What are the capabilities?

Working effectively with disengaged students

Three eminent academics from the University of Tasmania share with IE readers their work examining how teachers and schools are working effectively with disengaged students. This piece discusses the crucial role of flexi-schools, with a follow up article on page 32 exploring a new study into the professional challenges faced by staff employed in these contexts.

Not all young people benefit from mainstream schools, with those from marginalised and lower socio-economic backgrounds being less likely to have their educational needs met by the traditional education system (Lamb et al., 2015). To address these needs, schools offer alternative programs to support disengaged students and improve their educational outcomes. These programs aim to offer pathways to successful education for those who experience barriers to completing school and aim to re-engage students so that they may return to regular settings.

There are more than 900 alternative education schools and programs in Australia, catering to over 70,000 young people (te Riele, 2014). These alternative education programs fall into three broad groups: stand-alone programs or schools; programs within mainstream schools; and programs within further and adult education.

Improving educational outcomes for disengaged students is important because educational attainment is a strong predictor for future life opportunities (Lamb et al., 2015) and high-quality education is fundamental to developing skills, social connections, identity, dignity, and wellbeing. While schools often draw on staff from a range of professional backgrounds such as youth workers, social workers, counsellors and Aboriginal education workers (te Riele, 2014), our focus here is on teachers, as teachers are consistently nominated as the biggest influence on student experiences and achievements (eg, The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), 2018; Thomson et al., 2017).

More specifically, we ask what ‘type’ of teacher is best suited to re-engagement programs, from the perspective of school principals. Better understanding the desirable attributes of staff working with disengaged students will support selection of teachers for these roles, inform recruitment into initial teacher education, and potentially inform teacher development in traditional schools to prevent disengagement (Longaretti & Toe 2017).

Teachers play a pivotal role in the learning equation and are imperative for positive school interactions and educational outcomes. Hattie (2003) argues that personal student characteristics account for 50% of the variance in learning outcomes, and that home (eg, levels of expectation and encouragement from family), school (eg, resources, class sizes), principal (eg, influence on the climate of the school) and peer (eg, bullying) impacts account for 20% of the variance. This leaves the teacher responsible for the remaining 30% of variation in student achievement and represents the greatest potential impact for schools to exert positive influence on outcomes.

Teacher professional standards and capabilities

Given the wide variety of cultural, health and socio-economic factors that may contribute to a student’s need for an engagement program and the significance of individual teachers in the success of such programs, it is worthwhile investigating the personal attributes of effective teachers as well as their professional capabilities. AITSL focuses on setting standards for teachers and school leaders and has produced the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST; AITSL, 2018) which outline seven professional standards for teachers in three key domains (see box below). Alongside this document AITSL has also produced a list of key ‘non-academic capabilities’ (AITSL, 2020) associated with successful teaching; motivation to teach:

  • strong interpersonal and communication skills
  • willingness to learn
  • resilience
  • self-efficacy
  • conscientiousness, and organisational and planning skills.

Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (AITSL, 2018)

Domains of teachingStandards
Professional knowledge1. Know students and how they learn
2. Know the content and how to teach it
Professional practice3. Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning
4. Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments
5. Assess, provide feedback and report on student learning
Professional engagement6. Engage in professional training
7. Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community

Ideally all teachers need a balance of professional and academic attributes, but our project (Thomas et al., 2020) examined whether effective teachers working in engagement programs possess a differently balanced skillset compared with their colleagues working in the mainstream teaching environment.

We surveyed 100 principals from government and non-government schools in Tasmania and asked them to describe the attributes of their current re-engagement program staff and the attributes of their ideal re-engagement program staff member. The attributes they identified painted a picture of a knowledgeable, flexible and committed group of teachers who were passionate about improving the educational outcomes of the disengaged students they worked with.

Principal perceptions

When attributes were coded into the professional standards and non-academic capabilities described by AITSL (2018; 2020) it became evident that principals believed that the ability to create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments and plan for and implement effective teaching and learning were the most important professional standards for re-engagement staff to have. Strong interpersonal and communication skills were identified by principals as the most important non-academic capability.

