Smarter Teachers Not the Answer


Labor star recruit Maxine McKew, who dethroned former Prime Minister John Howard in Bennelong last year, declared in her election night speech that she wanted to be a "champion for teachers".

Climate change, classroom style, is now a major issue in political corridors and the court of public opinion. The humble backwater profession historically stigmatised as low-status, low-pay, quirkily selfless ‘women’s work’, is suddenly hot.

An article on the front page of yesterday’s Australian – on the results of a new ANU study which found that despite massive spending increases, today’s 14-year-olds are educationally behind their 1960s counterparts – is just the latest in a long line of similar stories and reports.

In response, Australian journalist Justine Ferrari called for "smarter teachers", writing: "If Kevin Rudd is to bring on an education revolution, we need to stop focusing on flagpoles in the playground and a computer for every student and start focusing on teachers."

This may be true – a 2007 Senate Committee Report concluded that "the quality of teaching is the single most important influence on students’ performance"- but there is more to "focusing on teachers" than simplistically blaming them (and their rate of pay) for everything that goes wrong.

If we really want to improve the quality of teaching, we need to look beyond simply attracting the best and brightest to the profession – as if they are not already in the profession – and start looking at their in-service experience.

Among the many teachers I know, low salary is a concern, yes, but it is not the only issue or even the main priority. For teachers, the key issues centre on a lack of respect and recognition – a lack of value that is simply sealed by low pay and contract employment. How teachers are treated, both within the workplace and in broader society, is the stand out concern.

We train teachers at university for four or more years only to slot them into the bottom rung of a leaden infrastructure where, in too many cases and irrespective of talent and potential, they are kept until they burn out, rust out, run out or are forced out by broken-down health. Meanwhile, the management of teachers, the elephant in the corner of every classroom, is delicately side-stepped by education commentators as though teaching occurs in a vacuum.

The havoc wrought by poor quality leadership in education needs to be brought out from beneath the shroud.

No matter how high their IQ or ENTER score, or how well they are trained, teachers can only be as good as they are allowed to be. Teachers are acutely dependent on objective professional appraisal systems which reward excellence in teaching skill and are free of tall poppy syndrome and cronyism.

We don’t promote good doctors out of medicine into clerical work. Yet, we "promote" teachers into administration. The most competent teachers are left to teach in perpetuity, while monetary rewards and career development opportunities go to teachers who are less comfortable and less capable in the classroom. Thus, management systems actively invert and downgrade the status and value of teaching even as parliamentary committees beaver to supposedly raise the grade.

Under the banner of accountability, teachers spend countless hours every week filling in forms and keeping copious records. Yet there is little accountability for the way teachers are managed. Administrators have few barriers to acting out their personal biases, irrespective of teachers’ work performance, qualifications and capability.

Why would intelligent, creative professionals enter teaching knowing they will be involuntarily shaped to fit a rigid bureaucracy apparently more preoccupied with on-paper, statistical outcomes than the actual learning needs of fertile, creative minds; and knowing that they may well not be supported to grow to their own potential as teachers?

Or as Professor Sue Willis, President of the Australian Council of Deans of Education puts it, why indeed would anyone "want to go into a profession where they’re treated like shit"?

Rigidly hierarchical managerialism overseen by well-remunerated bureaucrats has failed. Such a system fails to recognise that in this most human of professions, conditions and real achievements are not just about pay, but about people and communities; about respect and being valued as an educator. Therein lies the root cause of the troubles with teaching which distant commentators fail to see.

A public system endowed with real educational leadership would support, rather than feel threatened by, teachers performing and growing to their full potential. Such a system would address the cause rather than the symptoms of the troubles with education.

It is said you can pay a teacher to teach, but you can’t pay a teacher to care. Yes, teachers’ pay needs to go up, but we also need to vociferously endorse McKew’s sentiments by championing the teachers who are competent and who care – and who have done their job with outstanding dedication even for low pay.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.