Suzanne Mellor

Positive personal attributes: why teachers need them and how teacher education can help (despite negative media)

Positive personal attributes such as fairness, humour and kindness, I believe, should be considered necessary attributes for a teacher. Currently much of the discussion around ‘quality’ teaching, teacher entry and teacher education is about a suite of high-level competencies and standards. However the nature of teachers’ work and the uniqueness of the education profession should point us towards a different way of looking at ‘quality’ teaching, and, importantly, how we educate our pre-service teachers.

Of course a high level of professional competencies are vital. But positive personal attributes help provide the essence of ‘quality’ in teaching, that vital capacity of teaching to transform learners.

Here in Australia, for some years, there has been a move to suggest that selection for entry into teacher education programs might involve some sort of process to identify people who not only have professional qualifications but also have positive personal attributes. Peter Garret, when Federal Minister for Education was cited as saying:

“…the fact is universities need to be sure that the people who are putting up their hand to come in and do teaching have got not only the right qualifications but also the additional temperament, commitment, enthusiasm and directed strengths and real desire to do that job” (Queensland Times, 2013).

Building quality in teaching and teacher education report

An interest in the role of personal attributes of teachers and our involvement in teacher education led my colleague, Suzanne Mellor, and I to do a comprehensive review of ‘quality’ teaching, teacher accreditation and teacher education in Australia from a number of angles. We wanted to unpack what is happening and to put positive personal attributes firmly in the mix.

Our report, Building quality in teaching and teacher education, which was released two weeks ago, considers the accreditation processes and requirements for teacher education programs and the suite of capabilities that a pre-service teacher must demonstrate before graduation and teacher registration. We examine the nature of quality teaching, the elements that comprise and underscore this quality, and the importance and place of the role of teacher education and teacher educators to develop quality teachers for every classroom. (There is a link to the full report at the end of this blog post.)

Our message is that quality teachers combine positive personal attributes such as fairness, humour and kindness, with a suite of high-level competencies. We believe the new generation of 21st century learners calls upon academics, and the broader profession, to think differently about teacher preparation and what it is to achieve as a teaching professional.

The role of teacher education in choosing candidates with positive attributes

While there may be benefit in governments, schools and school systems choosing teacher candidates carefully, our report argues that it is important to recognise the vital role teacher education can and does play in the development and tailoring of these personal attributes for the greatest learner impact. It is not sufficient to identify these personal attributes at entry to the teacher education program. Teacher education has a role to show pre-service teachers how to bring these attributes to their professional tasks.

Effective teacher preparation programs develop pre-service teachers in ways that ensure that they see the value and have the skills to assess fairly, to plan and engage students with humour, to sensitively build confidence, and to be that cheerleader for each learner.

Teachers, have an enduring impact. Their ability to make the student think and feel in productive ways about their learning, and themselves as learners provides a transferable orientation to learning and thinking that has an indelible impact, beyond the moment. This is the essence of quality. And this is the teaching every learner can respond to and deserves.

The destructive role the media can play in the world of teaching

However, teaching, teachers and teacher education are suffering a thousand blows in the media in Australia. There is a persistent failure to recognise the incredible skills and personal traits of our teachers and the impact they make daily on the self-worth, aspirations, motivation to learn and holistic development of learners.

There is certainly no media congratulation for carefully designed teacher education programs. Teacher education can bring pre-service teachers to understand how they can lead learning efficiently and fairly while at the same time using high level interpersonal skills to make learners feel accomplished and aspirational. Sadly this is not something that sells newspapers or provides ‘clickbait’ online. Worse, as I see it, there is active antagonism toward teachers and teacher education in some of Australia’s mainstream media.

Our report was intended as an uplifting recognition of quality teachers and teacher education, with a few key messages about the ways we might develop even further. Alarmingly, the first media article, on the day of the release of our report, was inexplicably entitled “Teachers found lacking”. In support of this errant claim the author went further to put into quotation marks that we were advocating that “… too little training in how teachers win the hearts and minds of their students” (Gold Coast Bulletin, 28 July 2016).

It is hard to understand how such an outrageous misreading and reporting of the argument can occur. I suggest that it is an indication of the deep well of negativity surrounding the popular discourses on teaching and teacher education.

This same negative and incorrect message regarding our report was replicated across networks. For example, in the Daily Telegraph, Sydney, the article announcing the release of our report was entitled: “New teachers should be given ‘training wheels’ and more help to connect with students”. As the old adage warns, when you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. Unfortunately when it comes to teachers, teaching and teacher education, some parts of Australian media have a firm grip on the hammer. I understand that there may be a retraction published, but the damage has been done.

It is hard to understand what a society can possibly gain from demonising the profession that holds its future. Acting to demoralise teachers and to discredit the profession can only dismantle and devalue education as a community asset.

Australia seems to be unique in having a national sport, in some parts of the media, of teacher bashing. If we look to the most celebrated contemporary education systems in the world, such as Finland, we find a very different picture. That is, teachers in Finland are highly regarded, well paid professionals. They are respected and enabled to design the learning for their students based on their own professional evaluation of the student needs. Student outcomes in tests such as PISA show Finnish students to be world-beaters. Teachers, teaching, and teacher education in Finland are not subjected to the kind of media negativity for the profession found here in Australia.

We are hoping any further news and media comment on our report will bring a more appreciative lens to the education profession in Australia. I would like to see more positive media news stories, in general, on the quality work being done by our teachers.

As our report suggests, it is so important to acknowledge and focus on the positive personal attributes of teachers, those that transform children into learners who, in turn, can contribute to the success and wellbeing of our nation.


Here is the full report Building quality in teaching and teacher education.


Nan-Bahr_250pxProfessor Nan Bahr is Dean (Learning and Teaching) for the Arts, Education and Law Group at the Griffith Univerity. She is responsible for the quality of design and implementation of programs across the Arts, Education and Law Group, both undergraduate and postgraduate and development programs, including higher degree research and coursework. The role works with the Pro Vice Chancellor with decision making responsibilities regarding students issues and applications.

Prior to joining Griffith University in 2015, Nan was Assistant Dean (Teaching and Learning) and Professor of Education for the Faculty of Education at the Queensland University of Technology. This position followed from her role as Director Teacher Education with the University of Queensland. Nan has a background as a Secondary School teacher for Sciences, and the Arts, particularly Music. Nan holds a PhD in Educational Psychology and Music Education from the University of Queensland and has postgraduate and undergraduate degrees majoring in Biology, Music, Special Needs Education, and Educational Psychology. 

Professor Bahr has a national and international profile for educational research with over 100 publications including four books (one a best seller). Key research has been in the fields of music education, educational psychology, teacher education, adolescence, resilience, and teaching innovation in higher education. As a University Teacher, she has been awarded the University of Queensland Award for Excellence in Teaching, has been a finalist (twice) for the Australian Awards for University Teaching, and has been awarded for extended service with the Australian Defence Force.