Neville Jennings

Unexceptional students can grow and develop into highly professional teachers: I know I did it

Aspiring teachers will need to meet a raft of new requirements if they want to get a job teaching in NSW public schools from 2019. NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, who has criticized universities for accepting students with low ATAR scores into Initial Teacher Education courses, has set the bar high with a new Teacher Success Profile that all new teachers in NSW pubic schools will have to meet.

To teach in NSW public schools graduates from Initial Teaching Education courses will need at least a credit point average in their degree course, have the entirety of their practical classroom experience assessed, show superior cognitive and emotional intelligence via a psychometric test, pass a one-on-one behavioural interview and complete an undergraduate degree that is delivered face-to-face rather than online.

As a consequence of proposing the Teacher Success Profile, the Minister’s office has received many letters and calls from universities insisting that that profile is discriminatory: being focused on excellence rather than equity. Amongst the academics commenting on the issue are Professor Nan Bahr (Pro Vice Chancellor and Dean of Education at Southern Cross University), Professor Donna Pendergast (Dean of Education at Griffith University) and Associate Professor Joanne Ferreira (Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Academic Director of SCU Online at Southern Cross University).

They argue that teachers are NOT under-qualified and NOT under-educated. They say Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) scores have limited value in selecting prospective teachers as they over-simplify the complex attributes required of today’s educators.

As with many qualified and highly experienced teachers who are, or have been, teachers in NSW schools this discussion led me to reflect on my own career as a teacher.

Pathway to becoming a professional

While my pathway is unique to me, many teachers, and perhaps many would-be teachers, may identify with what I did and how I did it. I want to tell you my story because I believe people, given the chance, can grow and develop into highly successful professionals.

Before Xmas in 1958, I sat on the front lawn of my home in Ryde, NSW waiting for the Sydney Morning Herald to reveal my Leaving Certificate results. Having attended the selective Homebush Boys’ High School I was happy to have gained a pass with five “B” level results. I had applied for a Teachers’ College Scholarship and waited unsuccessfully through January while my mates with slightly better results gained Commonwealth Scholarships to study at University. Late in January 1959 I was told by departmental officials at Sydney University that there were 250 applicants ahead of me in the race to get a scholarship.

I started work in a local factory as the academic year began but kept checking with the department until just before Easter in 1959, I was offered one of the last scholarships to be offered at Wagga Wagga Teachers’ College. I was on the train the next day. Under the incoming Teacher Success Profile I probably would not have gained entry.

Not only were my academic results average, I did not have an outgoing personality and tended to question authority a little too readily. Compliance was not my strong suit, and yet here I was seeking to work for one of the world’s largest educational bureaucracies.

I probably also would have had difficulty passing the emotional intelligence test and the one-on-one behavioural interview by failing to fully realize that teaching is “relational”. I had little understanding at that age about the collegial nature of teaching. That is something that only came from experience.

As it happened, my personality blossomed during my teacher training years, I was inspired to pursue an academic career and I found that I loved teaching. Entering the profession at age nineteen and teaching primary students at a succession of rural schools, I studied part time with UNE and gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Geography, History, Economics and Education. I then transferred to the secondary sector and soon found myself on a Board of Studies Curriculum Committee for Asian Social Studies.

With the support of teachers in neighbouring schools across Sydney I helped to establish the Asia Teachers’ Association. I was a mentor in the Macquarie University Master Teacher Scheme and my wife Leonie, who was a product of that scheme, became a highly successful educator.

I toured the state delivering professional development courses. In subsequent years I taught in Victoria and gained a Teaching Exchange to Manitoba, Canada before returning to Sydney to teach at a private school in 1985. I had been promoted to the level of Head Teacher and had completed a course in Teacher Librarianship, a Graduate Diploma in Intercultural Education and a Masters Degree in Education.

Upon moving to the North Coast of NSW in 1990, I worked in a Professional Development Centre, engaged in the training of primary teachers at Southern Cross University, completed my PhD in Citizenship Education and ended up as Education Liaison Officer for the secondary teacher program at the Tweed Gold Coast campus of SCU from 2005 till 2008. As a researcher, I joined the Southern Cross Roundtable to conduct a Second Phase evaluation of the nation-wide Innovative Links Program that drew together school-based and university-based teachers in fulfilling collaborative action research.

During my time as a teacher educator it was my onerous duty along with my colleagues and school-based professionals to advise some students that they were not suited to teaching and sadly some of these were people who entered the program with high ATAR scores. Others were rejected on the basis of their toxic attitude to students but this was not always evident when they first entered the program. At age 77 I am still volunteering as Primary Ethics Teacher at a local primary school where it is my pleasure to mix with highly dedicated professionals who followed a similar pathway to my own.

Graduates can grow and develop into committed professionals

This past Sunday I convened a meeting of alumni from the 2005-2008 teacher training programs at the Tweed Gold Coast campus. These graduates have now been teaching in local schools for ten to thirteen years and are making positive contributions to their respective schools and systems. While they were grateful for the training that they received, they showed clearly how they have developed into committed professionals.

Although they came into the program as graduates of first degrees, I wonder how many of these successful teachers may have been blocked from entry to a teaching degree if the proposed Stokes TSP system had been in place. When they first arrived on campus some of these were mature age students and they may well have wondered whether they could successfully impart the knowledge that they had gained in their first degree.

Would a behavioural interview have successfully predicted which students were most likely to overcome any natural trepidation about embarking on a teaching career, thereby allowing them access to the profession?

While I tend to agree with the Minister that teacher training cannot be successfully delivered in totality online, this is 2018. In this modern era, we do have to provide some online flexibility. I agree that practical classroom experience should be fully assessed, but governments need to substantially increase funding to allow tertiary educators and school-based mentors to carry out that supervision.

The question thus arises: what sort of recruitment measure would have identified me as a potentially successful teacher?

Could such a measure predict my ability to grow within the profession? Should I have been cast aside at age 17 as an unlikely candidate for teaching because I was not in the top academic rung?

How many young people out there in 2019 will have their dreams shattered by a blunt instrument called the Teacher Success Profile? And how many students out there could miss out on that dedicated, passionate teacher who is growing in their job, who understands some of their struggles, and who could help set them on their own pathway to success.


Dr Neville Jennings retired as a lecturer with the SCU School of Education in 2008 but has maintained a close connection with the university through his alumni activities and membership of the University’s “History of the University” group. He completed his PhD in the area of Citizenship Education, with a focus on the Middle Years of Schooling. He was the inaugural President of the Asia Teachers’ Association (now known as the AETA). Neville was also an action researcher with the Southern Cross Roundtable, completing a second phase evaluation of the Innovative Links Project across Australia. He has conducted research projects for the Centre for Children and Young People at SCU. One of these research projects focused on the needs of Indian (Sikh) people in the Coffs Harbour area. He helped edit the CCYP publication “Ethical Research Involving Children” (2013) commissioned by the UNICEF Office of Research. Neville maintains links with the Centre for Children and Young People based in Lismore and currently teaches Primary Ethics at Chillingham Public School.