Diane Mayer

Why we must talk about teacher professionalism now

In 2016, Judyth Sachs reflected on her 2003 monograph ‘The Activist Teaching Profession’ and asked, ‘Teacher professionalism: Why are we still talking about it?‘. In that paper, she argued ‘the time for an industrial approach to the teaching profession has passed’ and made a case for ‘systems, schools and teachers to be more research active with teachers’ practices validated and supported through research’ (p.413). I am not sure what Judyth would say five years later but I think this is the discussion that still needs to be had. We do need to talk about teacher professionalism in Australia in 2021 and particularly the way it is being constructed and reconstructed through teacher education policy.

In 2020, Martin Mills and I compared teacher professionalism as it was constructed in teacher education policies in Australia and England, and concluded,

… derision and mistrust of teacher education is evident in both contexts. The construction of teacher professionalism through the policies in Australia and England reflects a managerial approach dominated by performance cultures, increased accountability, and teacher standards … the extent to which teachers research and improve their practices, and invoke professional judgement involving interrogation of available research … rarely feature .

Mayer & Mills, 2020, p.14

The 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) review and the resulting updated accreditation standards and procedures have constructed teacher and teacher educator professionalism in Australia. Two key drivers are evident: making sure the ‘right’ people come into the profession and making sure beginning teachers are ‘classroom ready’. Teacher education was clearly positioned as a problem that could be fixed by tighter accountability mechanisms related to these drivers.

While the TEMAG review claimed to consider ‘wide-ranging evidence and research’ in recommending that the Australian Government act ‘on the sense of urgency to immediately commence implementing actions to lift the quality of initial teacher education’ (Recommendation 2), previous government reports, governments commissioned research consultancies, and/or reports from multinational entities like the OECD and McKinsey & Company, were used to support a perceived need for change. Peer reviewed and published research by teacher education academics rarely featured. In this way, evidence to support the claims and recommendations was constructed in a particular way, supporting Helgetun and Menter’s (2020) claim that evidence is often a rationalized myth in teacher education policy because policies are regularly politically constructed and ideologically based. 

An important component of the TEMAG argument and recommendations, as captured in the report’s title, was that graduates from teacher education programs must be ‘classroom ready’. As a result, teacher education accreditation requirements changed to include a final-year teaching performance assessment. This caused much upheaval, requiring significant changes to the teacher education curricula and to teacher education resourcing in order that programs remained accredited. However, little attention was given to what should be assessed; that is, what beginning teachers should know and be able to do. More attention was given to how teacher educators must design and implement the performance assessment, and various accountability mechanisms for surveillance of this process. The assumption seemed to be that the already developed Australian Professional Standards for Teachers accurately detailed the required professional knowledge, practice, and engagement, and that what was needed was a tighter accountability framework for teacher educators and their practices. Of course, regular critiques of such standards highlight how they construct a particular type of professionalism by focussing on what teachers do rather than what and how they think. None of this was not interrogated in the TEMAG review.

In addition, great emphasis was given to ensuring that the ‘right’ people come into the profession. This focus on the person (i.e., on teachers, not their teaching) resulted in recommendations about required academic skills and desirable personal attributes and characteristics for entry to teacher education programs. In the end, measures of academic skills ended up being the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and levels of personal literacy and numeracy. Of course, many teacher education entrants are not secondary school graduates. Thus, the political and media hype about ATAR and the quality of the teaching profession is misguided. In relation to personal levels of literacy and numeracy, TEMAG recommended that teacher educators ‘demonstrate that all preservice teachers are within the top 30 per cent of the population in personal literacy and numeracy.’ Not surprisingly, this 30% category proved rather challenging to associate with a score on the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education Students.

Another aspect aimed at ensuring that the ‘right’ people were admitted to teacher education was the recommendation for selection processes to assess the ‘personal characteristics to become a successful teacher’ (Recommendation 10).

At its worst, this conjures up visions of the 1930s so-called teacher characteristics ‘research’ associated with what makes a good teacher (which inevitably included being female and liking children).

