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How our universities are failing new teachers

  • 12 October 2018


Scandalous data published by the ABC has revealed the shockingly low threshold for entry into tertiary teaching programs. These low standards, it is insinuated, are directly linked to the declining outcomes of Australian students in international tests.

On one hand, there are some legitimate concerns here: if our teachers cannot grasp basic concepts, how are they supposed to teach these ideas to impressionable young minds?

But this problem isn't with who gets accepted to university; it's with what happens to them while they are there. After all, if more than ten per cent of potential teachers cannot pass the patronisingly low bar set by mandatory literacy tests (aimed at a year 9 level of aptitude), then how have they managed to make it through a tertiary degree?

In 2015, when this issue reared its head, Australian Catholic University Vice-Chancellor Professor Greg Craven made the astute observation that: 'You can't select quality teachers by looking at a mark branded on their forehead when they are 17. What matters is how teachers come out of university, not how they go in.'

The unspoken assertion of Craven is that universities will weed out those unsuitable for teaching, with the rest being tempered in the flame of higher education until they are sharp teaching implements. Unfortunately, this is not borne out by evidence.

In his brilliant paper, What Doesn't Work in Education: The Politics of Distraction, Professor John Hattie notes that 'teacher-education programs have among the lowest overall impact of all the influences on student achievement'. It is important to note this does not mean that teacher education programs do not have the potential to be transformative, just that they currently are not. 

Hattie goes on to note that the time where teachers learn the most about their craft is in the first year of full-time teaching. While it might be expected that hands-on experience leads to greater learning, the research also reveals that university courses woefully under-prepare new teachers for entering the classroom; most first-year teachers experience significant 'transition shock'.


"I was one of the lucky ones: when I got to my practicum, I discovered that I actually enjoyed teaching. Some made it through four years of a degree to find they did not."


Hattie's conclusions mirror my own experiences. Even though I learned a hell of a lot, my first year of teaching was a haze of stress, confusion and burnout. Given these factors, it's understandable why teaching's attrition rate