On the menu: a report from the Australian Council of Deans of Education Forum on Collaborating to Improve the Status of Teachers

There has been a long history of teachers being sidelined from discussions about teaching and education in general. 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 average teachers to attend and present their thoughts. Even in the current discussions about literacy and numeracy tests for teachign students, bursaries and cut-off ATARs, the key figures leading the dicussion are politicians 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 IEU 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 actionable ways forward 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 on teaching students. 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.

The first panel was composed of politicians. Dan Tehan, the federal education minister spoke, as did Andrew Giles (shadow minister for schools) and Janet Rice (a Greens senator). Rather than actually discussing ways to improve the status of teaching, these presenters took the opportunity to deliver an election stump speech, highlighting different features of education policies. Rice was scathing about the non-government system, suggesting that the way to improve the status of teachers was to take all the resources provided to non-government schools and put it into public schools. Giles was more measured, and spoke about increasing school funding and bursaries for high achieving education students. Tehan suggested that the solution was more school autonomy - he suggested independent public schools are the way to go. Curiously, it was school autonomy and principal autonomy, not teacher autonomy - a crucial difference that I think Tehan did not explain.

The next panel was a presentation by journalists. The two journalists discussed the way that debates in education are framed and acknowledged that bad news stories often lead. They both expressed a desire to publish more good news, and encouraged teachers to pitch their stories to them. While this is all well and good, it ignores the limitations upon teachers; few classroom teachers have the time, the skill or even the permission to pitch stories to newspapers.

The next session was a presentation by some pre-service teachers. It was inspiring as they all shared their stories of education, and how they had either been inspired by one particualr teacher, or frustrated and disappointed by another. Their stories were incredible and inspiring - but they didnt’ really address the central question about improvignt the status of the profession. Instead, the questions and answers danced around the notion of quality teaching and teacher quality. 

The fourth panel was entitled ‘Thinking outside the (school) square’ and it brought together a range of researchers, social movment directors, and advertisers to discuss how to change the image of teaching. It was an amusing session - my particular favourite was the idea that we should have a reality TV show about teachers, where parents get to vote a teacher ‘off the island’ each week - but there were some concerning ideas too. Jan Owens, from the Foundation for Young Australians, suggested that teachers really only need to do teaching for a couple of years - and then they could go and do something else. Others suggested that we really needed to just ‘rebrand’ teaching, make it a more common touchstone to popular culture, and that would resolve any issues with the status of the profession. 

The final session, which I was invited to take part in as the Representative of the IEUA, was about finding solutions. I took this opportunity to point out a few key points. Firstly, there were not enough teachers being represented on the panels during the day. In fact, what was evident from all the other panels was how little the speakers understood about the nature of education and the work that teachers do. They failed 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. I was pointed out that not everyone is interested in improving the status of the teaching profession; rather there are specific organisations who are seeking to continue to devalue teaching - in fact, their economic models are built on this. I also made the point that, rather than talking aobut status, we should be talking about power: teachers need to organise and develop the power to take control of their profession so that they are the arbiters of what that means and how teaching is governed. Of course, there is always a place for outside input, but teachers need to be the final authority about the profession. Until that’s the case, I think the arguments about improving the status of the profession are moot.