Teachers are NOT under-qualified and NOT under-educated: here’s what is really happening

By Nan Bahr and Donna Pendergast and Jo-Anne Ferreira

Australian teachers are doing well. They are not under-qualified and they are certainly not under-educated, as some media stories would have you believe. They are doing an admirable job managing exhausting workloads and constantly changing government policies and processes. They are more able than past generations to identify and help students with wide ranging needs. They are, indeed, far better qualified and prepared than those in our nation’s glorious past that so many commentators reminisce wistfully about.

In fact, our teachers today are the best qualified ever. They are educational specialists. So are their teacher educators, people like us, who prepare teachers for their professional calling. Contrary to the opinions of some media commentators and politicians, our teacher educators are also better prepared and more qualified than ever before. They design and implement innovative, intensive and rigorous teacher education programs, they deal with constantly changing policy and government requirements, and they expertly mentor and supervise their student teachers’ classroom experience.

So let’s unpick this a little just to demonstrate the trustworthiness of our opening claim.

Teacher qualifications

A two-year course was enough to educate teachers in the 1970s. And this was an improvement on the “pupil-teacher” apprenticeship approach that preceded in the 1960s which allowed a person to start teaching before they finished high school.

These days, four or five years of tertiary education is the base line for preparation to be a teacher in Australia. This is followed by mandatory ongoing professional development. Teachers possessing a higher degree are also not uncommon. The profile of teachers in Queensland, for example, shows that 70% of QLD teachers in 2016 possessed higher degrees in the field of education beyond their initial teacher qualification.

Entrance to teacher education courses

The use of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) has come under scrutiny in the news recently as a measure for entry into teacher education courses in Australia.  However less than half of those entering teaching education rely on an ATAR in any way to indicate their academic suitability. Many others enter with a post-secondary academic qualification as their measure of academic preparedness for initial teacher education. That is, they have higher than Year 12 academic achievement as their claim to academic ability.

Further, ATAR as a measure alone is not used for teacher education entry in any institution in Australia. The ATAR has been shown to have limited value for teacher education as it oversimplifies the complex attributes that assist someone to start teacher education well, and it ignores the value of the teacher education program itself.

Students entering teacher education today are assessed carefully for their motivation and capacity for a teaching career before entry. They must demonstrate they have numeracy and literacy skills better than 70% of the population. Then candidates for primary teacher education programs in Queensland must have satisfactorily completed their secondary education with demonstrable achievement in maths, a science, and English. Indeed, each regulatory jurisdiction has their own set of requirements. New South Wales, for example, requires three band five ratings (better than 80% achievement) in their senior school results.

We think much of the public debate regarding the entry standards required for teaching programs is testament to an insinuation that a four-year teacher education course can somehow be devoid of any content, or development. If we just waited four years before letting teacher candidates loose on our poor unsuspecting students, then yes, the entry standards would be pertinent. But that’s not what happens of course.

As they are studying to become a teacher, student teachers today have to meet a stringent suite of requirements to develop and demonstrate pedagogical skills, theoretical understanding, conceptual and discipline knowledge across the National Curriculum, communication skills, planning and cultural development capabilities, and so on. This is coupled with substantial in-school teaching experiences and it is all assessed through a rigorous Teacher Performance Assessment.

Teacher education courses and teacher educators

But maybe the real problem is teacher educators and the courses they teach. Are teacher educators just academics who haven’t been near a classroom for years, or in the spirit of the statement “those who can’t do … teach”, are teacher educators just a crew of failed teachers? Certainly that is what some would have you believe. It is simply not true.

Take one of our institutions for example: in our teacher education unit we have 28 academics and all of us are fully qualified and registered teachers. Over 70% of us have been school leaders, heads of department, deputy principals, principals, and/or have held regional leadership roles. The remaining 30% are no slouches; they have all had long and successful careers of an average of 10 years in school classrooms before attaining higher degrees and moving to academia. All are deeply committed to providing a quality program to develop the next generation of teachers.

The teacher education programs we use are all heavily and nationally accredited. They are rigorous and vigorous. These courses are definitely not for the fainthearted. Every student that graduates with a teacher education degree has demonstrably changed and has developed as a professional in response to the program of study and experience we provide. Every graduate meets the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Their professional registration and our accreditation as a higher education provider depend on this. Teacher education institutions are required to provide clear evidence that this is always the case.

Coping with an exhausting workload

Meanwhile for teachers, curriculum areas have grown and the reporting and record keeping obligations have become more onerous. For the average Year 6 class where a single teacher is typically responsible for pulling the entire year of learning together, there are at least eight discipline areas aligning to the national curriculum, supplemented by no less than three cross curricular priorities and seven general capabilities. On top of this there may be cultural or pastoral studies if they are at a faith-based school. So that could be 13 teaching fields for the one teacher with the one class.

