‘Nothing you learn at university has any relevance in a classroom’

By Tara Brabazon

Reading professional experience reports, written by teachers about the student teachers practising in their classrooms, is a disturbing part of my Head of School of Teacher Education role. These reports often contain surprises. I sometimes see disrespect, boredom and a lack of motivation. However, thankfully, these narratives of banality, compliance and conformity are outweighed by remarkable students, supported by outstanding associate teachers, who reach for excellence and achievement.

One of the most remarkable statements, made by an associate teacher in a report to an institution of higher education, was “nothing you learn at university has any relevance in a classroom.”

The associate teacher who wrote these words completed a four year teaching degree in the 1980s and never returned to any form of higher learning in the subsequent decades. When I read this statement, I was drawn back to my own first practicum experience.

I was not a young, inexperienced student in awe of my supervising teacher. By the time I had enrolled in an education degree, I had completed a first class honours degree in history at the University of Western Australia, a second degree in literature and communication, a research masters in history and was commencing my doctorate.

My supervising teacher, facilitating my pathway through a Year 9 social studies classroom, was icily cold about the student teacher in her care. She replied, with a flippant and sweeping hand gesture, that I would never finish the doctorate I was working on. She was wrong. I graduated within two years. More significantly though, why would a supposedly supportive teacher/mentor offer such a negative and discouraging comment?

That experience was a long time ago: 1993. But our students still return to university from schools with stories of their professional experience, repeating phrases such as, “you only need the one degree to teach,” “a masters has no purpose in a school,” and my personal favourite, “you are teaching now,  you can stop reading.”

So much pressure is placed on student teachers at the moment, particularly with regard to literacy and numeracy. Therefore, the lack of scrutiny on teachers currently working in schools but with no qualifications beyond an initial degree, frequently gained from a college of advanced education rather than a university, is odd.

Yes, all professions eat their own young. But teacher education in Australia has become a zombie discipline. Its brains are being eaten by ‘experts’ that hold no proficiency in teaching and learning, but are offering a view because they attended school at some point. These ‘experts’ are instructing universities – holders of self accrediting authority – about the necessity to return to the ‘basics.’

Literacy and numeracy are important. That is obvious and playing to the peanut gallery. Literacy and numeracy are also important in medicine, law, nursing, social work and engineering. Yet no other degree in a university requires a student to complete a mandatory test in numeracy and literacy before their final semester and graduation. We learn much about the disrespect of teachers and teaching, that there is no trust in the professionalism, integrity and intelligence of education scholars.

Such surveillance of education degrees also shifts the blame and the problem. Instead of asking if already practicing teachers have remained current in and with contemporary knowledge, student teachers are the scapegoats for the perceived challenges and threats to Australian education.

I work with our student teachers each day. They are inspirational, aspirational and committed. Their desire to change the world and infuse this country with social justice and a love of learning is a great tribute to Australia. Yet such stories are displaced, silenced and lost.

Schools and universities matter. Teachers in all layers and levels of education are partners in the dissemination and development of knowledge. Abusing universities for being universities is like ridiculing a gymnast for being flexible.   Our role in universities is to enable our students to reach the highest levels of reading, writing, thinking and creation. We must push our students to work – to dance – at the edge of knowledge and see connections between past and present, information and knowledge, ideas and applications.

Robert Frost once stated, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” Those of us who have the privilege to teach and learn must carry that joy, humility and belief in the future into every minute of each day.

Everything we learn in a university has relevance in the classroom, and that includes intellectual generosity for the great minds that paved our scholarly journey, and kindness and respect for the scholars and teachers that will take us to the future.


