Forget "ATAR shopping ": it's time to change the conversation around teaching

21 January 2022

Professor Nick Klomp' Vice-Chancellor of CQUniversity Australia

I was bemused to see a Rockhampton teenager make national headlines last week' for her "shock" decision to enrol in a humble teaching degree "despite" her near-perfect ATAR score.

It's easy clickbait – "High achiever could have studied medicine or law' but settles for a thankless career in teaching instead" (I'm paraphrasing) – but I'm glad to see this story making some waves.

It's a story that needs to be told' because it forces us to consider deeply prejudices that are often deeply ingrained.

Namely: the value our society places on the teaching profession' the ability of our young people to make good career choices for themselves' and the role of the ATAR in determining study options.

I've already written at length about the importance of choosing a career that's best for you' rather than choosing the best career your ATAR can "buy".

In my experience' the level of success' contentment' and motivation an individual will draw from their career correlates directly to how much said career reflects that person's interests' passions and unique talents – regardless of statistical starting salaries or lifetime earnings estimates.

But how did we get to the point where teaching is ranked more lowly than other professions?

Perhaps financial reasons are a key determinant.

In Australia' teachers can expect to earn an average of $89'715 per year – well behind the average annual salary for engineers ($109'955)' lawyers ($115'696) and doctors ($156'000).

Or maybe it's a reputational issue' as teaching becomes more closely associated with behaviour management and NAPLAN scores' in the eyes of the public' than with the ability to educate and inspire our youth.

Or maybe' just maybe' it's the negative signal that universities – mine included – broadcast to the market via course entry requirements and ATAR cut-offs' which are often lower than other professional courses. (Universities know that your ATAR might reflect how well you did at high school' but will not show you how good you'll be in your chosen profession.)

According to the Global Teacher Status Index' there are many places around the world where teachers are still highly regarded.

The Index found that in countries like China' Malaysia and Russia' teachers are viewed on an equal footing to medical professionals in terms of societal status.

And while the tiny nation of Luxembourg may be an outlier (its starting salary for teachers exceeds even the maximum salary for teachers in countries like Australia' the US and the UK)' our country's top-of-scale teaching salaries still lag behind those in countries as varied as Mexico' Portugal and Japan.

I believe we need to change the conversation around teaching in this country.

When a school leaver with an ATAR of 99.95 announces they want to study teaching' we should applaud them for pursuing their interests and passions' rather than falling for the trap of applying for the most popular course their ATAR score can "buy".

Because ultimately' the whole point of obtaining a high ATAR is to widen the breadth of career choices available to you.

And if a high achiever feels they are most strongly pulled to a career in teaching' the positive ripple effects for our society can be voluminous and far reaching.

Of course' the call for our best-and-brightest to sign up for a teaching degree is nothing new.

Prior to the last federal election' Labor vowed to restrict admission to university teaching courses to all but the top 30 per cent of school leavers. Whilst I understand the intent' I know too many amazing teachers that simply did not do well in their final year of school.

The Morrison Government has had its own tilt at encouraging more young Australians to consider the profession' by pricing teaching degrees more favourably than those in humanities' business and law.

And while the jury is still out on whether those economic incentives will steer more school leavers into a career in the classroom' the argument stands: we need graduates with an interest in education and a passion to inspire and motivate young people' not people choosing a career based on their HECS bill.

We need great teachers in our school classrooms' now more than ever' and even more so in regional Australia' where demand for qualified teachers far outpaces supply.

Increasingly' our classrooms are embracing new teaching technologies that have the potential to greatly enhance the learning and overall competencies of our students.

We need teachers who can make the best of these technologies to produce great student outcomes in the short term' and a more technically proficient workforce in the long term.

Also' for many young Australians' teachers are among the most prominent adult role models in their lives.

We need teachers who can help our young people navigate their way through "the other pandemic" – the scourge of mental ill health – and to make good choices and encode positive habits on their way to adulthood.

And finally' we need teaching candidates who – in the words of our high-achieving Rockhampton school leaver – can "foster the great innovators' the great creators' the great mathematicians of the world"' while also helping students of all academic abilities to achieve their very best.

If we can change the conversation around teaching' we can elevate the level of prestige once associated with this noble profession' and hopefully attract even more high achievers to a fulfilling career as an educator.