21st century teaching

What teachers need now to survive (hint: not this old trick)

The advice given to teachers entering the classroom for the first time is often ‘Don’t smile until Easter’. The expression suggests hostility, attempting to place the teacher as the enforcer and the one who will wield the power for the year. 

While the phrase might still ring true for some teachers, we, as teachers, are dealing with very different classrooms and students today that require a more socio-emotional approach. Classrooms are more heterogeneous than ever; the breadth of diversity and needs of students has grown. Students are entering the classroom with ever more diagnosed and undiagnosed disabilities, and growing wellbeing issues. 

The classroom can and should provide a warm, safe learning environment where students feel known and cared for. And whilst such an approach is highly applicable in primary schools, it also has its place in secondary classrooms. 

Teaching is social and emotional

We know teaching is a social and emotional practice, and using the first weeks of the term to build positive connections with students can have long term benefits for both teachers and students. Research tells us that positive teacher-student relationships can assist positive social and emotional development in students; influence student motivation and engagement; improve academic outcomes;  support at-risk students; provide a sense of belonging for students; and are beneficial for teachers and their wellbeing. The research is there, but how do teachers build these relationships in the classroom, especially in secondary schools when teachers often teach up to 180 students per week?

My research into teacher-student interactions in the classroom, collected data from 42 teachers across NSW secondary schools, covering all sectors and spanning 17 disciplines. I was curious to know how teachers interact with students in their classrooms to build teacher-student relationships and whether a teachers’ workload may be compromising these relationships. Many of the practices observed and counted are evidence-informed and low cost, high gain. The practices were split into those that teachers can proactively implement directly and those that indirectly contribute to creating and maintaining an optimal learning environment. 

Eye-contact, a warm voice and good manners

The early findings give insights into how teachers are navigating the classroom and their relational interactions with students (Figure 1). Highest counts came from teachers providing genuine praise, modelling respect, reflective and supportive listening, getting to know students and providing feedback. Teachers effectively used praise during lessons for positive behaviour, academic work and actions of individuals or a collective group. They modelled respect through eye-contact, a warm voice and good manners. Supportive and reflective listening through shared dialogue was characterised by teachers reflecting on a student’s thought or idea by supportively listening, then converting that thinking into further thinking and inquiry. Feedback came in the form of verbal advice to students of ways to improve and develop their thoughts. And teachers shared stories of themselves, and used familiar ‘teenage’ or contemporary examples to explain work or reference a students’ interest, to demonstrate knowing their students. 

Figure 1: Counted practices

Hello and goodbye

Two of the simplest techniques, positive greetings and farewells, which were only counted once per lesson, recorded one the lowest of counts. Over a third of teachers didn’t positively greet their students and a quarter of teachers didn’t finish the lesson with a positive farewell. This could reflect a number of things prevalent in the observation of lessons and the teacher interviews; the constant time constraints that teachers face such as the need to work through content or towards an assessment meant that teachers started lessons immediately with little personalisation; or the time it takes to travel to a new classroom each lesson, provide paper, pens and equipment for students, and student lateness often chewed up the time to genuinely greet students. The lack of time to build quality relationships was evidently a major concern for teachers in post interviews, claiming:

 “It’s a bit more of a lack of a chance to talk with them. There’s a lot of…’everything needs to be doing’ things all of the time and that lack of…slowdown to sort of have a chat with them and see them as people, to get them to see you as a person”. (Teacher 21)

“I wish that I had more time to interact with them in the classroom and I wish I had more time to interact with their drafts and things like that and give them that timely feedback. And I think that the fact that I don’t. I just have to go “You’ll be ok”  that makes me feel like I’m not doing enough for them.” (Teacher 28 )

What gets in the way

Many of the lower counts came from interpersonal practices that teachers adopt and can indirectly affect the teacher-student relationship and shape the learning climate (see red in Figure 1). These teacher actions can be done before and during the lesson. They help structure the learning environment, set the expectations and manage students positively. It is a way for teachers to bolster student confidence, build trust, and set and uphold classroom expectations. None of the 42 teachers in this study found time to write in a diary or provide a positive note to parents during the two observed lessons. Instead, time was taken up with constantly documenting student misbehaviour and negative incidences, all of which must be logged. A teacher reported:

I try to make a phone call to parents and say this kid has been good, but I just don’t have the time. I have 3 or 4 ‘negative’ calls to make, to inform a parent that their child is not working in class. (Teacher 23)

What do teachers value

Secondary school lessons can range from 40 to 75 minutes with the expectation that students sit still for the duration of the lesson. Studies show that small movement breaks contribute to less disruptions and better student concentration. Lesson time is often the most inactive part of a student’s day at school with the expectation, in a traditional sense, that students sit, listen and partake in learning. Three quarters of teachers provided no movement breaks during their lessons, even when observing students falling asleep and heads on table. Many lessons observed lacked peer collaborative strategies and student choice of their learning which can contribute to student motivation. Teachers reported resorting to ‘lecture style’ teaching or ‘talk-and-chalk’ due to the demands of additional work or workload which took away from planning and preparing for more engaging, student-centred lessons.  

Teachers were also asked what they value in their teaching, with 42.9% stating relationships, and 57.1%  stating other factors such as the curriculum, getting through the content, planning and preparation, and student understanding. Many of these teachers, speaking about how they form relationships with students, were unclear how this happens, whilst others spoke about specific tasks they may do at the beginning of the year as a way of getting to know their students.


These involved asking students to write introductory letters; informing students about yourself and your interests; learning their names and using them regularly; collaborative making of classroom rules, goals and expectations; playing ‘getting to know others’ bingo; or general discussions, either as a group or individually about likes, dislikes, interests etc. Much of the research, using student voice, reported care as a quality students want to see in teachers often commenting that the teacher doesn’t know them personally. Students also respect teacher competence; not being able to ‘run the room’ can be the quickest way to lose the students. 

Teachers influence their students, not only through their pedagogy and behaviour, but also in teaching and modelling social and emotional constructs. Creating positive teacher-student relationships is not about making friends. As the adults in the room, teachers instruct, direct and guide their students and their behaviour, not hesitating when difficulties arise. But also as the adult and leader in the room, teachers can help students feel safe, known and cared for, something which might not be happening at home.

Smile on day one?

So perhaps standing by the belief of  “Don’t smile until Easter” is an outdated adage. Instead, bring the humanness back to teaching; show a little of yourself, bring humour, get to genuinely know students and show you care. Underpin this with established routines and structure, transparency and predictability, and trust, to create a conducive learning environment that builds strong teacher-student relationships.  

Julianna Libro is a PhD candidate at The University of Sydney. She is interested in teachers’ growing workload and the consequences this has on teachers themselves, their practice and relationships with students. Julianna has over 20 years teaching experience in secondary schools as an English and History teacher and has taken on a variety of leadership roles throughout her career. Recently, Julianna presented her initial findings at ICERI Conference in Seville, Spain and AARE, Melbourne.

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.