The School House

The School House

Did a teacher make a difference in your life? Tell the government

Telling your teacher they are an inspiration to you is important, telling the government what makes a quality teacher is too. Newton/Flickr, CC BY

The Education Minister has asked us all to contribute to a public consultation on how to get quality teachers in front of our children. But what does ‘quality teacher’ mean?

We can crowdsource a national definition of a quality teacher by each making a submission that describes a teacher who has made a difference in our lives, and how they did that. Such teachers must surely be quality teachers.

This would give us a national data set that could bring us closer to understanding who quality teachers are, what they do and how to get them in front of our children - and staying for the long run.

We may even shine a light on some current misguided policy directions.

Can we quantify ‘quality’?

Every year I ask my graduating preservice teachers why they came into teaching. It inevitably comes down to a teacher they remember - sometimes it’s a bad memory of a teacher who was cruel or thoughtless, and a determination to be the antidote to such teachers, but mostly it’s due to an inspirational teacher.

We unpack the characteristics of those great teachers they remember, and they tick all the boxes that appear in formal descriptions of teacher Standards.

The teachers really knew their stuff, they were good at explaining, and they understood their students’ strengths and weaknesses. Probably behind the scenes those teachers were competent planners, and studious assessors - connected to their colleagues and the community they serve.

But these memorable teachers also had qualities that are more difficult to articulate in standards.

Their passion for what they teach, how they made learning come alive, how they truly cared for their students, how they were funny and engaging, how they went above and beyond - bringing a favourite novel from home to lend, quietly paying for guitar lessons when mum no longer could, spending lunch hours running the chess club, telling a teenager they believed in them when it felt like nobody else did.

There is a risk in describing teaching in these romanticised ‘To Sir with Love’ terms - perhaps it diminishes the scientific and very intellectual nature of teaching. And teaching is a complex science that requires great intellect. We do need clever people teaching our children.

But perhaps there is an even greater risk in not acknowledging that quality teaching is more than what we can easily measure, quantify and standardise.

Where do these quality teachers come from?

Can you buy quality teachers? Do we make them? Are they just born that way? A ‘crowdsourced’ national definition of a quality teacher may bring us closer to knowing the answers to these questions.

I have some hypotheses - formulated over 30 years of teaching children, teaching teachers and researching teaching - that I’d like to test against a larger data set.

Paying for performance?

I expect we will find that we can’t buy those inspirational teachers you remember.

They didn’t need to be bribed to perform; in fact they’d probably be insulted by the suggestion that if we paid them more they would teach better.

You don’t buy quality teachers - but you do thank them, and give them the pay they deserve for making that difference in your life. Currently, we pay them about a tenth of what we pay the teenage baby sitter who looks after the kids on Saturday night. (Go on, multiple 28 kids by 30 hours by 40 weeks by $15)

Quick fixes?

I expect we will find you don’t make quality teachers in fast track programmes.

I’ve never really understood the appeal in fast tracking anything - meals in 15 minutes, home renovations in 24 hours, Europe in 7 days, a teacher in 6 weeks. Why? Time may be precious but the world isn’t ending just yet.

Take whatever time it takes to prepare quality teachers. Give them the time and support this complex and crucial job requires.

Top down directives?

I expect we will find that, for those memorable teachers, teaching is a vocation.

They love their job and they have a strong sense of social justice. They are in teaching for their students and to make a difference. And although some days are hard, there are enough rewarding days to make up for the tough ones.

Governments should be very, very wary of changing the nature of the job so that the rewarding days feel fewer and fewer. Policies that reduce teacher autonomy, and require them to do things that are detrimental to their students’ well being, will drive quality teachers out of the profession - and stop them joining in the first place.

Get involved

Minister Pyne has said ‘All submissions will help inform the next steps the Government takes to ensure teacher education programmes better prepare new teachers’.

Those new teachers will be teaching your children - so make a submission today.

There are 4 questions you can respond to in the consultation process, and a paragraph about the teacher who made a difference in your life would fit well under the first question: What characteristics should be fostered and developed in graduate teachers through their initial teacher education?

And when you are done, flick your submission to that special teacher too, and give him or her one of those rewarding days.