21st century teaching

The astonishing adventures of Angela and Kimberley: this is how it all ends*

Our two authors have told their stories of leaving university life to return to school over three blogs this year. You can read part one here and part two here.

An introduction from Kimberley

Let me take you for a moment into my Year 6 classroom. It’s the last morning of Term 4 and my students have just finished cleaning out their tote trays. They’ve proudly packed their workbooks from this year into their school bags to take home to share with their parents. ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ has just been requested as we set up for some final UNO games and reminisce about primary school and the year that we’ve shared. Our Deputy Head appears at the classroom door and silently hands me a single sheet of paper then leaves. I read it. There’s been a positive COVID case in our school. ‘Calmly pack the students up immediately and drop them to the playground for supervised collection’. I am to return to the classroom to join a staff Zoom. With a heavy heart, masked up and socially distanced, I do my best to farewell my students on their final day of primary school in a way that none of us had ever really entertained.

Some might say this is an unsurprising end to the 2021 school year, and of course, sudden school closures have become widespread in Term 4. Students, teachers, school leaders and parents have come to accept that adaptability is a requisite disposition for contemporary life and schooling. As widely documented and increasingly researched, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on learning and teaching in all education contexts. Since our previous blog posts for EduResearch Matters, we each have spent time teaching remotely as our primary and secondary school students learnt from home for a large proportion of the second half of the year in New South Wales and Victoria. While this has created challenges as well as opportunities, both similarities and differences in our experiences have been highlighted. In this our third and final blog post, we reflect on two of our key learnings from returning to school contexts in 2021, after our years of previously working as teacher education academics.

Learning 1: We are teachers at heart 

Our grappling with our professional identities has certainly continued over the year. In returning to our reference of the ‘departure card test’ in our original AARE blog post, this year has certainly cemented our self-perceptions as being teachers. Not that this has surprised us, but we did wonder if this identity work would be challenging and prolonged. Positioning ourselves as teachers in our respective school contexts has been easier than first imagined, but two interesting elements of this readjustment arose. Firstly, we have both been struck at different points in this journey that we bring a ‘different’ lens to viewing the world of education. Continually seeking research and data to inform our decisions, engaging in reflective practices and actively  inviting critique and feedback may be second nature to us, but these are practices not necessarily embedded in the approaches of our teaching colleagues. Secondly, we have come to realise that imposter syndrome is present in any professional setting. There certainly have been days where we have both felt that our true identities would be ‘revealed’ and that we would be escorted from the school premises at any moment! While we both identify even more strongly as teachers now, the process of fitting into our teacherly skins is a work-in-progress and one that we embrace wholeheartedly.

Learning 2: One size does not fit all

Our respective experiences in a Sydney urban independent boys’ school (Kimberley) and a rural Victorian co-educational state secondary school (Ange) have emphasised the importance of teachers building relationships and having professional autonomy, in identifying and responding to key and immediate priorities for the students that they teach. Student engagement in learning during remote teaching was a challenge that each of us faced, but how we responded to that challenge differed in our contexts, and even from teacher-to-teacher and class-to-class within our schools. Each of us has worked closely with parents to support students this year, but the needs of, and resources available to, our students and their families have differed. An effective solution in one school community may face barriers, or prove ineffective – or indeed, unavailable – in another. As many have argued and continue to argue, our experiences have emphasised that school funding models need to more equitably equip all schools to respond in a timely and contextualised way to their school community needs.

A conclusion from Ange 

At the start of Term 4, I moved into an Acting Principal role at my school. It was quite a whirlwind of a time to take up the hot seat generally, but COVID certainly added some additional spice! The learning curve has continued to be steep, but I have greatly valued being able to bring some of my ‘big picture’ education skills and knowledge to the table to better support my colleagues and our students to achieve their best as teachers and learners, respectively. This role will continue for me into Term 1, 2022. Kimberley will also move into a leadership role at her school in 2022 as Deputy Head of Junior School. As we reflected together on the year that was, we did ponder this question: was it inevitable that we would end up in school leadership roles? In many ways this shift out of the classroom does reflect our educational backgrounds, where we have professionally come from and our relationship with education. We recognise these differences in us in three key ways:

  • A desire to meaningfully contribute to school-wide improvement using wide-ranging data as the evidence-base from which to make decisions;
  • A level of engagement with the ‘bigger picture’ elements of the educational landscape, locally, nationally and globally; and
  • An opportunity to leverage our extensive mentoring and coaching experience with pre-service teachers to transition into instructional coaching opportunities with peers.

While we are not where we thought we’d be when we individually made decisions over a year ago to leave tenured academic positions, in many ways that has been the beauty of being able to embrace our return-to-school journeys and not be so focused on the destination. Anything has been possible and that openness has certainly played out as we have found our place in our respective schools and they have found their groove with us. Bring on 2022! We are ready to embrace our next challenges and see what working life in schools has in store for us into the future. 

In signing off, we would like to thank our academic and teaching colleagues for their support and encouragement over the year. Your positivity about our return-to-school adventures certainly spurred us on and we hope that our sharing of our experiences has been insightful and inspiring for you too.

*for this year anyway

Dr. Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn (University of Technology Sydney and Newington College) started her career as a primary teacher, and after time working as a casual academic and research assistant, took up a tenured academic position at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in 2004. She completed her PhD in 2010. Highlights in Kimberley’s time at UTS have included opportunities to collaborate in leading externally funded research evaluations of science education initiatives, as well as accompanying preservice teachers on international professional experiences to Samoa and Bhutan. This year, she joined the staff at Wyvern House, Newington College as a Year 6 classroom teacher. Kimberley wears glasses in the photo.

