Some (other) facts about teachers and teaching

In early 2022, I spoke at The Age Schools Summit as part of an expert panel. Joining me were Mark Grant, CEO of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and Professor Joanna Barbousas, Dean of Education at La Trobe University. The panel was moderated by The Age Deputy Editor, Michael Bachelard.

Our panel followed an earlier address by Stuart Robert, who was at the time the Acting Federal Minister for Education and Youth. The then Minister had been asked about his infamous ‘dud teachers’ comment earlier in 2022. In response, he congratulated himself on starting the discussion he said we need to have. The Minister referred to certain facts to defend his comments.

I was asked by Michael whether I had a view about the Minister’s comments about teaching and teachers. I quipped that I did have a view, but that it might be a career limiting move to share it with the audience. What I am happy to share are my thoughts on some other facts, and on the related matter of the status of teaching.

Teaching and teachers do not currently enjoy high status in Australia. I find this curious for a number of reasons.

First, teaching is an enormously complex, challenging and difficult endeavour. This is a fact and true whether at early childhood, primary or secondary level, in special schools and across government, Catholic and independent sectors. I have researched and studied teaching, and thought deeply about it, for more than three decades, and I still can’t easily sum it up in a succinct way that captures all of its features, opportunities and dimensions.

Yet despite its complexity, and the insights into that complexity that parents in Australia gained while supervising remote learning over 2020 and 2021, teaching is often characterised as an ‘easy’ job. The ‘short hours and long holidays’ theme inevitably emerges in discussion about teaching – as if both are true – and as if they make up for the challenges inherent in the complexity.

Many of us are guilty of uncritically receiving this accepted wisdom, despite it being utter nonsense. When do we think lesson planning and preparation happens? Thought about how best to meet the individual needs of 25 kids? Follow-up with family and others for students who need it? Marking? Administration? Strategic planning? Let’s stop and consider challenging this ‘wisdom’ with the facts. Let’s also consider speaking up for teachers and to the complexity we all know teaching entails.

Second, teaching and teachers can profoundly change and significantly enhance lives. Another fact. Everyone knows this. You have either had this experience personally or you have heard of or read about someone who has had this experience. From learning to read, write, be numerate, be digitally literate and know how to socialise and interact with others at the start of an education journey, to advanced and deep experiences in specialised areas later in that journey, teachers facilitate it all.

It is often a teacher who makes a student aware of their visibility, feel that they are seen and heard and that they have worth, who notices and nurtures individual talent, 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 a child or young person where they do not have one at home.

Teaching enables every individual to advance their knowledge, skills and agency and, therefore, it enables every part of society to function effectively as a whole community. We ignore these facts and spend time and energy revering celebrities and ‘influencers’, sports stars and entertainers, but rarely, if ever, teachers. Let’s think about that and perhaps reconsider where we direct our admiration and respect.

Third, in over thirty years of thinking about it, I am still to find a single wicked global problem that would not be helped through education – facilitated by teachers, directly or indirectly. Children and young people are aware of, and living in, times of ongoing and profound global changes and problems, such as shifting economic power and political tensions, war and conflict, mass migration, prevailing social inequality, significantly changing social norms, massive bushfires, floods and climate change and ecological damage that puts our very existence at risk. Not to mention the current global pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people globally.

Lots of facts right there.

How often do we stop to think about how teachers deal with these matters every day in their classrooms when children and young people ask questions about them, show impact or trauma from them, or display general worry or anxiety from living in our tumultuous and
uncertain times?

Implying that teachers are solely responsible for the changing student results on international standardised tests of narrow academic knowledge, as measured in written tests conducted under exam conditions and time pressure, is profoundly disrespectful and
unhelpful. Let’s not let comments of this nature go unchallenged.

Teachers deserve better and we all know that. One question is – what is each of us going to do about this fact?

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on 28 March, 2022.