How we talk about teachers is changing. Does it matter?

By Nicole Mockler

The way teachers are talked about in the public space is important. It affects teacher morale and how people might interact with them both professionally and socially. It even affects the way new teachers perceive their career pathway unfolding, or not. As an educator working in teacher education I am especially interested in the way early career teachers are talked about, as this immediately affects our students when they graduate.

Early career teachers seem to be a current obsession of both politicians and media commentators. To me the message in the public space was going something like this: if new teachers in Australia were brighter/of a higher ‘quality’/more suitable/better trained/more dedicated/harder working/perfectly-chosen-in-every-way our standards would improve. It was a hunch that this is a change of direction in how early career teachers were being talked about in the public space so I decided to embark on an analysis of policy and media texts to explore how early career teachers are talked about and what, if anything has changed.

What I did

I chose to compare documents from 1998/99 to those from 2014/15. With over 100 reviews of teaching and teacher education having been held on a state and national scale since the late 1970s, there were plenty of sources to choose from.

Specifically, I examined the Commonwealth Government’s response, provided in 1999, to the report from a 1998 Senate Inquiry into the status of the teaching profession known as A Class Act, and the 2015 Commonwealth Government’s response to the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) report, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers.

I chose the 2015 response because it represented the most recent ‘policy settlement’ in relation to early career teachers at the time of the research. I chose the response to the 1998 report because it was the most recent general review that had been conducted on a federal level, focused at least in part on early career teachers. I also considered that the 15 or so years between the two responses, and the fact that the responses both came from Coalition governments, made them a good comparison.

I supplemented these with 228 newspaper articles from the twelve national and capital city daily newspapers published in 1998/99 and 2014/15 identified using the search terms ‘graduate teachers’ and ‘teaching graduates’.

In analysing the texts, I was interested in whether and how far early career teachers were represented by government and news media sources as a ‘problem’, and whether this had changed over time. Some of this research has recently been published in the Journal of Education Policy.

What I found

1998: A Class Act

In a nutshell, the problem with early career teachers in 1998 was that there were not enough of them. There was a lot of talk about a current or impending shortage of new teachers. This was linked to an identified problem with the status of the teaching profession. (Status was low therefore people, supposedly, did not want a teaching career.) The report argues teacher status could and should be improved by the introduction of things like a “code of high professional standards” for teachers.

A very interesting aspect of all this was that the Government saw the implementation and ongoing assessment of professional practice against such standards as “the responsibility of the profession itself”. Oh how times have changed!

Other ideas to attract and retain teachers back in 1998 were to give beginning teachers better support through induction programs and improved employment conditions (including a move away from short-term contracts to secure employment).

In terms of teacher education, it was understood that while some national consistency was desirable, it was very important to ensure the differing needs of different states and territories were able to be met. Indeed, these observations about the tension between national consistency and local requirements infuse the whole Government response to A Class Act.

Early career teachers were understood to be novices, rather than ‘fully formed’, working toward becoming expert practitioners in this first part of their careers:

It is generally acknowledged by all those involved – university educators, practising teachers, education departments and beginning teachers themselves – that no pre-service training can fully prepare new teachers to perform at their full capacity from their first day at work. This is not a reflection on the quality of new teachers nor on the standard of pre-service training. It is a recognition of the complexity of teaching and of the large number of variables…affecting a teacher’s performance. (Commonwealth of Australia 1998, 204)

2015: Classroom Ready Teachers

Jump forward to 2015 and early career teachers are a problem on a number of fronts. They are said to be lacking in basic literacy and numeracy skills, lacking in the ‘right’ motivations for entering the profession, lacking the skills they need to make a positive impact on student learning and, of course, lacking in ‘classroom readiness’.

Absent from the 2015 response is the recognition that good teaching practice is something that begins development during initial teacher education and continues well into and beyond the early years of teaching. While the response does argue for “a nationally consistent approach to the induction and support of beginning teachers to make sure they reach their full potential once they enter the profession”, it also provides a strong vision of beginning teachers who can claim an impact on student learning and be ‘classroom ready’ from the outset.

Solutions proffered to the ‘problem’ of early career teachers in 2015 were many and varied. Alternative entry pathways for teacher education courses to catch those ‘unsuitable’ would-be teachers, is one. Others include the introduction of literacy and numeracy testing for initial teacher education students (designed to catch those with poor skills prior to graduation) and a ‘tightening up’ of requirements and processes for registration of initial teacher education courses.