Yet back in the 70s, at least in Queensland, teachers were responsible for only six or seven subject areas (depending on whether music was considered in the mix) and they were able to develop their own approaches. They did have more students per teacher: the student/teacher ratio was 24-1 in 1970 compared with 13.7 in 2016. But, there was less content to teach, and a markedly reduced requirement for record keeping, obligations to prepare for national standardised tests, and so forth.

The point is, teachers today are highly qualified professionals who cope with an astounding workload.

So, let’s stop distrusting teachers and stop questioning their qualifications to do their job. Teachers today are well prepared. They are qualified, caring and capable professionals who can be proud of their achievement in graduating from one of today’s rigorous teacher education programs.

And let’s stop distrusting teacher educators. They too are well qualified and are well placed to provide effective teacher education based on their own well-developed capacity to relate to classrooms and students.

Our teaching profession is healthy and strong, and providing a wonderful service to our children, youth and communities. Why is that so hard for some commentators and politicians to believe?


Professor Nan Bahr is Pro Vice Chancellor (Students), Professor and Dean of Education at Southern Cross University. In this role she is responsible for oversight and strategic management for improved engagement, experience and retention of students across the University. Professor Bahr also has specific responsibility, as Dean of Education, for the quality of the Teacher Education programs, research and service in the field of education for Southern Cross University. 

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.   Nan is on Twitter @NanBahr

Professor Donna Pendergast is Dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University. Her research expertise is educational transformation and efficacy, with a focus on: middle year’s education and student engagement; initial and professional teacher education; and school reform. 

Donna commenced her career as a school teacher working in secondary, P-10 and senior college settings before shifting to the role of academic, first at Queensland University of Technology, The University of Queensland, and since 2009, at Griffith University.  She has served in many roles associated with the profession including Chair of the Board of Directors of Queensland Education Leadership Institute (QELI) and Chair of the Queensland Council of Deans of Education (QCDE).  Donna has more than 160 refereed publications, 16 commissioned reports and 19 books, including the popular Teaching Middle Years: Rethinking curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, now in its third edition and the recipient of an international Choice Award as an Outstanding Academic title. Donna played a pivotal role in preparing school leaders for the shift of Year 7 to secondary and the implementation of Junior Secondary in Queensland.  In 2015 she received the Vice Chancellor’s Research Supervision Excellence Award, and in 2017 she received a National Commendation from the Australian Council of Graduate Research for Excellence in Graduate Research Supervision. Donna has recently been awarded the Australian Council for Educational Leadership Miller-Grassie Award for Outstanding Educational Leadership. Donna is on Twitter at @pendergast_d

Associate Professor Jo-Anne Ferreira is Director of the Centre for Teaching & Learning and Academic Director, SCU Online at Southern Cross University. She is responsible for enhancing teaching quality and the student learning experience, both face-to-face and online. Prior to this, she was Director, Teaching and Learning in the School of Education at Southern Cross University. She began her teaching career as a secondary English and Geography teacher in South Africa and Australia.

Jo-Anne has developed and delivered award winning professional development programs in Australia, South Africa and across the Asia-Pacific region to teachers and student teachers. She has also taught in universities in South Africa and Australia. Her research interests are in online education and the sociology of education with a special interest in post-structuralist theories of identity, embodiment and power, in systems-based change, and in environmental and sustainability education. She has most recently led a decade-long research project on systems-based change as a strategy for embedding sustainability education in teacher education.


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18 thoughts on “Teachers are NOT under-qualified and NOT under-educated: here’s what is really happening

  1. Great article from great colleagues who have a deep and respectful understanding of the complex work and contexts of teachers and teacher educators. To support their advocacy to trust teachers and teacher educators, it’s worthwhile understanding the wider strategic importance of initial teacher education in Australia. To illustrate, approximately 8-10% of students in higher education in Australia are studying Education, while the remaining 90% or so students who are studying other important fields of human endeavour (e.g. Medicine, Law, Engineering, Arts, Science, Dentistry, Nursing, Business, etc) were taught by teachers. And, importantly, those teachers, in turn, were taught by teacher educators.

    Similarly, to illustrate this, Margaret Lloyd, in her important OLT National Teaching Fellowship on initial teacher education, appropriately highlighted the excerpt from the 2007 Australia Day speech by Professor Glyn Davis. Like myself (and many students, parents and carers who work closely with their teachers and schools), Glyn refers to our teachers as his ‘heroes’. Glyn stated that:
    “So next time a public speaker takes a cheap shot at school teachers, reflect for a moment on just how much our political system, our way of associating, our peaceful streets and national consensus about the norms of public life, are learned from teachers.
    … Teachers are, for me, the heroes of this and every Australia Day”.

  2. Rather than just noting teacher’s high workload, I suggest doing something about it. I suggest training teachers to work together, including using technology, so they are not working alone. Also teachers could be trained to use technology for teaching and administrative tasks. Where schools don’t provide the systems needed, educational academics can step in and commission it. The software engineering students in Australian universities can then build the software. As an example, I have an ANU student building an addition module for Moodle for me to add quizzes to videos.