Ensuring the ‘right’ people come into teaching was translated into accreditation requirements for providers to use non-academic selection criteria and, in practice, this has meant everything from a short personal statement attached to applications to the use of commercially produced tests designed to assess personal characteristics. Moreover, teacher education providers were required to ‘publish all information necessary to ensure transparent and justifiable selection processes for entry into initial teacher education programs’ suggesting a mistrust in providers to make appropriate decisions about selection of entrants to their teacher education programs.

Thus, teacher professionalism in Australia is being constructed as being the right type of person with appropriate personal characteristics and levels of personal literacy and numeracy, who can demonstrate successful teaching practice against standards within a system that determines performance indicators and mechanisms for classroom readiness. Moreover, teacher educator professionalism can be interpreted as ensuring the production of graduates who are classroom ready at point of graduation via programs that are accredited using nationally consistent standards.

In Australia and in England, the relentless reviewing of teacher education continues in 2021. And, yet again, the wording does not disguise the goals of these reviews. In Australia, the ‘Quality Initial Teacher Education Review’ will consider how to attract and select high-quality candidates into the teaching profession and how to prepare ITE students to be effective teachers Nothing new to see here. In the UK, the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Market Review is focussing on ‘how the ITT sector can provide consistently high-quality training, in line with the core content framework, in a more efficient and effective market’

Do we need to keep talking about teacher and teacher educator professionalism? Definitely! 

Diane Mayer is a professor of education (Teacher Education) at the University of Oxford and an honorary professor at both the University of Queensland and the University of Sydney.

Teacher Education: Beyond the ‘Policy Problem’

Much has been said in the media in the past week or so about teacher quality prompted by government announcements about new measures for regulating those who study in teacher education programs.

First, the New South Wales Government released a new policy that includes an entry requirement intended to ‘improve the quality of teachers graduating from universities and being employed in Australian schools’. Under the policy, from 2015 universities in New South Wales will only be able to enrol school-leavers who have achieved at least three Band 5, or results over 80 per cent, in at least three subjects, including English, in their Higher School. In addition, it is proposed that preservice teachers will have to pass a literacy and numeracy assessment before their final-year professional experience placement. It is suggested that access to a practicum placement in schools will be used to regulate these requirements.

Soon after the New South Wales Government announcement, the federal government announced that teacher education degrees will have to introduce an improved admissions process potentially including interviews, demonstrated values and aptitude, and a written statement.

This sort of positioning of teacher education as a ‘policy problem’ (cf.Cochran-Smith & Fries, 2005; Grimmett, 2009) and regulation via input measures, though politically expedient and perhaps popularly attractive, is a misguided attempt at quality assurance for teacher education and beginning teaching. The reality is that there is no research evidence that any of these measures improve the quality of graduating teachers. Granted, I agree with Pam Grossman that ‘as researchers and practitioners in the field of teacher education, we seem ill prepared to respond to critics who question the value of professional education for teachers with evidence of our effectiveness’ (2008, p.13). Of course, there are many reasons for this. Major grants are rare in the field of teacher education and consequently teacher educators study their own programs, producing many small-scale but often unconnected studies of teacher education practice. The findings from these studies do not produce convergent findings; indeed they never set out to do so. But, it must be said that teacher education practice has benefited greatly from this research. Teacher educators have learned a lot about how to design and implement teacher education programs. However, while such studies do provide a useful research base for informing teacher education practice, a significant gap remains for high quality, larger scale research into the effect of teacher education, research with which policy makers will engage. As a result, we end up with the current situation – much attention to entry and input measures such as ATAR, tests, aptitude measures, course requirements and so on, none of which have been shown to be linked to teacher effectiveness, however we define and measure effectiveness. I argue that these input measures do not focus the quality question at the point in the learning to teach continuum where teacher education providers should appropriately be accountable – the point of graduation and beginning teaching. Regulation at input suggests that teacher education has no impact.

A focus on outcomes requires us to consider to two things: 1. What is it that effective beginning teachers should know and be able to do? 2. In what ways can graduating teachers demonstrate their professional knowledge and practice, and their impact on student learning?

