ALLAN PATIENCE. Teaching as a vocation.

Good teachers are equal to good parents in any civilized society. They are infinitely more important than politicians, civil servants, professionals, business people, media commentators, celebrities and sports stars all put together. (Good nurses come a very close second.) Yet they remain among the least valued, respected and rewarded for the amazingly vital work they perform. While concern about the quality of students enrolling in teacher education programs in our universities is warranted, it’s time to address the low status accorded the teaching profession. It also means asking some searching questions about how up-and-coming teachers are being taught in universities. 

Over the years I’ve been privileged to teach some exceptionally bright and intellectually curious and imaginative students in universities in this country and overseas. Many of them are marvellously ambitious to enter professions in which they can contribute to making the world a better place. They usually look to the law, to graduate entry to the federal or state public services, to the professions, the media, or to business. They believe career trajectories are available in these areas that will, in due course, take them to (or near) the top. Not a few have succeeded over the years. 

What is disappointing, however, is that few of these excellent young people have any interest in becoming teachers in our primary and secondary schools. Nothing could be further from their minds. They simply don’t see that encouraging the intellectual and moral development of young people is a profoundly effective way to help make the world a better place. Many of them would be far better teachers than they are ever likely to be as public servants, journalists, lawyers, professionals, politicians or whatever. Their inclusive and warm personalities, their ability to recognise hidden talents in others, their idealism and optimism, their openness to ideas old and new, their love for their academic subjects, and their physical and psychological energy would make them brilliant pedagogues. Yet they shun the vocation of teaching. Why?


There are two immediate answers to this question. First, there is a widely-held perception that teacher education programs in our universities are, at best, mediocre. There are reasons for this that must be addressed. Second, the work of teachers is widely misunderstood, and even contemptuously devalued, especially among certain right-wing politicians who should know better. 

  1. Teaching degrees:

The academic courses currently available to potential teachers in our universities tend to echo courses that were taught in the old teachers’ colleges. These courses (sometimes unjustly) were regarded as the second-best entry point to the teaching profession. The preferred entry point was for graduates (usually in science, economics, the humanities and social sciences) who had then completed a postgraduate diploma of education. 

Following the Dawkins reforms to tertiary education in the late 1980s, teachers’ colleges began being absorbed into universities. They brought with them a wide range of courses, nearly all of which were badged as Bachelor of Education (BEd) degrees. For all the good intentions behind many of the BEd programs, their focus was more on teacher training rather than on teacher educating. The aim was to turn out generalists with an exposure to a variety of pedagogical ideas that were then current (for example, from Dewey to Piaget, from Steiner to Montessori, etc.). They were inclined to eschew in-depth or specialist academic disciplinary studies while favouring a broad-brush liberal arts and sciences approach.

The BEd programs were in danger of missing the point that teachers can’t (and certainly shouldn’t) be trained. A good teacher is a very special person (and personality) who is intellectually in love with a particular discipline, or one or two related disciplines, and who is capable of revealing to their students that deep inside their nascent intellects there are things worth listening to, that are worthy of their trust, that are even sacred (to adapt the words of the poet e.e. cummings). There is an account by Nigel Nicolson of how, as small boys, he and his brother would go on walks by the river with Virginia Woolf. They would find interesting pebbles and bring them to her. She would marvel at the pebbles and hand them back to the boys as diamonds. That’s what good teachers do.

It’s time to ditch all the first-degree BEd programs across the universities. The educating of teachers should strictly begin at graduate level, only after graduates have achieved good Bachelors’ degrees preferably (although not exclusively) in a range of physical science, humanities and social science disciplines. Indeed, as in Finland (which arguably has the best schools in the world), priority should be given to teacher education candidates who already have Masters’ degrees in their disciplines, or even PhDs. 

The educating of teachers should then extend over a minimum of two years, with extensive time spent observing and teaching under close observation and supervision in schools. (Specialist post-graduate medical programs can extend over half a dozen years.) This means that if universities are going to be serious about educating good teachers, they will have to establish special schools for that very purpose. Any academic teaching potential teachers should be simultaneously teaching students in those special schools – that is, they should be teaching by example, not in conventional lectures and seminars.

  1. The reality of teaching:

A toxic anti-intellectualism is souring the heart of contemporary Australian culture. This was on display when Coalition MP Andrew Laming made the particularly stupid claim that teachers have too many holidays and short working hours. He shares a widespread ignorance in Australia about the huge demands and challenges teachers face on a daily basis. Teaching is profoundly demanding – psychologically, physically and intellectually. Too many schools are being forced to become therapeutic communities, even correctional facilities, rather than educational institutions. They are under-resourced and grotesquely undervalued in a society that remains wilfully blind to the vitally important role they play in society and the economy. 

It’s time for a radical change in the way this country prepares teachers for our schools and for giving them the financial rewards they deserve and the pedagogical resources they so badly need. We must also start honouring them as the profoundly important members of society that they are. Until this occurs Australia will remain an under-educated country heading backwards in a world that is rapidly advancing as a global knowledge market.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic who is very proud of his teacher son. 


Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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6 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. Teaching as a vocation.

