The future of teaching: what we must find out

By Viv Ellis

What will it mean to be a teacher – and teach – in the future? What should be the relationships between schools and communities, young people and school systems? How can we overcome the challenges currently faced by teachers and by schools to imagine new futures for teachers and teaching?

The Wednesday evening of the AARE conference week in Melbourne saw the launch of the Monash Faculty of Education’s Inquiry into the Future of the Teaching Profession. The Inquiry will put Australian teachers and teacher educators’ work into a broader international context and actively seek to create resources for local public debate – new ideas, new language, and new practical options for moving constructively to reimagine teaching, teacher education and schooling. It will be an opportunity to shape a new, hopeful and future-oriented discourse about education in society.

Chaired by Marie Brennan, Professorial Fellow in the Monash Faculty and eminent Australian educationist, the Inquiry panel will comprise James Desmond, Head of Humanities and an early career teacher at the Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School in Melbourne; Meredith Peace, Victorian President of the Australian Education Union; Professor Jay Phillips, Head of the School of Australian Indigenous Studies at Charles Sturt University; and David Robinson, Executive Director (Workforce Policy and Strategy) in the Department of Education in Victoria. You can find out more about the Inquiry itself here .

Speaking at the launch event, Marie Brennan was joined by Senator Penny Allman-Payne, Australian Greens spokesperson for schools and a former secondary school teacher, as well as Desmond and Robinson. The conversation among speakers and a large audience both in-person at the Monash Conference Centre in Collins Street and online via YouTube acknowledged the current challenges and issues facing Australia and many other countries globally but moved on to address both the general future directions of policy and practice as well as debating the focus for the work of the Inquiry panel over the first half of 2024. A recording of the launch event is available on YouTube

A 2016 UNESCO report estimated that the world would need almost 69 million more teachers by 2030 to achieve the fourth Sustainable Development Goal – universal basic education. Current trends see that estimate increasing. Countries like Australia will experience the consequences of these trends – and will do so differentially, with often the poorest and least well-served and marginalised communities struggling to recruit and retain teachers. This year, 2023, the UN established a high-level panel on the teaching profession and just a few months ago more than 100 countries met and committed to fully funding public education for their countries. Yet many economically developed countries fail to do so, Australia being one of them.

For Senator Allman-Payne, fully funding public education in Australia was fundamental to addressing all aspects of the challenges going forward and inextricably linked to all future possibilities. Describing the shortfall in funding as the ‘elephant in the room’, Allman-Payne argued  that a fully funded public education system was essential not only for a quality education but for a ‘cohesive society and a strong and robust democracy’. Marie Brennan picked up on the importance of public education in societal terms in referring to the outcome of the recent referendum on an Indigenous Voice in parliament, describing it as, in part, a failure of education that was linked to the broader politics of education in Australia, as well as other issues.  For James Desmond, the key issue was ‘inequality – of funding, of opportunities, and of outcomes. Your postcode should not dictate the quality of and access to education you receive.’

David Robinson drew attention to the community respect and support afforded to teachers in successful education systems worldwide. For too long, he argued, the public discourse around education had been predominantly negative and failed to recognize the achievements and ‘everyday successes’ of teachers in classrooms. Marie Brennan extended this point by emphasising the necessity for schools as institutions as well as individual teachers engaging with their communities, understanding and learning from them, and regarding schools as in and of their communities rather than being separate from them. For Marie, teachers need the time and space to ‘build the relationships on which good teaching depends’ – and the relationship-building does not stop at the classroom door.

The kind of work that teachers are expected to do was also a focus of the discussion with Senator Allman-Payne and Marie Brennan both commented on the importance of teachers’ agency. For Senator Allman-Payne, teaching as a career is at its most rewarding when it empowers teachers to be agentic professionals. For Marie Brennan, given that education and the work of educators is ‘always future-oriented’, it is critically important that education policy also becomes future-oriented and resists reverting to trying to ‘standardise’ teaching and teachers’ work on a vision of the past. For David Robinson, as a public servant tasked with teaching workforce development, a future-orientation filled with hope is also a practical concern when it comes to both teacher recruitment and, crucially, retention.

For the evening’s panelists as well as the Inquiry panel more broadly, it is now time to focus on working towards a positive future for teaching, the profession and schools rather than reinventing the past. And while most work on educational futures has tended either to extrapolate on current trends or to imagine idealized, utopian institutions, different futures now need to be constructed in practice to move forward from the current situation.

This is a challenge that cannot be answered with yet another political review or academic critique. As James Desmond noted: ‘Ultimately the Inquiry is about looking forward, rather than analysing the past; to better understand the challenges of the future; and to make teaching a sustainable and attractive vocation for years to come.’The Inquiry will involve further public activities and events across Australia, in-person as well as virtually, along with commissioned briefing papers, and culminating in a final report in mid-2024. We hope you join us along the way.

Viv Ellis is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His latest book (with Lauren Gatti and Warwick Mansell), The New Political Economy of Teacher Education: The Enterprise Narrative and the Shadow State, will be published by Policy Press early next year.

Image in header: Prof Marie Brennan, Chair of the Inquiry into the Future of the Teaching Profession, Professorial Fellow, Faculty of Education, Monash University; David Robinson, Executive Director (Teaching Workforce), Department of Education, Victoria; James Desmond, Head of Humanities and early career teacher, MacRobertson High School, Melbourne  On the screen: Senator Penny Allman-Payne (Senator for Queensland, Green Party spokesperson on schools)

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One thought on “The future of teaching: what we must find out

  1. Olivia Karaolis says:

    Relationships are everything and our schools reflect a culture in which not everyone is welcomed to a seat at the table. Schools should be, for the most part, places of joy, community and learning. This inquiry is a wonderful opportunity to create that culture and construct the image of the student and the teacher as capable and worthy of respect and to shape schools that truly reflect our educational village. What do we want our schools to look like, feel like and sound like? it does not look like a return to practices that did not work before and it does not sound like a behaviour curriculum or feel like the students are the problem. It is wonderful that this panel is listening.

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