An increased respect for school teachers may be one of the few welcome effects of this pandemic. During the period of online learning (unfortunately still ongoing for most in Victoria) teachers did brilliantly to adapt, delivering innovative lessons. Meanwhile, parents had a taste of just how challenging their children could be at school. More than a few were relieved when classes reopened.
There is no doubt most teachers are excellent: dedicated, expert and genuinely interested in the students they teach. As a teacher and school leader before entering the Victorian parliament, I know this first-hand. But, as in any profession, a small number of teachers is not up to the mark. Most of us know someone who fell into teaching because their preferred career option didn’t work out, or who always struggled academically yet is in charge of a classroom full of young minds.
One history teacher I used to work with thought, like Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Annaliese van Diemen, that James Cook led the First Fleet. And while teaching religious studies I had to explain to a colleague that he was wrong to teach his students that Catholics weren’t Christians. He wasn’t trying to make some theological point; he just wasn’t too bright.
It has been worrying to learn that one in 10 student teachers fails to meet the most basic standard in literacy and numeracy. The Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education Students, which was introduced in 2016, in time will prove to be a useful tool to improve teacher quality. So will increased Australian Tertiary Admission Rank scores for teaching courses — not that either is a silver bullet.
How to work with the 300,000 Australian teachers in the workforce to improve the quality of our children’s education is a much trickier policy question. It’s one that demands a genuine education revolution.
When I first started secondary teaching I remember how struck I was by the almost complete autonomy I enjoyed: no appraisal, no key performance indicators, no meaningful oversight. I could teach whatever I liked, however I liked. As long as students and parents did not complain about me, I could do as I pleased. This teacher autonomy is part of the culture of schools. But it has to change, as it has started to change — in a positive way — in the better private schools.
Far from the clutches of the powerful public education unions, some independent schools have started to introduce meaningful systems of staff appraisal. The best models include regular lesson observations by a school leader, with structured feedback; student surveys on teacher performance; targeted professional development guided by a mentor; and goal setting, with progress reviews. This can be done, in my experience, in a collegial and supportive way. The many excellent teachers can be affirmed, encouraged and enabled to be the best they can be. Underperformers can be supported to improve or perhaps weeded out.
This type of change, especially in state schools, will be difficult. But we can’t ignore the facts. The performance of Australian students in the critical areas of literacy, numeracy and science has been going backwards for years — at least since the Program for International Student Assessment first started publishing its reports in 2000.
Teacher quality is not the only reason for this.
From personal experience I know most teachers to be hardworking, quality educators. But if our goal is to provide every Australian kid with a great education, improving teacher quality must be a major part of the conversation.