Tara copyTara Brabazon is the Professor of Education and the Head of School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University (Australia). She has worked in the United Kingdom, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Canada and Australia.  Tara is the author of 17 books, over 170 academic articles and book chapters and is a writer for the Times Higher Education.  An award winning teacher, Tara is active in social media and can be contacted via Academia.eduGoodReads, Facebook, LinkedIn, her YouTube Channel, regular podcast series and Twitter  feed.  Visit her website. Her email address is tbrabazon@csu.edu.au

8 thoughts on “‘Nothing you learn at university has any relevance in a classroom’

  1. Pamela Snow says:

    A couple of quick comments if I may:

    Firstly, it’s not correct to say “Yet no other degree in a university requires a student to complete a mandatory test in numeracy and literacy before their final semester and graduation”. Calculation tests are common practice in many health science courses (e.g., Pharmacy and Nursing) in order to ensure that students graduating have the basic arithmetic skills needed to guard against fatal drug calculation errors.

    Secondly, it seems a little dismissive (and demeaning) to refer to the “peanut gallery” with respect to widespread concerns about low literacy and numeracy skills in this country. Does this mean that the Industry Skills Council of Australia is part of some irrelevant sideshow when it expresses concerns about the fact that “Literally millions of Australians have insufficient
    language, literacy and numeracy skills to benefit fully from training or to participate effectively at work”?

    See: “No More Excuses” report at this link:

    We also need to remember that doctors, lawyers, engineers, social workers etc are not charged with the job of teaching children to read and write – that is the domain of teachers. Doctors pass tests that are relevant to doctoring. Engineers past tests that are relevant to engineering….etc. It seems reasonable for teachers to pass tests that are relevant to teaching. Here the debate will bifurcate of course as many will argue that teacher literacy and numeracy knowledge/skills are somehow not relevant to teaching, but I would disagree and there is much evidence to signal room for improvement in this regard.
    If the same evidence existed that there was room for pilots or doctors to improve, the community would rightly expect action to be taken. Teaching (and the work of teachers) is no less important than any of the other professions described here.

  2. Zoe Morris says:

    An excellent response Pam, I wholeheartedly agree with the points you raise. As a psychologist (not a teacher) who has worked in schools for 6 years and taught in teacher education for 5 years, I don’t like to think of myself as a “zombie”, rather, an educator sharing knowledge of learning and development from a psychological perspective with teachers of the future. I would appreciate some of that “kindness and respect for the scholars and teachers that will take us to the future” which the author speaks of.

  3. Greg Ashman says:

    “Peanut Gallery” is an interesting phrase. I note that the guidance for contributors to this blog states that they should “use inclusive and non-derogatory language”

  4. Samantha Watterson says:

    While it is reasonable to be concerned with teachers ability to read and write, it is in most cases unnecessary. In order to graduate, teachers need to complete assessments and classes that cover these basic skills. The curriculum very clearly outlines the skills needed to be taught to students and evidence needs to be provided to show you have achieved the outcomes stated. NAPLAN also (unfortunately) works as an assessment of teacher achievement as well, showing where their teaching has insufficiently provided students with learning in certain skills and understandings. Teachers do not venture out into the world and teach students without supervision. There are structures in place to ensure they can and do teach at a satisfactory level. Despite this, there is almost a frenzied level of focus on literacy and numeracy levels. In many cases factors outside of teachers control will have huge effects on a students abilities, such as their home life, what they eat for recess, emotional and behavioural issues and even their sleeping patterns. I have worked with teachers who were exceptional, and yet had students working at an early year one level in year two, often for the reasons mentioned above. Truly, a literacy and numeracy compliance test is the least of our worries.

  5. Daniel Quin says:

    I preface my comment with the recognition that I am not well versed in university teacher education programs.
    The statement “teacher education in Australia has become a zombie discipline” seems disrespectful to the a) the academic staff that run the teacher education programs; b) the students and graduates of these programs. However, I acknowledge that politicians and the like do make unfounded claims about teacher education programs.
    Perhaps my desire to comment is more due to the criticism of experienced teachers in the article. When I read the article I wasn’t sure if it was another article supporting the teaching profession or seeking to use a few negative examples to make a point. I too experienced a jaded supervising teacher. My other two were fantastic and pushed me to be a better teacher.
    I acknowledge that there are probably some instances in which current teachers (and the public) devalue teacher university training and their mentoring role. I would prefer to focus on the lack of ongoing professional development existing teachers are able to access. And the lack of time that existing teachers receive to mentor teachers.
    I suspect if existing teachers were given far more support they would have the scope to appreciate their role in mentoring the next generation of teacher.

