(Image: Unsplash/Nicole Honeywill)

Anh Do remembers the teacher who made all the difference to him: “Mrs Borny not only taught us drama, but also how to write it, creating stories from scratch. One day she said to me: ‘Anh, you’ve a very talented storyteller.’ She had no idea how far that one line of encouragement would take me.”

Professor Peter Shergold — a university chancellor and well-regarded former senior Commonwealth public servant — also remembers a teacher, Stewart Norman, who went against others in their assessment of him. “His recent written work has shown considerable perception and understanding and the ability to express his ideas clearly”, Norman wrote.

Through literature, one of our biggest contributors to public life learnt to lift his gaze: “With enormous insight he guided me, and many of my unruly mob, towards an appreciation of Shakespeare.”

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Shergold started with “the dirty bits”, glossed over by other teachers, before learning that Benny Hill’s double entendres were “part of a rich British cultural tradition”.

Health Minister Greg Hunt nominates Marilyn Hamilton-Smith, his Year 2 teacher, as his favourite: “She gave me the sense that despite the rough and tumble of seven-year-old life, school could be a warm and welcoming environment.”

Shergold, Anh Do, Hunt and a string of others — including this writer — contributed to a book, My Favourite Teacher, (edited by Robert Macklin) a decade ago, which tracked the role played by individual teachers in people’s lives. For me, it was a maths teacher, Gary Dawes, who made me see the possibilities of dreams beyond the small country town I called home.

But what stands out when you ask someone about their favourite teacher, is the reason why they are remembered. Mrs Borny saw something in Do that others didn’t. Shergold was seen as a bit of nuisance by others, but not by Stewart Norman. Marilyn Hamilton-Smith made Hunt feel safe. And Gary Dawes taught me the importance of looking at the sky.

Consider your own schooling. Was it the teacher’s in-depth knowledge of trigonometry or their ability to communicate a way of problem solving that made a difference? The details they could recall on something that happened some time somewhere in ancient Greece? Or was it the passion they passed on for a lifetime love of history?

Last week the Morrison government decided on yet another plan to try to lift Australian students in the international ranking stakes, particularly in maths and science. And guess what? It immediately directed its attention to initial teacher education courses because that is seen as the gateway to stemming declining academic standards.

But is it? We’ve now had a million reviews into teacher training, and the result almost always ends up in a giddy campaign to teacher bash.

If we’re going to arrest declining academic standards, we need a roots-and-all probe into the national education system, and anything short of it is unlikely to make a difference.

What about what our children are learning? What about how it is taught? What about the appalling pay and conditions? What about class sizes? What about the need for the so-called soft skills in the curriculum, such as teamwork and leadership and creativity and empathy?

What about the times schools operate? Research shows teens are better learners later in the day than in the morning, and some schools have changed starting times to address that. What about the importance of individualised learning programs? What about the inequities in the system which were shameful during COVID lockdowns? Some schools had face-to-face daily classes and in some cases teachers — yes, teachers — photocopied the required work and dropped it off to families.

The review has promised to consider how to attract good people into teaching, and how to make them effective teachers. But what makes an effective teacher? How students are taught is probably more crucial than what they are taught.

The government has a target of returning Australia to one of the best academic performers within the next decade. But disgraced Liberal MP Andrew Laming is shining example of a very, very clever academic graduate (a doctor, a medical specialist, and three masters degrees — including one from Harvard) without a leadership attribute to his name.

Is that what we want?

If this review is to have any impact, it needs to consider the attributes of those teachers who have the ability to change the trajectory of students — teachers like Mrs Borny and Stewart Norman and Marilyn Hamilton-Smith and Gary Dawes, and the thousands of others who are making a real difference to some child today.

Why don’t we start asking them — and the principals — how they’d overhaul the education system to improve academic standards?

Who do you think would be best placed to know how to overhaul the education system? Teachers, or bureaucrats? Write to letters@crikey.com.au with your thoughts. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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