The professional standards of “plan for and implement effective teaching and learning”, and “create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments” reflect the need for programs to be strategically designed and structured to be able to meet the often complex learning, social and personal needs of disengaged students. Far from providing informal ‘chill out’ spaces, teachers need to be able to effectively run multiple personalised learning programs, at the same time as delivering wrap-around support such as access to mental health, housing, and drug and alcohol support services. In addition to this, programs for disengaged students have significantly higher proportions of students living with a disability.

As well as needing these highly developed professional skills, the findings from our study indicated that principals also wanted their re-engagement program staff to have strong interpersonal and communication skills.

Teachers who have these capabilities are often identified informally by principals as ‘the right type of person’ to be in these specialist roles and are appointed because they are the best person available. Our findings suggest that, unlike other teaching roles, staff were not selected based on their specialist qualifications or on their specific professional capabilities and experience working with disengaged students. When comparing the number of responses for current and ideal staff, most capabilities had a similar number of responses. However, there were noticeable differences with two capabilities: engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community, and willingness to learn, which principals indicated they desired in ideal candidates but saw less of in their current staff.

Professional learning

While professional learning programs such as trauma informed practice and adolescent mental health are available to teachers working with disengaged students, what appears to be lacking are comprehensive, research-based opportunities that address all the aspects of this role. To our knowledge very few Initial Teacher Education programs, or even postgraduate qualifications specialise in the re-engagement of disengaged students, and we see this as a clear area of improvement.

In addition to formal training opportunities, principals in our study identified the need for ongoing professional support, mentoring and development whilst on the job, often with the recognition that the time and energy requirements of staff in these programs was different to those teaching in the mainstream school environment, leading to a higher rate of teacher burnout.

Overall, we found that teachers who work with disengaged students do require specific strengths, skills and attributes in addition to standard classroom teaching. It takes a special teacher to work effectively with disengaged students, and our study shows that these teachers are both born and made. Teachers in this area need to be excellent communicators and open to learning all the skills necessary for working with a diverse range of complex needs. They also need to be given the opportunity to learn the reasons behind disengagement, and the proven pedagogical and structural approaches to be able to plan for their effective re-engagement with education.


Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). (2018). Australian Professional Standards for teachers. Retrieved from https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/national-policy-framework/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers.pdf

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL). (2020). Action now: Selection of entrants into initial teacher education. Retrieved from https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/default-document-library/aitsl_action_now_selection_guidelines_2020.pdf?sfvrsn=cef9ec3c_2

Hattie, J. (2003). Teachers make a difference: What is the research evidence? Melbourne, VIC: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Lamb, S., Jackson, J., Walstab, A., & Huo, S. (2015). Educational opportunity in Australia: Who succeeds and who misses out. Melbourne, VIC: Mitchell Institute.

Longaretti, L., & Toe, D. (2017). School leaders’ perspectives on educating teachers to work in vulnerable communities: New insights from the coal face. Australian Journal of Teacher Education 42(4), 1–18.

MacDonald, A., & Cruickshank, V. (2017). Good teachers grow: Disrupting negative depictions of teachers through relational a/r/tographic inquiry. Australian Art Education, 38(2), 319.

te Riele, K. (2014). Putting the jigsaw together: Flexible learning programs in Australia final report. Melbourne, VIC: The Victoria Institute.

Thomas, J., Cruickshank, V., Herrlander Birgerson, E., Reid, D., & te Riele, K. (2020). It takes a special type of teacher. An investigation into the capabilities of staff working with disengaged students. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1-16.

Thomson, K., da Silva, R., Draper, P., Gilmore, A., Majury, N., O’Connor, K., & Waite, J. (2017). Student voice in work integrated learning scholarship: A review of teacher education and geographical sciences. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 5(1), 1–13.


Dr Vaughan Cruickshank, Program Director, Health and Physical Education; Mathematics and Science, School of Education, University of Tasmania.

Dr Donald Reid, Lecturer in the Media School at the University of Tasmania.

Dr Jeff Thomas, Lecturer in Behaviour management and Coordinator of the GradCert (Inclusive Education) School of Education, University of Tasmania.