  1. Avatar Lesley Finn says:

    When I was at Sydney University in the early 1960s studying Arts a component of which was Education 1 ( as it was then known) and then a Dip. Ed. all of the remarks above dealing with the lack of respect for the teaching profession both in the community and by the Dept of Education were a significant part of the discussion addressing the need for reform.
    When I was then teaching in the State School system I worked much harder and for longer hours than I have done since. (I am now a litigation lawyer.)
    I was not treated with respect by the Dept of Education and the view of the general community was that I was working short days and enjoying numerous long holidays. In fact the days were long as preparation for lessons had to be done after school and at night and during the “holidays” lesson programs had to be prepared in accordance with a skeletal syllabus provided by the Department.
    The syllabus for Form 5 Latin in 1965 for example was set out in 1 page.
    Assignments were also marked and graded during the holidays and exam papers were written and the results assessed.
    In Germany teachers are highly respected in the community.
    In my view, until teachers in Australia are respected by the community and the Department reforms will never be achieved and young people will not be encouraged to enter the profession or will leave as I did for another profession which is better respected and remuneration for hard work is ( mostly) much better.
    The fact that the situation has been allowed to continue to exist since the 1960s is disgraceful and an indictment of Australian politicians and the debased community conversations about education that they encourage.

  2. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    How refreshing to read such a piece – not only a defence of the important profession of teaching – but to outline how the language employed around teaching and its educational basis at the tertiary level needs to be refined. Indeed – teacher education – not teacher-training!

    The shenanigans of most current politicians concerning education (with very few exceptions, sadly – though thank goodness for those exceptions) and university entrance scores and the damning of those who enter the field of teaching – the demeaning salaries and years of waiting for permanent appointment – and the interference of politicians at testing & other accountability procedural levels (NAPLAN for starters) has to be sorted out.

    It’s just short of 50 years ago that I entered an innovative Teacher Development Program Dip. Ed. at Sydney – led by a core of teacher educators – David Dufty, Lee Owens with domain specific input from others such as Neville Hatton. There was a lot of in-school practice-teaching – experienced co-operating teachers observing and guiding – with follow-up curriculum and subject discussion – re the broader principals of education and the practical application, implementation of syllabus and classroom management. Comparative education was a constant thread – with school visits to noted state and radical independent schools – throughout Sydney and on a special visit to Melbourne. And to the Riverina and Canberra. Political impulse and tertiary teacher education as well under consideration.

    There is nothing new in many senses when I say the word innovative in connection to what I am describing here from half-a-century ago – because even if we go back even as far as the mid-16th century – to Roger ASCHAM – tutor to the Tudor Princess Elizabeth and an adviser to her older sister Queen Mary – we find the essence of the educator in his words on teaching – with kindness and with praise.

  3. “Over the years I’ve been privileged to teach some exceptionally bright and intellectually curious and imaginative students in universities in this country and overseas.”
    Not sure I qualified but you were a great teacher.
    You seemed to find it particularly hysterical when I was up front and centre of the classroom one day and nodded off after a session at the university bar.
    But despite that lapse of mine, you really were a great teacher. All the best.

  4. Avatar John Richardson says:

    I agree with your comments Allan, but I would add a couple more of my own …
    Why would we expect the community to respect the teaching profession when its primary employer, the education departments & universities, treat them with absolute contempt?
    Putting to one side the relentless & mindless demands placed on teachers by the education bureaucracy, how can teachers have any societal value when they are employed on a casual basis … when they can be “called-off” to work with no notice & if they choose not to make themselves available, stand a good chance of not being asked again?
    How can teachers be respected in a system which has delegated responsibility for employment decisions to local schools, where even the most rudimentary standards of recruitment are ignored & nepotism is the guiding principle of the day?
    How can teachers be respected in a system where they have no employment security, they can’t plan for the future, they can’t obtain finance etc etc?
    In recent weeks we have had our idiot politicians waxing lyrical about the need to lift the standard for new teaching undergraduates, while those at the coalface are struggling to retain teachers who see no future for themselves in a system where they are the least valued element, rather than the most important, & often regret having pursued teacher as a vocation & are actively pursuing alternatives?
    I don’t believe that the quality of teaching outcomes will improve until we learn to respect our teachers & their employers afford them the same considerations as they have for themselves.
    I believe that if it is good enough for a competent, accredited teacher desperate for full-time permanent employment to be employed on a casual basis, then its good enough for the entire profession, including the bureaucrats who preside over it, to all be treated the same way.
    Maybe, just maybe then someone might start to recognise how far the once respected profession has regressed & decide that the future of our country’s children is of sufficient importance to do something about it?

    • Allan Patience Allan Patience says:

      John: I entirely agree with you. In fact, rather than focusing simply on raising ATAR scores to a minimum of 80 for entry to teacher educating courses, an in-coming Labor Government should establish a Royal Commission into the teaching profession in this country, with terms of reference covering the very issues you have so rightly raised.

  5. Avatar Simon Warriner says:

    Great article. Unfortunately our problem has it’s roots elsewhere in our public system of administration.

    We start with a democratic system dominated by elected representatives whose understanding of conflicted interest is highlighted by their assumption that they can serve both their party masters, the donors to their election campaigns, and their constituents all at the same time. Their ever declining credibility suggests the electorate is waking up to the nonsensical nature of that assumption.

    These people make the policy and the laws that enforce those policies. The poor understanding of conflicted interest is embedded in everything they do. This is why we have universities that have confused learning with the pursuit of profit. This is why we are expecting our schools to be day care centres, defacto parents and to run what are little more than halfway houses for aspiring dole bludgers. And this is why our best teachers are not teaching, because the task is slowly but surely being eliminated in favor of supervision of an indoctrination process.

    We need to address the root cause of the problem and start electing representatives who demonstrate a clear understanding of the dangers of conflicted interests. Those individuals need to realign the heads of education with the true purpose of developing and acquiring knowledge and passing it on to the next generation. It is utterly clear that such individuals will not be members of political parties because it is in that structure that the rot begins.

    Now, how do we go about getting more of this sort of representation into parliament. That is where change will get made most effectively.

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