For everyone ‘Quality of teaching’ is not about teacher quality

It’s no secret that we are in the midst of a critical teacher shortage, Australia-wide. While it’s worse in some states and territories than others, and worse in some secondary subject areas than others, the shortage is dire – and schools across all states are feeling the pinch. Although contemporary wisdom says that this is pandemic-related – and to be fair the pandemic hasn’t helped – the reality is that the current teacher shortage has been coming down the line for a long time. 

A few years ago, fueled by decades of conversations with my teacher friends about how our profession is represented in the media, I began systematically tracking those representations to see whether our perceptions were merely cognitive bias or, in fact, real. As part of my research, I created a corpus of over 65,000 articles about teachers drawn from the 12 national and capital city daily newspapers around Australia. The first thing that surprised me was the sheer amount of coverage – an average of 50 articles a week across 25 years that use the words ‘teacher’ and/or ‘teachers’ three times or more.

I did a comparison with some other professions (doctors, lawyers, accountants, nurses, public servants), using the same parameters, and found that teachers came out on top. In fact, the number of articles published about teachers was more than double that published about nurses.

The second thing that surprised me was the way discussions of ‘quality’, and particularly ‘teacher quality’, came to prominence in the mid-2000s and remained that way until they were displaced by different discussions in 2020, courtesy of the global pandemic. Attention to ‘teacher quality’ really took off during the ‘education revolution’ years of the Rudd–Gillard Governments, when many of the big national education reforms (Gonski, NAPLAN, MySchool, Australian Professional Standards for Teachers) were linked, one way or another, to the quality of teachers. 

 

Everyone thinks they know all about teachers’ work because they went to school.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, it shifts the blame for a whole series of issues within our education system onto individual teachers, including all the systemic issues that can get in the way of teachers doing their work well.

Another is that it ignores the fact that teaching practice is a collective endeavour, and that refining your practice as a teacher is something that happens over the course of your career. ‘Teaching quality’ and ‘teacher quality’ are different, and the difference is far more than semantic.

The third thing that surprised me was the way that media coverage consistently portrays teachers’ work as simple, despite its clear complexity. Research from the 1990s, still widely cited by scholars, shows teachers make about 1,500 decisions every single day in the course of their work, each with an opportunity cost for someone, and hardly any of them taken lightly. Within media coverage, however, I found literally thousands of mentions of what all or every teacher “should” or “must” do.

An old dictum goes that anyone who tells you there is one way to do anything in education is necessarily trying to sell you something. To use Welsh education expert Dylan Wiliam’s words (‘Assessment for Learning: why, what and how’, 2006), “In education, “what works?” is not the right question because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere.” And yet, everyone thinks they know all about teachers’ work because they went to school.

Media representations of teachers are not solely responsible for the teacher shortage – there’s plenty of evidence that factors like a lack of workforce planning are also well at play. There is also a lot of research that points to teacher burnout in the face of unsustainable and growing workloads, causing problems with retention of teachers into mid-career and beyond. But, certainly, we can say that the way teachers are portrayed in the media – much of this a consequence of the way they are positioned by politicians and other policymakers – does not reflect a trusted and respected profession.

The flow-on effects arguably influence how people might feel about becoming a teacher, and how current teachers might feel about their place in the community and the way their work is valued. This is ever more important in times of teacher shortages. Constantly reading about their poor quality doesn’t keep talented mid-career teachers in classrooms. It doesn’t encourage successful career changers to consider teaching. And it doesn’t support clever and enthusiastic early career teachers to invest time and energy into honing their craft and their skills to navigate the complexity of the job in ways that don’t wear them down. Teachers – and their students – deserve better.

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