Dr Ange Fitzgerald (University of Southern Queensland and Mirboo North Secondary College) is recognised for her experience and expertise in science education, particularly through her explorations of quality learning and teaching practices in primary science education from a number of angles. While she entered higher education as a teacher educator and PhD student in 2007, she has previously spent time away from higher education as an Australian Government-sponsored volunteer in the Middle East. In 2021, Ange was meant to return to the classroom as a mathematics and digital technologies teacher but that’s not quite how it worked out. Ange is not wearing glasses in the photo.

What is a teacher in the 21st century and what does a 21st century teacher need to know?

There is now almost universal recognition around the world that ‘teaching matters’ and that the quality of teaching is crucial in social and economic development. This is shown by the wide influence of international rankings and reports such as the OECD PISA and TALIS reports that compare the performance of school students, and the Mckinsey Reports that compare the economic performance of nations. Policy makers all over the world quote these reports.

This trend to focus on teaching can also be seen in any general election in ‘advanced’ nations. It appears Australia is headed in this direction for the looming federal election.

However while education and teaching get headlined in elections it is less common for teacher education to be seen in the media as a significant part of this. Nevertheless, politicians and policymakers seem to have no inhibitions in developing their policies in this area.

In spite of all this, there has been remarkably little change in the ways in which teachers’ work in classrooms and schools, or in the ways in which teachers are educated for a lifetime of preparing young people for their future worlds. I believe this is significant and needs our attention.

Policy makers missing the importance of the relationship between teacher and student

Politicians tend to argue and make policy on matters such as where beginning teachers should learn, how their courses are structured and, to some extent, what should be the balance between their subject knowledge, their professional knowledge and their classroom skills. They seem less interested in changing the fundamentals of teaching and learning, the relationships between teachers and their students.

Politicians rarely refer to research or indeed to other evidence – apart from those mentioned above. In my work, I like to reflect on debates about the nature of teaching and teacher education in order to challenge this tendency. I suggest that such thinking is often driven by ideology and prejudice rather than by careful deliberation or by the use of research evidence.

Move to apprentice-type teacher education in England

In the UK, in particular, there is the most extreme form of such policymaking. It can be found in England where there is a move away from the serious study of education as part of teachers’ preparation. The university contribution is being marginalised and schools are being encouraged to ‘go it alone’. That is, schools directly recruit their own students and train them to be teachers on the job. Learning to teach is being seen as a simple apprenticeship rather than a professional programme of integrated theory and practice.

Whereas in Scotland teacher education is moving towards master level

Other UK jurisdictions take very different approaches. For example, in Scotland there is the Donaldson Report which places the university at the heart of effective teacher education and is encouraging moves towards Masters level entry into the profession. In other words teaching is seen as a profession rather than simply as a craft.

Developments in Australia

In Australia you have the Action Now: Classroom ready teachers,  a report by the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG), which makes several recommendations, such as all initial teacher education programs should be rigorously assessed. And, in relating teacher education to a number of wider issues around teacher supply and educational provision, it is perhaps more constructive than the recent report in England, The Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training. Furthermore the TEMAG report also makes a strong call for further research to be carried out in order to inform future developments in creating 21st century teachers.

Also, Australia is very lucky to have a large-scale study of teacher education happening, the multi-institutional Studying the Effectiveness of Teacher Education (SETE). This study is led by distinguished scholar in teacher education, Professor Diane Mayer, from the University of Sydney. This study follows graduate teachers in Victoria and Queensland during their first three to four years of teaching. It will provide great evidence for policy decision-making regarding teacher education and beginning teaching in Australia, including the importance of ensuring continuity in beginning teachers’ learning over the early years of their careers. Such an independent and significant study of this kind has certainly not been done in the UK for the last decade or more.

Research literacy is an essential skill for a teacher of the 21st century

In the UK, part of our response in the British Educational Research Association to the challenges facing initial teacher education was to establish an enquiry which found evidence to suggest that ‘research literacy’ should be seen as a fundamental element of teaching and therefore of teacher education.

The concept of research literacy has two elements. First, that all teachers should be able to access, critically evaluate and use, as appropriate, the educational research that is relevant to their practice. Second, that teachers should have the capacity to engage in systematic enquiry within their own classrooms and schools – that is, they should possess a repertoire of research skills that they can deploy if and when the need arises.

Underlying values of teachers are now more important than ever

My conclusion is that in spite of the many upheavals experienced by teachers and teacher educators as politician juggle their policies, there are important underlying values, such as respect for learners, commitments to social justice and equity, that can be traced through the history of teaching that may now be more important than ever. But the ways in which these values are embodied in the work of contemporary teachers are in need of major reconsideration because of the rapid social and technological change affecting all of us. The responsibilities for teachers today, and therefore for teacher educators, are greater now than they have ever been.



Ian Menter is Vice-President, British Educational Research Association and Emeritus Professor of Teacher Education, University of Oxford.

Professor Menter will be presenting a lecture What Is a Teacher In The 21st Century and What Does a 21st Century Teacher Need to Know? on Tuesday 26th April, 6pm to 7.30pm (followed by refreshments) in the Education Lecture Theatre 351, Education Building, Manning Rd, The University of Sydney. Registration is essential, register here if you would like to attend Ian’s lecture.