Spotlight On: The Best Teachers

25 February 2019

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 22 February 2019.

If you were asked what quality you would most like your daughter’s teacher to have, would you favour kindness or intelligence? My question may be blunt but it underpins the discussion that inevitably dominates our summer media in the wake of the release of HSC results and university offers. Every year there is a new announcement from state or federal ministers that we aren’t attracting smart enough teachers. The argument quickly descends when low ATAR entry cut offs to get into education degrees are made public and debate ensues about how we can possibly trust the future of our children’s lives if they are being taught by someone who barely passed their own HSC. Perhaps what we should be challenging is the assumption that it is purely an individual’s academic credentials that predicts if they will be effective teachers in the future.

The most recent politician to contribute to this perspective was Federal Shadow Minister for Education (and Deputy Opposition Leader), Tanya Plibersek. In early January, Plibersek claimed that the failure of universities to lift their entry cut-offs for teaching degrees would drive any future Labor government to mandate a minimum ATAR of 80. She went even further this week in announcing the introduction of tax free bursaries of up to $40,000 for those achieving top of their class at school or university. In 2016, the Victorian government introduced a minimum cutoff of 65, then increased it again at the beginning of this year to 70. Similarly, in 2016 the NSW government implemented a policy that all prospective teaching undergraduates (applying for accredited degrees) had to achieve at least three Band 5s in their HSC, including one in English. Furthermore, a controversial report released in September 2018 heightened the debate by claiming that 130 students who achieved an ATAR of less than 40, had been offered places in teaching degrees at a range of universities. The response to these examples reflects an assumption that an ATAR can provide a potential measure of a future teacher’s intellectual worth and effectiveness in the classroom. These articles and policies also have an alarmist quality to them; if we let students with low ATARs into teaching degrees then we must be “dumbing down” the profession. Strangely the outcries seem to ignore the body of evidence that shows little correlation between academic merits and teacher effectiveness.

This emphasis on teacher qualifications as a starting point for potential effectiveness is not new. The introduction of teacher accreditation processes around Australia at the beginning of the 21st Century saw many experienced teachers flocking to enrol in accredited teaching degrees in order to keep their jobs. Greater access to research data also shone a light on measuring teacher effectiveness in ways we hadn’t seen before.

The question about what makes a good teacher moved beyond school-gate gossip to public policy debate. There have been several reputable international studies that have examined the effectiveness of teachers. UK-based Professor Dylan Wiliam, a highly respected educator and researcher, concludes in his recent book, “Creating the Schools Our Children Need”, that “the balance of the research evidence on this question is now clear: which teachers you have teaching you makes a big difference in how much progress you make in school.” (Wiliam. (2018). Creating the schools our children need. West: Learning Sciences International.) Because of such research, many schools have embarked on even more rigorous recruitment drives to ensure the “best” teachers are in front of their students and implemented continuous improvement plans to develop teachers’ professional practices in the classroom once they are there. Yet all of this ignores the research that “best” has little to do with how many HSC Band 6s or university high distinctions you achieved.

If we are only defining “best” in our recruitment and retention of teachers as those who are the smartest then we need take care that our definition of the latter is not wholly attributed to an ATAR result or the list of High Distinctions on university transcripts. At Queenwood, we factor in strong academic results to ensure the girls have highly passionate, articulate educators and effective communicators before them each day. Yet these numbers are only one element of what a “smart” teacher is. Wiliam affirms this, “there is no clear relationship between academic credentials and teacher effectiveness”. His body of research in this field would attest that a “smart” teacher is really one who knows their subject well for the level they are teaching it, one who is capable of organising content knowledge in a variety of responsive ways to meet their students’ needs and abilities and one who is passionate about seeing young people learn.  The teacher you want in front of your daughter’s class is definitely one who is smart. Let’s just ensure we define that word in a way that reflects the true nuance and art of good teaching.

Mrs Kim Elith
Director of Curriculum