Significantly, the delegation of greater powers to the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is seen as a key mechanism for remedying the problems of early career teachers.

What has changed?

So there’s been a shift in how early career teachers are talked about in the public space. They have gone from having a problem (not enough of them, lacking in status, not getting enough help) to being the problem.

As I see it, there is political expediency in laying blame for ‘falling standards’ or ‘stagnating standards’ (or anything else that might be going wrong in schooling) onto new teachers. They’re an easy target. Also the focus on early career teachers has easily segued into further action to federalise control of teacher spaces.

I believe the way we talk about teachers in the public space does matter and how it plays (deliberately or not) into power shifts is important. Early career doctors are not blamed for all that is wrong with our health system, new politicians are not blamed for stagnation in government policy, new lawyers aren’t blamed for expensive out-dated practices in law.

Early career teachers are embarking on a career that can help change the world. They deserve as much support as we can give them, not an unfounded suspicion of their motives and skills, especially at a time when teacher retention and attrition are ongoing concerns.


Nicole Mockler is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Sydney. She has a background in secondary school teaching and teacher professional learning. In the past she has held senior leadership roles in secondary schools, and after completing her PhD in Education at the University of Sydney in 2008, she joined the University of Newcastle in 2009, where she was a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education until early 2015. Nicole’s research interests are in education policy and politics, professional learning and curriculum and pedagogy, and she also continues to work with teachers and schools in these areas.

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5 thoughts on “How we talk about teachers is changing. Does it matter?

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thanks for sharing this Nicole. I think you’ve identified the tip of “a discourse iceberg” which frames knowledge as something than can be “quantified”, “acquired” “delivered” by “technicians” who can be “programmed” to “manage” the delivery and acquisition of learning. Such a simplistic view of teaching and learning makes them easy targets to blame.

  2. Nicole Mockler says:

    Thanks for your comment Brian. Yes, I agree that it’s a bigger issue of epistemology that shapes the way teachers are represented and positioned in public discourse broadly.

  3. Nicole, you have identified the problem: political expediency in blaming early career teachers for ‘falling standards’, but what do you propose to do about it? As you say, politicians don’t blame new doctors for the health system, but this may be because the doctors have an effective lobby system ready to deal with such attacks. Perhaps teachers and academics in the education discipline, need to do the same. While teachers in schools may have limited opportunity to do this, academics at universities have an established infrastructure for getting a message out to the media. I suggest using it. Politicians are sensitive to what is said, even in blogs, such as this. One way you can influence policy s to say what you want.

  4. S says:

    The makings of a good teacher do not begin at the tertiary level and cannot all be taught in a one-year post-grad diploma or even a four-year Master’s course.

    There are necessary personality traits, including love of learning, confidence, persistence in problem-solving, a concern for people and more. There are necessary skills, including high literacy and numeracy levels, good communication and organisation, experience of a high level of success at the tertiary level in the subject area intended as the major, professionalism that will engender a love of teaching such that a lower remuneration level in real terms is accepted for the ever-increasing time spent and responsibilities allocated, a lower status than many other professions is accepted, and a care beyond many other professions for those in your charge is in place.
    All of this begins at home, with parenting, continues with one’s own primary, secondary and tertiary education and never ends, with much life-long learning to be done.

    In a world in which instant “likes” are the norm, and high grades for students have become the teacher’s responsibility rather than the students’, and all student ‘success’ is deemed measurable by standardised testing that stomps out the love of learning and decreases flexibility in curriculum design, what can we do to raise the flagging spirits of ALL the teachers out there? It is not only the early career teachers who are being blamed for the steady decline of educational standards, it’s the entire profession. I have been teaching since I was 21 years old and am now 56, and each year I have more responsibilities than the previous year and there are more expectations of me from students, parents and duties. No wonder the young teachers can’t make the time to check their own English grammar and spelling in documents, and have to rush on projects. They themselves are simply surviving rather than thriving on the opportunities this career could proffer, with astute leadership and better standing in the community. Leadership who help identify and encourage a teacher’s particular talents, who champion their teachers outside the school bounds, and who praise the teachers who do their jobs well (on a 1:1 personal basis, not only by a dashed off email or a quick comment to the entire staff at a meeting). We are all human, after all, and need a good bit of praise and encouragement to keep up our self-esteem. Treat teachers as you want them to treat the potentially great human beings they have in their care.

  5. Nicole Mockler says:

    Thanks for your comment, s.

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