely depend upon them for our future well-being.

If you’d like to read more about these issues, please see my paper Governing teacher learning: Understanding teachers’ compliance with and critique of standardization in the Journal of Education Policy.

Teachers might also be interested in an associated article I recently wrote for the NSW Teachers Federation Journal of Professional Learning: Is Standardisation Governing Teacher Learning? Understanding Teachers’ Compliance and Critique

Dr Ian Hardy is Senior Lecturer, and Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. Dr Hardy researches and teaches in the areas of educational policy and politics, with a particular focus upon the nature of teachers’ work and learning. As an ARC Future Fellow (2015-2018), Dr Hardy is currently undertaking full-time research into how policy support for curricula reform influences teacher learning in Queensland, within a broader global policy context. At the same time, Dr Hardy is exploring how concurrent policy reform in Scandinavian (Finland and Sweden) and North American (Ontario and Connecticut) contexts is currently constituted, and influencing practice.