Tall poppies?

Teaching. There are many and varied reasons for choosing this career. I doubt that wealth features on people’s lists, but a deep interest in one’s subject and a desire to communicate that subject probably should feature highly. So should a genuine commitment to educating children in the widest sense of the word – to model the sort of behaviour we wish to see mirrored. Days full of human interaction are invigorating and make us feel alive. Teaching can be a wonderful experience if one commits to the above.

When I taught in the UK, I didn’t feel teaching was always awarded the status it deserved. It certainly wasn’t a low status profession, but the majority of people felt they could do the job. This was distinctly different from airline pilots or eye surgeons. Everyone has been to School, therefore everyone has an opinion on School. But many of those opinions were poorly informed and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been given soundbite advice from non-teachers. However, on the flip side, it was generally accepted that one needed to be clever to be a teacher. When informing people that I taught chemistry (and when we’d moved beyond the fact that their chemistry teacher was mad/old/hopeless), I was pleased to note the warming breeze of respect that fluttered over me as they realised I must know some difficult stuff to teach a difficult subject. This made me feel proud: being thought of as clever is pleasant.

In Australia, teaching is a relatively low-status profession. It is not a particularly competitive or desirable profession, as evidenced by the low ATAR requirements for teacher education courses at university. I think the pay is quite generous, but one is unlikely to become as rich as one might do, say, working in finance. So again, we are left clinging to the fact that at least the public perception of teachers as being clever people is assured, right? Wrong.

I am keen to simplify education and teaching. An effective teacher needs to understand their subject well, be able to communicate that subject well, and ideally have some charisma and intuition (regarding children) to accompany those essentials. The first point requires teachers to be clever – this is a pre-requisite if one is to become a subject expert. Flaubert said that ‘writing history is like drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful‘. Teaching is similar – to make one’s subject come alive for children (at any level), one needs a massive ‘backstory’. We need anecdotes, historical context; weird, wonderful and forgotten stories; the people behind the discoveries, the lost manuscripts, the failures before the success and an ability to extend topics and stories in multiple directions.

It is possible to be a giant brain, with wonderful expertise, and to be poor at communicating this to children. But the first does not automatically lead to the second, and this is where things become problematic in Australia. There is a general assumption that the cleverer you are, the worse you will be at communicating your expertise to children, as though there is some inverse relationship at play. The exception has become the rule. I argue we are unlikely to be able to educate some of the finest minds of the next generation without employing some of the finest minds of the current one.

Not only does the above inverse relationship make little sense, it is actively damaging to the status of the profession to imply your intellectual ability is somehow irrelevant (or worse still, damaging) to your chances of being a successful teacher. Maybe we’re in classic ‘tall poppy’ territory, which is a concept beloved by Australians: if we’re going to give with one hand, it’s best to take with the other; we can’t have people getting above their station. This is ingrained so deeply that it even makes the following list (just after barbecue sauce, which give you an idea of the love Australians have for TPS):


Maybe we need to ditch the image of teacher as ‘Aussie battler’ and instead respect the profession for its expertise and intellect. Who knows? We might even raise the ATAR requirements into the 60s!

One thought on “Tall poppies?

  1. Pingback: What Einstein DID Say – Pocket Quintilian

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