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What high achievers are missing as ideal teachers

I have vivid memories of my high-achieving economics tutors at university (not all teachers do teaching degrees) who were absolutely appalling teachers, yet most were PhD or masters students.

So what is important? A moral purpose, intellectual curiosity, empathy, humour, collegiality, communication skills, selflessness, emotional intelligence, an ability to connect to young people, intuition and dedication.

Paul O’Shannassy is a former teacher.

Paul O’Shannassy is a former teacher.Credit:Eddie Jim

Teaching used to be called a vocation and the “noble profession”, where people felt a calling to undertake teaching. We need to attract people with these qualities.

If you struggle to connect with young people or don’t have a moral purpose, you will have a very short career in teaching. Your ATAR doesn’t measure this or any of the other qualities outlined above.

Will the high achiever answer the email at 9.30pm from the curious student who is stuck on a task? Will the high achiever stay after school and help the battling student?

Will they be able to pick up when there is something wrong with a student – or even care? Will they manage the kid whose parents are going through a bad divorce or who may be experiencing violence at home?


Think about the teachers who had an impact on you. What do you remember? It probably won’t be much about the content but it will be something about them, their qualities, their humour, their wisdom or even the fact that they may have given a damn about you at some stage in your life.

When I run into former students, many of them will quote sayings I used in class or will talk about a story I told. It is quite powerful to hear these anecdotes some two decades on. They don’t talk about the content I taught them. A teacher never knows where their influence stops.

The concept of “high achievers” is also somewhat questionable. I have taught many Year 12s who received an ATAR of over 85 who barely lifted a finger and, it could be argued, under-achieved. Are these kids automatically classed as “high achievers” due to their ATAR? Many of them wouldn’t last a few weeks in teaching without many of the other qualities I have identified.

I think we need to be careful as we may end up with many “high achievers” who have short careers as teachers when they realise just how hard it is and how many non-academic qualities you need.

And as much as a pay rise is very welcome and needed for teachers, do we really want people attracted to the profession because it pays well?

Paul O’Shannassy is a former teacher and managing director of Regent Consulting.

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