  6. Samantha Watterson says:

    I agree whole heartedly with the article, having only recently completed my course work for a Bachelor of primary education. We are future teachers and yet much of the time treated like school children with the literacy and numeracy tests just a further example. With classes designed to ensure a base level of literacy and numeracy and with course assessments requiring students to write at a university level, the degree works as a filter for future teachers already. Similarly, the experiences you have with your professional experience teachers will either build your resilience or help you realise you are not meant to be a teacher. I have had prac teachers who inspired and encouraged me and who were inarguable intelligent and dedicated teachers. I saw evidence that they had continued to learn and develop throughout their career and saw the benefit this brought to their students. Likewise, I have seen and experienced teachers who were unmotivated, who made me feel devalued and unintelligent and who conflicted heavily with the personal teaching philosophy. I saw teachers whose teaching style was still heavily reminiscent of the ‘sage on the stage’ approach. Yes literacy and numeracy are important, they provide a foundation for achievement throughout the student’s education experience. However, they are not the be all and end all. Education is not a neatly compartmentalised cupboard with each skill and KLA placed in its own box, but a tapestry, where skills and KLAs intertwine and interact. Spelling, for example, is rarely tested without inadvertently testing grammar and sentence structure knowledge. Likewise, teachers abilities to write proper sentences and correctly multiply fractions is only the smallest part of their ability to teach, and should be taught, not tested. More importantly in my opinion, teachers should be assessed to ensure they will provide good role models to students. Will they inspire? Will they ensure equality? Will they promote good body image? Will they show healthy eating? Impractical, I know. But surely more important than basic maths and english?

  7. Linda Graham says:

    I was really pleased to see this post. Thanks for raising this wretched issue, Tara. I also read the above comments with interest. They each make important points but I think the issue of testing literacy and numeracy distracts from the main thrust of the issue or at least from the part that I was most grateful to see raised. 🙂

    Personally I have no problem with literacy and numeracy testing (I do have a problem when I see spelling errors or teachers using ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’, or ‘practise’ instead of ‘practice’), although I’d like to see such testing at degree entry rather than completion. I’m also not sure that art teachers need be ace at numeracy (could we potentially keep brilliant specialists out of teaching?) but it’s not a hill I’m prepared to die on…

    Where I agree 100% with Tara is in raising the denigration of university teacher education by *some* prac supervising teachers. This is an age-old problem and it has some very pernicious effects. Take, for example, students in inclusive education being told not to plan for or attempt to teach particular students because they are “the aides problem”. Or when they are told by their supervising teachers that shouting at children and banishing them from the class is “how it’s done” and that the practices they’ve been taught are new-age claptrap that’ll never work in the real world. Or when they are told by the prac teacher that inclusion is wrong and that students “like that” should be in a special school… Or, god forbid, that all children “on the spectrum” are visual learners and that they just need lots of visuals.

    To be fair, my research found that teachers were being told this stuff by school counsellors or were finding it among the myriad of helpful tips (read myths) available on Google. 🙁

    One of the most enduring complaints relating to the support of students with a disability is that teachers are ill-prepared to teach them. To some extent this is true. There’s only so much you can do in a 13 week unit, almost half of which is taken up with practical experience. When that practical experience involves the transmission of entrenched attitudes and outdated practices, it’s not surprising that little has changed. Rather than persist with the same old meme that’s been around since I was an undergrad, is it not time that we stopped bagging teacher education and accepted that it won’t and can’t teach teachers EVERYTHING?

    And, rather than dismissing what it does teach (like there is anti-discrimination legislation and supporting students with a disability is the responsibility of every teacher, not just the one with a special ed background), can that learning be used as a platform from which graduating teachers can grow, with the support and guidance of their employer: the school?

    Rant over. Apparently the Masterchef grand final is on and I’m missing it…

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