A decade or so ago, it was commendable to become a teacher. They were seen to make a difference, were respected and appreciated. You only had to watch feel-good movies like To Sir With Love (1967) and Dead Poets Society (1989) to appreciate the significant role teachers could play in shaping the next generation.
Fast forward to today. Teachers still seek to make a difference but it is harder. Nobody goes into teaching for the pay, or for the holidays, or for the work conditions. If they do, they don’t last long. People go into teaching to make a difference, to be an influence, because they have a sense of call to impart knowledge, understanding and values to the next generation.
Teaching is arguably the most challenging profession of all; it is hard, at times overwhelming, and there are incredible pressures on teachers. Additionally, teachers feel unsupported and undervalued. Maybe this is due to teachers and trainees getting mixed messages about the purpose of education.
“…education is more than test scores; it is about engaging with students and making a difference in their lives.” – Stephen Brinton
Today, how we define “success” in education varies greatly – parents, students, teachers and governments all have different understandings of what is the purpose of education. Traditionally, there has been a two-fold purpose in education, the public and private. Historically, there has been an emphasis on the public purpose with its aim of advancing society as a whole and imparting the ultimate values of a culture – citizenship, equity and social justice. But now, the emphasis is on the private purpose of education that sees success in economic terms – which reduces learning to having the skills necessary to get a good job and contribute to society in wealth creation. In this, Australia follows the lead of the United Kingdom and the United States.
Under this regime, education is measurable through international and domestic test scores – and the concern at the moment is that Australia doesn’t measure up. The Band-aid applied to this problem has been to inject more money into a failing education system and set higher standards for entry into teacher training courses. There is benefit in this but it does not address the real reason for declining test scores. When 40 per cent of early career teachers leave the profession within the first year, could it be that our purpose in education is wrong?
I contend education is more than test scores; it is about engaging with students and making a difference in their lives – and disillusioned teachers support this. The narrowed utilitarian aim must change and there needs to be a return to a more holistic approach to education that considers the needs of the student over that of the school.
In an interesting article in The New York Times, David Brooks states: “Basically what’s happened over the past generation is that we’ve put enormous effort into improving the academic piece of schooling, but progress has been nil because the students’ emotional foundation has been collapsing under our feet.” He maintains the heart is inseparable from the head and the ingredient to educational success is the relationship between teacher and student. I agree with Ken Robinson who says we don’t need to standardise education, but personalise it “to build achievement on discovering individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”
Teaching is a career that can positively influence a person’s development. We should strive to bring back that focus. Teaching is a wondrous, incredible, sometimes difficult profession but it has the ability to have an immeasurable impact in shaping a young life. For all the current teachers and possible future teachers reading this article, be encouraged – your work has immeasurable value.
Stephen Brinton is Lecturer in Education and Program Director at Alphacrucis College, Sydney.