While we might argue that the new professional teaching standards (Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, 2011b) need further research interrogation and validation if they are to truly capture the nuances associated with teaching in different subject areas and grade levels as well as in different school systems and contexts, the accompanying national system of accreditation (Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership, 2011a) does include the requirement that teacher education providers provide evidence that graduates can demonstrate the graduate standards. However, in the main, our current practice of entry to the profession continues, with regulation by state agencies that use input models to make decisions about eligibility for teacher registration. Judgments are made about the quality of a teacher education program usually by paper review involving a panel of stakeholders deciding on the likelihood that the program will prepare an effective beginning teacher. Then, employers and teacher registration authorities use proxies like completion of the accredited teacher education program, grades in university subjects or practicum evaluations and observations of teaching to make a judgment about a graduating teacher’s level of professional knowledge and practice – about their readiness to teach. So, while systems are increasingly arguing for an outcomes-focused approach, the mechanisms by which decisions are made about the effectiveness of graduating teachers still draw on an older inputs-based approach. The recent policy announcements continue this focus on inputs.

If we are to move this, we must consider how we can provide opportunities for graduating teachers to demonstrate the professional knowledge, practice, and engagement captured by the standards. I believe we must turn our attention to authentic capstone assessments of the actual professional practice of teaching in the workplace, incorporating multiple measures and focussed on student learning (e.g.Darling-Hammond, 2006; Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 2000; Pecheone & Chung, 2006). Specifically, we need to acknowledge that assessments such as the practicum report do ‘not address important differences in context and content, and they ignore … the influence of teaching on learning’ (Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 2000, p.205). By developing authentic capstone assessments linked to the graduate standards, we can assure the profession, regulatory authorities, governments and the community, that we are preparing quality beginning teachers who are able to demonstrate the effectiveness of their professional knowledge and practice in ensuring student learning. That leaves us, as the teacher education experts, to decide on the most appropriate teacher education curriculum so that our graduates are indeed able to demonstrate the professional knowledge, skills and engagement capabilities expected for beginning teaching, in line with the mission and vision of the particular teacher education programs and/or institution.


diane-mayerProfessor Diane Mayer is Pro Vice Chancellor at Victoria University. Her current research and scholarship focuses on the policy and practice of teacher education, examining issues associated with the professionalism of teaching and what that means for the policy and practice of teacher education. Currently, she is lead CI on an ARC Linkage funded project ‘Investigating the effectiveness of teacher education for early career teachers in diverse settings: A longitudinal study’ and leading a DEEWR funded project ‘Longitudinal Teacher Workforce Main Study’.

Diane is chair of the Victorian Council of Deans of Education (VCDE), Board member of the Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE), and member of the Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA) executive. In addition, she is editor of two Taylor and Francis/Routledge journals, ‘Teaching Education’ and ‘Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education’.


Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership. (2011a). Accreditation of initial teacher education programs in Australia: Standards and Procedures. Carlton, Victoria: Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA). http://www.aitsl.edu.au/verve/_resources/Accreditation_of_initial_teacher_education.pdf

Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership. (2011b). National Professional Standards for Teachers. Carlton, Victoria: Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA). http://www.teacherstandards.aitsl.edu.au/static/docs/Australian_Professional_Standard_for_Teachers_FINAL.pdf

Cochran-Smith, M., & Fries, M. (2005). Researching Teacher Education in Changing Times: Politics and Paradigms. In M. Cochran-Smith & K. Zeichner (Eds.), Studying Teacher Education: The Report of the AERA Panel on Research and Teacher Education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2006). Assessing teacher education: The usefulness of multiple measures for assessing teacher outcomes. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(2), 120-138.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Snyder, J. (2000). Authentic assessment of teaching in context. Teaching and Teacher Education, 16(5-6), 523-545.

Grimmett, P. (2009). Legitimacy and identity in teacher education: a micro-political struggle constrained by macro-political pressures. Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 5-26.

Grossman, P. (2008). Responding to our critics: From crisis to opprtunity in research on teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(1), 10-23.

Pecheone, R., & Chung, R. (2006). Evidence in teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 57(1), 22-36.