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Summer 2007

Teachers and Teaching

Reflections on quality teaching

What does ‘good teaching’ mean to teachers, parents, students and the general public? Norman McCulla considers what happens when these definitions don’t quite match up.

Walking past a display of televisions in a department store recently, I paused before a familiar scene. It was a current affairs program. There was a parent, upset with the fact that the teacher had not corrected ‘all the spelling mistakes’ in his six-year old son’s writing. There too was the six year old, writing in hand, to prove the point, ‘mistakes’ to the fore, the substance of what was being written about ignored. And there too was a suitably fired up television presenter. ‘How could this be allowed to happen!?’ was the message. It now feels like a scenario as old as time; a scene reinvented and repeated it seems countless times at regular intervals over the last decades; a scene designed to attract the attention of every new cohort of parents in a convenient format for emotion stirring television if not for enlightenment.

I thought of the hours spent by that teacher in learning how children develop as writers and spellers; of her likely encouragement of young children to write and to test their wings phonetically; of the careful balancing that is required between encouragement of young children to write (why else learn to spell?) and the need to align attempted spellings (more often than not correct phonetically) with the adult convention; of the alignment of the teaching and learning program with syllabus outcomes; of the gathering of work samples to demonstrate growth over time; of the assessment and reporting against the outcomes. I thought of the time this takes, of the resilience required of teachers to do the right thing with regard to their students’ development while at the same time being seen to do the right thing with regard to each parent’s expectations.

I thought of how parental expectations can vary even in the same community; of the K–2 teacher I knew in a small rural school who trod a fine line between the townspeople who wanted their children in school to ‘learn the 3Rs’ and the people in the surrounding rural community who wanted a far more expansive curriculum with many out-of-school opportunities to experience the world well beyond that relatively isolated community. I thought of how important it is to understand and respect the context of the teaching, and to work from there.

I reminded myself that no parent sets out to be a bad parent. This television parent was undoubtedly acting according to his view of what constituted ‘good teaching’. It was a statement of personal values and, therefore, something to be valued.

NSW Quality Teaching Awards

We all carry images in our mind of what good teaching is: teachers that have taught us; teachers we know. Over the last seven years, a number of people in New South Wales have been involved in the NSW Quality Teaching Awards, a joint venture between the Australian College of Educators, the NSW Minister for Education and Training, and the Daily Telegraph newspaper. These awards are designed to identify quality teachers and to describe what makes them so.

It would be fair to say that, in looking at quality teaching from preschool to university, we are continually growing in our understandings, personally and collectively, as to what good teaching is. We have watched with interest how recipients of the NSW Quality Teaching Awards, when involved in the assessment and selection of new nominees for the award, have soon come to realise the dangers in seeing and adjudicating on someone else’s professional work through the template of one’s own successful practice.

The NSW Quality Teaching Awards are offered by the NSW Branch of the Australian College of Educators in association with the NSW Minister for Education and Training and the Daily Telegraph newspaper. The awards cover all sectors of education, preschool to tertiary, and are based on referees’ reports, professional learning portfolios and site visits to see at first hand the work of short-listed nominees. As such, they are held to be the most rigorous awards for quality teaching in Australia. For further information go to

Good teaching, above all, is a highly creative and well-informed activity sustained over time. Efforts across the Australian States and Territories to articulate professional teaching standards are to be welcomed in the way that they reveal the complexities and inter-relationships of what teaching entails and discredit the notion that teaching is something anyone can do. That said, there are dangers in standards frameworks if their implementation is approached in a technical way for the sake of assessment and comparability between candidates at the expense of creativity and responsiveness to local contexts. It would be a great pity, wouldn’t it, if all teachers ended up looking somewhat the same?

It is for this reason that those working in the NSW Quality Teaching Awards have become interested in the higher order attributes demonstrated by good teachers. An initial list we developed, read in conjunction of course with standards frameworks, reads as follows. See it as a starting point for discussion. It is holding up well over time.

A number of these attributes are not easily measured in any conventional sense. They are sometimes difficult to demonstrate in a tangible way. They are not given to the slick, 30 second television ‘grab’. They do become apparent, however, when you see good teachers at work over time. They are the stuff of patience, resilience, dedication, and growth.


Generally, good teachers demonstrate:

  • a high level of knowledge, imagination, passion, and belief in their field
  • an overriding commitment to, and high aspirations for, moving ahead the learning of their individual students
  • a rich repertoire of skills, methods and approaches, built up over years of experience, on which they are able to draw to provide the right ‘mix’ for the specific needs of individual students
  • a detailed understanding of the context in which they are working, of the specific expectations of the local community, and of the needs of the cohort of students for whom they are responsible
  • a capacity to respond to the student cohort, individually and collectively, and to the context through their teaching practice
  • a refusal to let anything get in the way of their own or their students’ learning, and what they perceive as needing to be addressed
  • a high level of respect and even affection from their school communities, a by-product of their work and professionalism
  • a great capacity for engagement in professional learning activities
  • a great capacity to contribute to the professional learning of others and a willingness to do so
  • moral leadership and professionalism, in that they exemplify high values and qualities and seek to encourage these in others.

It is right that we encourage, identify and celebrate good teaching as a profession; that we hold up models of exemplary teaching practice in the public domain; and that we publicly acknowledge people who are outstanding practitioners of the art and craft of teaching. Most other professions and areas of human endeavour do. Why not us?

Who knows? Perhaps one day soon you too may stop in your tracks as you walk past a display of televisions in a department store, hopefully drawn this time to a good news story about quality teaching.


Dinham, S (2002). NSW Quality Teaching Awards: Research, rigour and transparency, Unicorn, Vol. 28, No. 1, Australian College of Educators, Canberra.

McCulla, N, Dinham, S and Scott, C (2007). Stepping out from the crowd: Some findings from the NSW Quality Teaching Awards on seeking recognition for professional accomplishment, Australian College of Educators, Canberra, online refereed article (51).

author picture Norman McCulla teaches in the undergraduate and postgraduate teacher education programs at Macquarie University, Sydney.