Are teachers on the menu?

Teachers need to organise and develop the power
to take control of their profession so that they are
the arbiters of how teaching is governed.

There has been a long history of teachers being sidelined from discussions about teaching and education in general, Keith Heggart writes.

This seems odd, but it’s not uncommon. For example, the recent parliamentary inquiry into the status of the teaching profession, led by Andrew Laming, often held public hearings at times that were impossible for teachers to attend and present their thoughts.

Even in the current discussions about literacy and numeracy tests for teaching students, bursaries and ATAR cut offs, the key figures leading the discussion are politicians, bureaucrats and policy makers, as well as other education stakeholders like parent groups or initial teacher education providers, rather than teachers themselves. This is something that the IEUA has constantly challenged, aware of the well known adage ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu’.

This was the case at a recent forum organised by the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) in Melbourne. The event’s stated purpose was to identify ways to improve the status of teachers in the community. There were a lot of related issues, including some of the recent calls to impose artificial ATAR cut offs for teaching students.

If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

Teachers status

The ACDE had organised a wide ranging and diverse group of attendees, including a number of initial teacher education providers, professional organisations, parental groups and peak bodies. In addition, they had organised for a range of panels to present their ideas about improving the status of teachers.

There is no doubt that the issue of the status of teachers, and how it might be improved, is a thorny one, and there are vested and often competing interests between stakeholders. Equally, it must be recognised that not all of these stakeholders actually have an interest in improving the status of the profession. This was something that was made clear during the ACDE forum.

Some of the solutions suggested were political in nature. For example, the Federal Government suggested the best way to improve the status of teachers was by ensuring that there is more autonomy for schools and principals.

This is not a particularly clear line of thought, but I understand it to mean that if principals have more authority to determine the structure and the make up of staff at their school, then this will lead to an improvement in the status of teachers because the ‘bad’ teachers will be weeded out and removed. While this approach is no doubt appealing to some, there isn’t a great deal of evidence suggesting that it works. Rather, what it does do, if we learn from the UK, is create a disparate and widely segregated system where poor governance of schools becomes a real threat.

Autonomy for whom?

Such approaches get the importance of autonomy right, but that autonomy is in the wrong place. To improve the status of teachers we need to trust teachers as professionals and recognise their autonomy, rather than the autonomy of schools.

Another suggestion from the ACDE forum was the need for more good news stories about teachers and education. This, it was argued, can be done by teachers pitching stories to journalists about the fantastic things they are doing in their schools. While this sounds like a good idea, it’s an idea that’s also profoundly ignorant of the limitations under which teachers work.

Such ideas ignore the workload considerations for teachers, as well as the dangers of breaching sector policy by speaking to the media without permission. Having said that, some media outlets have started trying to publish more good news stories about education. Recently, one newspaper has focused on schools that work – highlighting schools that have improved examination results and how they’ve done it. While this is important and worth reporting on, it limits the scope of work that teachers do. In much the same ways that teachers are concerned that ‘datafication’ of students reduces them to a number, newspapers and media companies are reducing schools and teachers to a simple metric of exam success.

Schools are incredibly complex places; more than that, they are representative of the societies and communities in which they are situated. A focus on school success as measured by exam results overlooks such contextual concerns and instead foregrounds a limited measure of academic success as the only measure of value.

Teach for Australia

There have been some new developments in teacher education too. For example, there is the heavily promoted (and equally heavily criticised) Teach For Australia model, which takes high achieving science and mathematics graduates, gives them a modicum of teacher training and then places them into disadvantaged schools.

Despite the apparent lack of success and the concerns about how much this costs, this model is becoming increasingly popular. Some universities have adopted similar approaches, and there are even approaches to initial teacher education which do not require teaching students to have a degree; rather, they learn ‘on the job’ as associate teachers.

It is difficult to see how such approaches are going to improve the status of teachers. Instead, they actively work against it by suggesting that teaching is not a skill. It is something that can be picked up by anyone and not something that is developed over time and practice. Equally, such approaches de-professionalise teachers and are being used in other countries, and even parts of Australia, to deliver scripted or direct instruction models of teaching where the only requirement for the ‘teacher’ is that he or she speaks English.


What are the possible solutions to improve the status of the teaching profession? It needs to be said that any such discussion needs to have practicing teachers at its centre. In fact, what was evident from the ACDE forum – and other, similar events, was how little education ‘experts’ understand about the practice of school education and the work that teachers do. They fail to recognise the overwhelming workload that is present in schools, and also that teaching is not something that you can dip in and out of; rather, it’s a profession where developing expertise takes years.

At its heart, this is less a conversation about status than it is about power: teachers need to organise and develop the power to take control of their profession so that they are the arbiters of how teaching is governed. Of course, there is always a place for outside input, but teachers need to be the final authority about their profession. Until that’s the case, I think the arguments about improving the status of the profession are moot.

Keith Heggart is an organiser with the IEUA NSW/ACT Branch. He has worked for the Union for five years. Before that, Keith was a high school teacher in Western Sydney.