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 isan 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. Hernew book Constructing Teacher Identitieswill be published by Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) in June this year.
Australia is facing a teacher shortage crisis. Schools are struggling to find enough teachers to teach their students. The situation is extremely dire. For example, modelling indicates that Australia is going to be short of more than 8,000 primary school teachers by 2025. Too few people are entering the profession and, worryingly, far too many teachers are leaving early especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Low wages, overwork, difficult student behaviour, lack of support and stress are some of the reasons teachers leave the profession or have periods of sick leave.
The Acting Minister for Education and Youth, Hon Stuart Robert MP gave a very irresponsible speech last week, which will do more harm to the teacher supply crisis. Robert claimed that he wants to ‘attract the very best candidates to the teaching profession and to ensure they are well prepared when they first enter the classroom.’ However, he argued that Australia needs to ‘knock down the bottom 10 per cent of dud teachers’.
He went on to explain:
… you can hire and fire your own teachers, I’m talking to the heads of your schools here. And there’s no way they will accept a dud teacher in their school like, not for a second. So for your school, you just don’t have them, you don’t have bottom 10 per cent of teachers dragging the chain.
This is a clear and calculated political statement about the quality of teachers and how they should be treated.
Robert argued, ‘The point being, if we can take the bottom 10 per cent quality of teachers and turn them into the average quality within the teaching profession, we will arrest the decline.’
Such political statements frame teachers as a “problem” and are aimed at creating derision and uncertainty in the broader public. Robert is doing this well.
Robert clearly calls into question:
· ‘what students are taught’
· ‘how students are taught’
· ‘the environment in which students are taught’
· ‘the content of ITE courses’
· the levels of ‘disruptive behaviour in classrooms’
He also calls into question other aspects of education in Australia, including:
· the quality of public schooling,
· the quality of teaching,
· a preference for certain types of education research,
· public school lack values,
· parents’ preferences for schools
· students’ levels of achievement
· the safety of schools
Roberts’ comments suggest that he considers himself as an appropriate expert who can make informed decisions about education. For example he states, ‘my assessment is that the revisions are travelling very very well.’
Unfortunately, public statements by powerful people, such as Robert, politicise teachers and their work. This politicisation influences who is attracted into the teaching profession and how they do their work, particularly those teachers at the beginning of their careers.
Robert’s political views expressed in this speech focus on individual and deficit perspectives of teachers. He raises unfounded concerns about many aspects of education in Australia.
Regular attacks on student performance, teacher quality, teacher education, academic standards, teaching methods, and school discipline occur in many countries around the world.
These views are intentional and aimed at undermining perceptions of the success of education systems to bring about more traditional approaches to schooling. That is, politicians like Robert are pursuing an ideological agenda which undermines the professionalism of educators and ignores the bodies of research that should be informing policy and practice.
Such negative views of education continually undermine the profession and create tensions and doubt in society. In this environment it is very easy to slide into disparaging and demeaning public discourses about the declining quality of teachers and the profession more generally.
In a context of uncertainty related to the quality of education in Australia, there is likely to be a range of political remedies to “fix” the problem of incompetent and ill-prepared teachers by reasserting control over teachers’ work and focusing on traditional teaching methods such as scripted curriculum, testing, rewards and sanctions, behaviour management, and explicit instruction.
Australians should be very concerned because Robert’s comments contribute to further de-professionalisation of teachers’ work and a lack of trust in the work teachers do. They are likely to deter people from considering teaching as a career option and could lead to further problems to the overall supply of teachers.
Finally, we should not have ministers of education making politically motivated statements like this:
‘So why don’t we face the brutal reality that we have got to arrest the quality of our teaching, if we are going to make a difference when it comes to it and stop pussyfooting around the fact that the problem is the protection of teachers that don’t want to be there; that aren’t up to the right standard; that are graduating from university or have been for the last 10 years and they can’t read and write. They can’t pass the LANTITE test.’
They are damaging Australian education.
Professor Anna Sullivan is the Director of Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion at the University of South Australia. One of her areas of research focuses on early career teachers’ work. In particular, she has sought to understand the ways in which teachers’ work can be restructured to enable their success and how early career teachers can be supported to stay in the profession.
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.
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.
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 Bahris 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.
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.
Jenny Goreis 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.
Kathryn 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.