Why we’re never satisfied with teachers

Why do we obsess about the competence of teachers? Teacher image from www.shutterstock.com

Concern about teacher competence has been around for several decades. Recently, there has been a concerted push by state and federal governments to enact policies to improve “teacher quality”. Meeting last week, state and federal education ministers agreed that all teachers will have to undergo annual performance reviews.

Others have suggested teacher education is the area needing most improvement, and lifting university entrance scores or establishing other barriers to a teaching degree is the answer.

“Teacher quality”, the favoured term in all of this talk, represents a a push to create not just competent teachers but great teachers – defined variously as those who are highly qualified, highly effective or highly accomplished.

Interestingly though, other professions do not find themselves similarly pressed for greatness. You can see this easily when you search on the internet for “improving teacher quality” (it gets around 3,180 results). While there are barely any results for “improving doctor quality”, “improving plumber quality” or “improving lawyer quality”.

And yet many see outstanding teaching practice as a vital policy area. Indeed so strident are the claims that teaching must not just be competent but superlative that it can be difficult to step back and ask why the profession is regarded as “broken” in the first place. And, further, why “good” is just not good enough when it comes to teaching.

The hidden issue of gender

While those who say the teaching profession needs to be fixed claim a variety of supporting evidence for action, there is one important factor that does not make it into public debates – the influence of gender stereotypes.

The assumption is often that men are regarded as more competent than women. When we judge women’s performance, the expected standard is lower than that expected of men. Women are not judged as equal in competence to men unless their performance is exceptional and well above the male norm.

These shifting standards apply not only to women when compared to men but to any stigmatised group compared to a group regarded as more competent. Research has proven this empirically.

And when women are seen as not competent when compared to men, jobs which are dominated by women are seen as requiring less skill than “male jobs”. Work that is performed mainly by women is then regarded as low skill and is accordingly undervalued and underpaid.

To most, a skilled trade is being a plumber or electrician, but not a hairdresser.

Not only are women’s jobs undervalued, but they are given less status in society and so are more often the subjects of complaints.

Teaching stereotypes

Teaching is a highly feminised profession and becoming more so. That women do teaching makes it immediately prey to suspicions that the work is low level – on a par with perceptions of childcare - and probably not being performed well. That entry into teaching requires a university education does not prove that practitioners are competent.

Even opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne has publicly described a teaching degree as an “easy option”.

After all, we “go easy on ladies” and probably let them through even though they have not done very well; that, or the courses are not very taxing or high level.

Obsession with teacher inquiries

Unease that degrees graduating large numbers of women must be, by their nature, not up to scratch is manifested by the sheer number of inquiries there have been into teacher education programs.

In Australia there has been, on average, one major state or national inquiry into teacher education every year for the past 30 years. No other program of professional preparation has been thought to warrant such scrutiny.

Looked at dispassionately, these concerns look to be irrational. These low level degrees, so the thinking goes, carries on to the next stage, where we expect the average level of teaching is bound to be insufficient. What is good enough when done by a woman is, well, really just not good enough.

Super teachers

In this context, merely being suspected of incompetence is sufficient proof that women and teachers are incompetent. So in order for teachers to prove themselves the equal of other professionals they can’t just be proficient, they need to be atypical superstars.

Members of other professions - dominated by men - are expected to be able to do their jobs. Because of this expectation the level of evidence required to prove incompetence is very high (the reverse of the situation for women, where lack of evidence of exceptional performance equates to proof of incompetence).

Because there is little to suggest that most professionals are unable to fulfil their duties they are not repeatedly accused of incapacity. In addition, the relevant programs of professional preparation are not subject to repeated rounds of inquiry.

Some students don’t do well at school, lawyers lose cases, doctors treat patients who fail to recover or even die, psychiatrists work with distressed people who may not recover their mental health. Only teachers are stigmatised for failing to achieve superhuman feats of professional performance.

What about other female professions?

The case of nursing may be seen to test the theory that gender beliefs underpin attitudes towards teaching. Nursing is even more feminised than teaching but there have been no recurrent panics about the quality of nursing or nurse education.

But nurses are safely nestled into a hierarchy controlled by (mostly) male doctors. That they are under the supervision of men renders their supposed lack of competence less of a threat.

Teachers, in comparison, work in classrooms away from scrutiny and overt supervision. It is instructive that “remedies” for the “poor standard” of teaching frequently involve increasing formal performance management, as had been agreed to under the new system of performance reviews.

Advocates call for more supervision and oversight of teaching practice, usually by (presumably male) principals, which includes direct observation of teaching. Frequently included in the remedy is insistence that principals should be able to hire and fire, with this exercise of power presumably guaranteeing better performance.

Thus safely under the supervision of (male) principals teachers’ innate womanish incompetence can be contained and controlled.

A strange fixation

If an individual is obsessed with an idea for which there is dubious or no evidence along with compulsive repetition, many would diagnose a disturbed mind.

Our societal obsession with the inadequacy of the teaching force and the repetitive nature of the remedies proposed to fix this unproven deficit are accepted as right and necessary, however.

If our argument is correct, obsessions with teacher quality will continue until the gender stereotypes are acknowledged and we discuss fully the groundless belief that teachers are incompetent.

This piece was co-authored by *Catherine Lomas Scott and Stephen Dinham.

Catherine Lomas Scott is a freelance researcher and writer. Stephen Dinham is Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne.

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