Not so Hot for Teacher

Ella Robinson schools us on the current dilemma of teaching teaching in Australia.

The contemporary view of teaching in Australia is still dragging along the baggage that ‘those who can’t do, teach’.

The perceived accessibility of teaching courses (perhaps improve since the gentle euthanization of the Diploma of Education) has become its inherent downfall, and for some the foundation of any argument against calls for salary increases in the education sector. Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek has not hidden her opinions on this matter under a bushel either.

The end of 2018 saw Plibo publicly share her disdain for current minimum admission scores required for undergraduate teaching courses. The early days of the new year saw a reaffirmation, with the announcement that we should be saying sayonara to ScoMo and bonjour to Bill Shorten at the next election, the Labor government would increase these entry scores in an effort to increase the public regard and academic standard of Australia’s future teachers.

The announcement went down about as well as Aunty Rita offering to cater the next family New Year barbeque.

Never again Rita.

Historically speaking, any public and political discourse surrounding teachers has been fraught with disagreement, ignorance, and ongoing post-traumatic stress triggered by memories of Ms. Trunchbull and her hammerthrowing ways. But to understand the crux of this debate and finding something even close to a solution, we need to go back to school.

The Australian Tertiary Admission Ranking (snappily shorted to ATAR) is a standardised academic ranking system used to make admission to tertiary study just a little easier. Opinions on this system remain as varied and tiresome as the whole pineapple on pizza debacle or which Real Housewives franchise is the best (for the record, pineapple does belong on pizza, and Real Housewives New York is hands down the best). Curiously, both fans and hATARs of this system find agreement on one thing – it’s very difficult to place a standardized unit of measurement on something as famously unstandardized as how well a person learns and executes skills and knowledge of a curriculum.

“The solution is to make all education degrees that provide a teaching qualification a graduate Masters degree only.”

ATAR cannot be understood as a crystal ball which reveals a person’s aptitude in a chosen career field. It’s a bit like assuming that because you’re an undefeated champion at Operation you must also be one of the greatest surgeons of a generation. The argument for those against Plibo is that because of this, teaching entry requirements should remain as they are, or even lower, to ensure those who may have not suited the requirements of an ATAR-oriented schooling career still have the opportunity to become teachers.

Plibo and her bandwagon, on the other hand, see the status quo as problematic, but nonetheless a well entrenched feature of the current Australian education system. Their calls to raise the standard of current students entering education courses are driven by a desire to lift the standard of future educators. This would then justify further education funding and raising teacher pay, as practitioners in this field are arguably more academically qualified. It’s a short-term solution, which will contribute to resolving a long-term problem.  

Funnily enough, both sides are two sides of the same ideological coin; the belief that an ability to teach is innate, and can exist in isolation from relevant knowledge in an area of expertise.

I’m not sure about you, but I for one do not have the time nor energy for a massive overhaul of Australia’s education system. Like many, I believe teachers are well overdue for a pay rise, but as in any field, some teachers are better than others. Paying low or under-performing teachers is redundant, and does nothing to improve both the actual standard and public regard of the teaching as a profession. But what can we do, and how can we do it?

To quote the foreign rodent from the advertisements, “simples.”

The solution is to make all education degrees that provide a teaching qualification a graduate Masters degree only. I realise it sounds like I’m a double agent working to put more dollarydoos in the pockets of #BigUni, but hear me out.

(Good) Teaching – the ability to convey information to students beyond the covers of a textbook – is not a skillset generated or executed in a vacuum. It is closely linked to specific areas of knowledge and expertise, combined with a passion and enthusiasm to share this with others. A good teacher makes you want to learn more and doesn’t just give you answers to exam questions but rather teaches you how to ask your own questions beyond the classroom.

Teaching is the verb, and without a sound understanding of their speciality, that ‘doing-word’ isn’t doing much.

“You need to know your stuff before you start telling someone else about it, and there’s a reason we don’t have nuns giving sex education talks.”

In making education a graduate course only, we establish an environment and a potential status-quo where we have English teachers who analysed texts during their Bachelor of Arts; Biology teachers who have a four-year science degree under their belt; and economics teachers who did the calculations during their commerce degree.

An ATAR score may not be indicative of a student’s ability to teach, but an undergraduate degree allows them to have the opportunity to exercise and improve their academic skills in a more specific area.

Mrs. Jones may be a wonderful and engaging science teacher, but that does not mean she should then become a sailing instructor. Mrs. Jones talent lies in her passion for science, not her love for repeating instructions and asking teenagers not to play with the Bunsen burners. The talent doesn’t transfer from teaching a science class to teaching someone to sail, simply by virtue of ‘teaching’. You need to know your stuff before you start telling someone else about it, and there’s a reason we don’t have nuns giving sex education talks.

Once and for all we need to wash out the country’s mouth of the saying ‘those who can’t do, teach.’ If we promote education to a graduate course only, like the fields of law and medicine in many universities, we reward those whose passion for their field is so strong, they want to let other people in on the joy they experience.

Those who can do, and love that they can do it, want to teach. 

Ella Robinson is a Master of Education student at the University of Melbourne.

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