  3. Sarah Haigh says:

    That’d be great if we were allowed to use third-party administration software, but we have to use the clunky, government developed systems.

  4. Sarah, you can change clunky government systems. Martin Dougiamas did not like available teaching software, so he wrote Moodle. I didn’t like the networking systems used by the Australian Government, so I joined the cabal which had the Internet and the World Wide Web adopted. The way to do this is to think like a professional: get together with your colleagues, professional bodies and academics, work out what to do and then do it. You will find plenty of people willing to help. Work out what you want, have the open source community develop it, have academics teach how to use it for training purposes, and have innovation students work on marketing it to schools.

  5. Dr. Rose-Marie Thrupp says:

    It is to be considered that those who criticise the work of schools and our teachers have little background in education except that they attended a school themselves. In their criticisms, they rely on this background of a different time. Moreover, their knowledge of the complexities of schools and teaching, the chaos of working in an environment of children living life as children and working in an environment where politicians recognise themselves as the clients of the system and not those children and their parents has changed the nature of schooling in the last 30 years.

    In my early years as a teacher, I was made to feel that I was the person who had the knowledge and disposition about teaching. I pursued study at night for years to extend my knowledge and build the extensive understanding required to work with children in a school setting. This was respected by parents and colleagues. Now, however, many who have never stepped inside a classroom since leaving one themselves feel they know and can dictate.

    This is making staffing our schools a difficult task. Teachers burnout quickly when under rapid fire criticism.

  6. Nan Bahr says:

    Thanks Glenn. We are desperately hoping that those that seek to find fault with teachers, and who agitate through the media to denigrate the quality of our profession, will start to see some sense in celebrating the achievements of our teachers instead.

  7. Annette Woods says:

    Well said Nan

  8. Emeritus Professor Glenn Finger says:

    Absolutely, Nan!

  9. Wendy Goff says:

    This is a long-awaited article by two highly accomplished and well-respected teacher educators and researchers! Thank you! To contribute to the discussion I would add that many commentators and politicians tend to omit the fact that it is the research that teacher educators engage in that could potentially change the direction of educational policy and practice in Australia. Unfortunately, in this post-truth world where experts are dismissed and alternative ‘truths’ are adopted by those with a strong public voice, we fight a losing battle…
    Our teachers ARE experts in teaching and learning, and our teacher educators ARE experts in teacher education and educational research. It is about time that we moved forward in education in Australia. The only way we will do this is by listening to them!

  10. Wendy Goff says:

    Sorry – 3 highly accomplished and well-respected teacher educators and researchers.

  11. Liz Hillam says:

    Excellent article!

  12. Richard Rafael Rothman says:

    I am a seasoned teacher in Israel and we have a similar situation here. Our younger teachers have gotten much better educations than when I studied and outsiders don’t know how to appreciate the changes
    Rafi… Jerusalem

  13. Thank you Nan, Donna and Jo-Anne for an important statement about teachers and teaching. Great leaders lead from the front and your contribution is a valuable statement at a time of significant complexity in our world and in our local communities. If we are to continue to attract great people into our initial teacher education programs and hold onto them beyond their early career teaching phase we need to disrupt this sustained and unjustified critique of our teaching profession. In addition, we need to critique the sustained emphasis on graduate teachers who often commence teaching in some of the most challenging teaching contexts with limited resources and limited supports. Our early career workforce is working hard every day to meet the needs of their communities in the most remarkable ways and they do a great job of it! I hope that your message reaches our early career colleagues, pre-service teachers and those thinking about teaching, to inspire them to critique the critique and continue to work towards creating great futures for others. Well done!

  14. Norm Barrett says:

    Brilliant article, backed up by intuitive comment by peers and others.

  15. Kirsty Oxlee says:

    When faced with the criticism that students are entering teaching degrees with low tertiary entrance scores, I would argue that some of the best teachers are those who have struggled to learn and therefore will often have a greater understanding of their students’ learning impediments.

  16. Colin Power says:

    Great article Nan. You might be interested to know that while heading Unesco’s education sector in Paris I set up World Teachers Day in order to help promote respect for the teaching profession and to tell the story of how teachers make the difference on CN N and other global media. Outlets. See the chapter on Teaching in my recent book published by 20155 entitled “The power of education: Education for all, development, globalisation and Unrsco. Best wishes and keep up the good work
    Emeritus Prof. Colin Power

  17. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:

    Thanks for the support! It is such a shame the media does not elect to publicize this perspective. It is difficult enough to be a good teacher, without demoralizing media coverage. It will become increasingly difficult to recruit bright innovative thinkers to the profession if we don’t enhance the respect in which it is held. Comments such as these certainly help, in that regard.

  18. Emeritus Professor Glenn Finger says:

    Very well said, Sue…please know that there are many who value your important work and efforts, and this needs to be elevated and find expression through the media for the profession.

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