teacher quality

Unexceptional students can grow and develop into highly professional teachers: I know I did it

Aspiring teachers will need to meet a raft of new requirements if they want to get a job teaching in NSW public schools from 2019. NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, who has criticized universities for accepting students with low ATAR scores into Initial Teacher Education courses, has set the bar high with a new Teacher Success Profile that all new teachers in NSW pubic schools will have to meet.

To teach in NSW public schools graduates from Initial Teaching Education courses will need at least a credit point average in their degree course, have the entirety of their practical classroom experience assessed, show superior cognitive and emotional intelligence via a psychometric test, pass a one-on-one behavioural interview and complete an undergraduate degree that is delivered face-to-face rather than online.

As a consequence of proposing the Teacher Success Profile, the Minister’s office has received many letters and calls from universities insisting that that profile is discriminatory: being focused on excellence rather than equity. Amongst the academics commenting on the issue are Professor Nan Bahr (Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of Education at Southern Cross University), Professor Donna Pendergast (Dean of Education at Griffith University) and Associate Professor Joanne Ferreira (Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Academic Director of SCU Online at Southern Cross University).

They argue that teachers are NOT under-qualified and NOT under-educated. They say Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) scores have limited value in selecting prospective teachers as they over-simplify the complex attributes required of today’s educators.

As with many qualified and highly experienced teachers who are, or have been, teachers in NSW schools this discussion led me to reflect on my own career as a teacher.

Pathway to becoming a professional

While my pathway is unique to me, many teachers, and perhaps many would-be teachers, may identify with what I did and how I did it. I want to tell you my story because I believe people, given the chance, can grow and develop into highly successful professionals.

Before Xmas in 1958, I sat on the front lawn of my home in Ryde, NSW waiting for the Sydney Morning Herald to reveal my Leaving Certificate results. Having attended the selective Homebush Boys’ High School I was happy to have gained a pass with five “B” level results. I had applied for a Teachers’ College Scholarship and waited unsuccessfully through January while my mates with slightly better results gained Commonwealth Scholarships to study at University. Late in January 1959 I was told by departmental officials at Sydney University that there were 250 applicants ahead of me in the race to get a scholarship.

I started work in a local factory as the academic year began but kept checking with the department until just before Easter in 1959, I was offered one of the last scholarships to be offered at Wagga Wagga Teachers’ College. I was on the train the next day. Under the incoming Teacher Success Profile I probably would not have gained entry.

Not only were my academic results average, I did not have an outgoing personality and tended to question authority a little too readily. Compliance was not my strong suit, and yet here I was seeking to work for one of the world’s largest educational bureaucracies.

I probably also would have had difficulty passing the emotional intelligence test and the one-on-one behavioural interview by failing to fully realize that teaching is “relational”. I had little understanding at that age about the collegial nature of teaching. That is something that only came from experience.

As it happened, my personality blossomed during my teacher training years, I was inspired to pursue an academic career and I found that I loved teaching. Entering the profession at age nineteen and teaching primary students at a succession of rural schools, I studied part time with UNE and gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Geography, History, Economics and Education. I then transferred to the secondary sector and soon found myself on a Board of Studies Curriculum Committee for Asian Social Studies.

With the support of teachers in neighbouring schools across Sydney I helped to establish the Asia Teachers’ Association. I was a mentor in the Macquarie University Master Teacher Scheme and my wife Leonie, who was a product of that scheme, became a highly successful educator.

I toured the state delivering professional development courses. In subsequent years I taught in Victoria and gained a Teaching Exchange to Manitoba, Canada before returning to Sydney to teach at a private school in 1985. I had been promoted to the level of Head Teacher and had completed a course in Teacher Librarianship, a Graduate Diploma in Intercultural Education and a Masters Degree in Education.

Upon moving to the North Coast of NSW in 1990, I worked in a Professional Development Centre, engaged in the training of primary teachers at Southern Cross University, completed my PhD in Citizenship Education and ended up as Education Liaison Officer for the secondary teacher program at the Tweed Gold Coast campus of SCU from 2005 till 2008. As a researcher, I joined the Southern Cross Roundtable to conduct a Second Phase evaluation of the nation-wide Innovative Links Program that drew together school-based and university-based teachers in fulfilling collaborative action research.

During my time as a teacher educator it was my onerous duty along with my colleagues and school-based professionals to advise some students that they were not suited to teaching and sadly some of these were people who entered the program with high ATAR scores. Others were rejected on the basis of their toxic attitude to students but this was not always evident when they first entered the program. At age 77 I am still volunteering as Primary Ethics Teacher at a local primary school where it is my pleasure to mix with highly dedicated professionals who followed a similar pathway to my own.

Graduates can grow and develop into committed professionals

This past Sunday I convened a meeting of alumni from the 2005-2008 teacher training programs at the Tweed Gold Coast campus. These graduates have now been teaching in local schools for ten to thirteen years and are making positive contributions to their respective schools and systems. While they were grateful for the training that they received, they showed clearly how they have developed into committed professionals.

Although they came into the program as graduates of first degrees, I wonder how many of these successful teachers may have been blocked from entry to a teaching degree if the proposed Stokes TSP system had been in place. When they first arrived on campus some of these were mature age students and they may well have wondered whether they could successfully impart the knowledge that they had gained in their first degree.

Would a behavioural interview have successfully predicted which students were most likely to overcome any natural trepidation about embarking on a teaching career, thereby allowing them access to the profession?

While I tend to agree with the Minister that teacher training cannot be successfully delivered in totality online, this is 2018. In this modern era, we do have to provide some online flexibility. I agree that practical classroom experience should be fully assessed, but governments need to substantially increase funding to allow tertiary educators and school-based mentors to carry out that supervision.

The question thus arises: what sort of recruitment measure would have identified me as a potentially successful teacher?

Could such a measure predict my ability to grow within the profession? Should I have been cast aside at age 17 as an unlikely candidate for teaching because I was not in the top academic rung?

How many young people out there in 2019 will have their dreams shattered by a blunt instrument called the Teacher Success Profile? And how many students out there could miss out on that dedicated, passionate teacher who is growing in their job, who understands some of their struggles, and who could help set them on their own pathway to success.


Dr Neville Jennings retired as a lecturer with the SCU School of Education in 2008 but has maintained a close connection with the university through his alumni activities and membership of the University’s “History of the University” group. He completed his PhD in the area of Citizenship Education, with a focus on the Middle Years of Schooling. He was the inaugural President of the Asia Teachers’ Association (now known as the AETA). Neville was also an action researcher with the Southern Cross Roundtable, completing a second phase evaluation of the Innovative Links Project across Australia. He has conducted research projects for the Centre for Children and Young People at SCU. One of these research projects focused on the needs of Indian (Sikh) people in the Coffs Harbour area. He helped edit the CCYP publication “Ethical Research Involving Children” (2013) commissioned by the UNICEF Office of Research. Neville maintains links with the Centre for Children and Young People based in Lismore and currently teaches Primary Ethics at Chillingham Public School. 

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.