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

By Neville Jennings

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. 

14 thoughts on “Unexceptional students can grow and develop into highly professional teachers: I know I did it

  1. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:

    Very much to the point, Dr Jennings. how does one identify those who will have a passion for earning and teaching in the future? How do we predict who young adults will be in 4 years?

  2. Neville Jennings says:

    Sue I think it is up to teacher educators, and mentor teachers in our schools, to closely monitor student teachers as they move through the training regime. I don’t think that a dodgy psychometric test or a high ATAR score at the beginning of the process will be a good predictor of who emerges as a good teacher.

  3. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:


  4. Col Jennings says:

    Nev, Your teaching career has been exceptional especially what you contributed to in helping to establish the Asia Studies Project. Much of your success has I feel been due to having two parents who valued education and gave us the opportunity to study despite having little formal education themselves. You have however always been generous with your time and have valued others experience and I’m sure there are many not so young people out there in country towns and everywhere you have taught that will have benefitted by your teaching. Good on you brother! Keep it up!

  5. nevilleJennings@scu.edu.au says:

    Thanks Col. It was important to have a supportive family.

  6. Peter Wilcox says:

    Nev, I totally endorse your comments. I’m particularly interested in prac teaching supervision standards and regularity of ongoing supervision by on site staff and uni supervisors. Some student teachers are thrust into situations where very inexperienced new scheme teachers are passing on their pearls of wisdom as the only available or willing supervising teacher. Also, more attendance by unit staff would help legitimise it.

  7. Neville Jennings says:

    Hi Peter. I value your input as an experienced teacher and as a former tutor of trainee teachers. Our students at Southern Cross University greatly appreciated your expertise and enthusiasm both in the university setting and in your school.

    I was lucky to have a couple of inspiring university lecturers and mentor teachers. They raised my confidence levels, especially given that I was only 17 when i first undertook teacher training and only 19 years of age when I faced my first combined class of 46 Year 4/Year 5 students. I am so grateful that they set me up for a lifelong career in teaching.

  8. Donna Pendergast says:

    An important point well made Neville. Thank you for making this important point.

  9. Neville Jennings says:

    Thanks Donna. Your earlier post with Nan and Jo-Anne was an inspiration. Also your research on middle schooling was very helpful when I was completing my PhD.

  10. Dr. Rosie Thrupp says:

    Thankyou for this alternate point of view. I too grew into a passionate teacher after accessing Teacher’s College by the ‘skin of my teeth’ in 1971. My love of education and teaching continued to develop into a doctorate many years later, 2 Graduate Diplomas, working in a university, leadership in big schools and now mentoring overseas students in teacher education in my retirement.

    Schooling did not match my needs. I had no family to help me learn how to learn, model how to read and what to read but thank heavens they knew how to support me to be strong to reach for my dreams. Once in Teacher’s College, I wallowed and mucked in learning to my heart’s content. Classrooms excited me and still excite me. Pedagogy, curriculum thrill my heart.

    But yes, like you, I may not have made it under other circumstances…

    And as a Queenslander, a further note to the new policy in NSW…there are limited teachers in Queensland who are willing to go rural and remote…maybe we will end up with very bright, smart young teachers, yes, but will we have enough to go round?

  11. Denyse Ritchie says:

    Thank you Neville, Great summary! As a passionate teacher, teacher trainer and educator of over 35 years I have seen this scenario so many times in my career.

  12. Neville Jennings says:

    Thanks Denyse.
    Politicians tend to make knee-jerk reactions when addressing educational issues. We all want to guard against against a lowering of standards in the teaching profession. However the measures being introduced in NSW are likely to unfairly restrict entry to the profession. These candidates may not have fully played the ATAR game but would still make excellent teachers. It would be fascinating to see what sort of consultative process the Minister used in coming up with these latest teacher selection criteria.

  13. Neville Jennings says:

    Thanks Rosie. I understand the political and community concerns about allowing people into teaching with minimal literacy and numeracy skills. However I think this latest policy in NSW will result in “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” Having a high tertiary entrance score should not be the primary criterion for entering teaching and I have little faith in the value of psychometric tests as a selection tool. Those who promote such policies clearly don’t understand the complexities of the education system or the nature of teaching

    Regarding the recruitment of teachers for regional and remote schools, I think more careful consideration must be given to the recruitment of teachers in these areas. The NSW Department used to run a very successful “Beyond the Line” program that gave trainees a taste of life in remote and regional areas. The program helped many of my student teachers to determine whether outback teaching was for them or not. As a city-bred boy, I was intrigued by the experience of doing placements in small schools around Wagga Wagga and subsequently I spent my first 7 years of teaching in rural areas.

  14. Dr. Rosie Thrupp says:

    Ours is not a black and white profession but sadly, there are those who attended school who evaluate it as just that. The complexities of teacher education, schooling, learning, and children create a chaos (Mishra and Koehler) that takes more fathoming than a high OP score. Determination, passion, caring begin the list that must also contain intelligence and common sense.
    As a Deputy Principal, I worked with many young teachers. Often their success with children was determined by their own willingness to continue to learn and invest effort in the work. It was also about their vision of teaching and what it seeks to achieve. The saw teaching as more than a job.

    Thankyou for the discussion.

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