In higher education, we refer to ‘learning and teaching’ rather than to ‘teaching and learning’, meaning students and their learning are prioritised over those who design, create, curate and facilitate that learning.
There are also teaching ‘loads’.
Beyond language, there are other hints that teaching is not as highly valued as other activities.
Much of higher education teaching is outsourced to casually employed junior staff without security of employment semester to semester, never mind a career path.
If they somehow make the leap from casual to more secure roles and they are female, we trap these women at the lower levels of academia, mainly by ensuring they use much of their time and effort teaching, rather than on other activities that count more for promotion.
Unsurprisingly, teaching is not something most academics aspire to do more of. Rather, strenuous efforts are made to reduce one’s teaching ‘load’ to enable greater time and focus on other work that more often leads to promotion than teaching does.
We offer professional learning on university teaching and a dedicated but very small proportion of academics take up these opportunities. As the recent Universities Accord Interim Report put it ‘While the Review heard about phenomenal teachers, it was also presented with evidence suggesting variability in teaching practice across the sector, leading sometimes to intense student disappointment’. The Panel asked in response: ‘what would encourage the sector to move beyond the minimal [TEQSA] standards approach and to pursue systemic excellence in learning and teaching’?
In stark contrast to this ‘minimal’ approach, research and researchers are generally revered for their excellence. The secondary role of teachers is then to translate complex research findings into curricula scope and sequences, inspiring lectures, engaging seminars and tutorials, enriching activities and assessment tasks, that are rarely appreciated to anywhere near the same level.
Researchers who have breakthrough findings that change lives are often (rightly) celebrated. But university teachers, whose students have continuous, life-changing breakthrough moments in learning over weeks, semesters and years, are barely acknowledged. There are annual national teaching awards, but the government discontinued financial support for them in 2022. For 2023, they will be funded by Universities Australia.
In contrast, in the school education sector, teaching is highly valued.
The school sector does not obfuscate the complex and challenging art and science of teaching behind learning in linguistic references to the work. In this sector, teaching isthe work.
Where they exist, efforts to reduce classroom time are made for the most part to ensure better preparation and higher quality lessons and student outcomes, not to do other, more highly prized and rewarded, work.
The starkest difference between the sectors, however, is in the way in which professional learning around teaching is embraced, embedded, supported, funded and used in the school sector to continuously improve the quality of teaching (and learning).
Engaging in reflection on new ideas about, and alternative approaches to, teaching is common, widespread, normal and expected of all schoolteachers. And they routinely undertake such engagement individually and collectively.
Professional learning about teaching is one of the main reasons teachers seek to periodically step out of the classroom – so that when they step back in, their teaching – and their students’ learning – is stronger and better.
As an almost 30-year veteran of observing higher education professional learning around teaching, I have never seen anywhere near the scale and depth of engagement with opportunities to learn more about teaching and learning from educators as there is in the school sector.
Teaching is an enormously complex, challenging and difficult endeavour. Having researched and studied teaching deeply for decades, I still can’t easily sum it up in a succinct way that captures all of its features, opportunities, dimensions and impacts.
Teaching and teachers profoundly change and significantly enhance lives. It is often a teacher who notices and nurtures individual talent where it has not been seen before. Who makes a student feel that they are seen and heard and that they have worth. Who enables someone from a disadvantaged background to take the steps to make meaningful advances towards their potential. Who provides a stable and safe environment for students where they do not have one at home.
Teaching – at all levels – enables every individual to advance their knowledge, skills and agency, with ripple effects for families, communities and to every part of society.
Teaching deserves our profound respect and admiration.
The higher education sector has a lot to learn from the school sector about this.
This article was first published in ‘Needed Now in Learning and Teaching’ on August 28, 2023