An illustration of a graduation hat

There’s Something About Teachers

Graphic: David Liu

Until quite recently, I was enrolled as a science student, majoring in physics. I had somehow persuaded myself in high school that I enjoyed physics.

After two years of studying physics at university, I can confidently say that I am not a physics person. It hit me during one of my final exams last semester. As I was solving a question, I looked at the numbers and letters my pen was writing. What do these symbols mean? What am I even finding here? How is it that I know what to do to solve the question, but not what it actually means?

Now I feel at home doing another, social science.

So, I raised the question to myself: ‘Who performed this master deception, fooling me into believing that I like physics?’ I think that my teachers in high school played a significant role in that.

I am lucky enough to be able to say that my high school teachers were fantastic. They were caring, knowledgeable, and passionate. Heck – they were so good that they made me love subjects that, in hindsight, I was thoroughly not of the right calibre for.

After I graduated high school, I picked up tutoring jobs and started to realise just how good my teachers were. Other schools’ teachers seemed to be incompetent and devoid of passion. They had no long-term plans about the curriculum and seemed to just do everything to pass the time.  

When I arrived at university, I was frankly amazed by the people surrounding me, but especially in science. While I was struggling to understand basic concepts and to motivate myself to slog through the content, so many students seemed to be taking it in their stride without so much as a stumble. Their intellect, work ethic and drive were awe-inspiring. The thing is, the bachelor of science at ANU doesn’t have a very difficult level of entry; what were all these ridiculously intelligent people doing here?

A great number of them told me that they were there because of their teachers from secondary schooling. They told me stories about how their teachers were so passionate that it rubbed off on them, or how their teachers instilled a curiosity about science within them. Some students told me about how their parents were resistant to them studying science, instead wanting them to study something with a higher bar of entry. The PhB program was essentially made for this particular class of students – high-achieving students who want study science, whose parents were hesitant because of the low ATAR requirement.

Teachers, with one sentence, one smile, one question, have the capacity to shape their students’ interests, ambitions and future prospects. However, in Australia, we seem to have just agreed that it is perfectly acceptable for teachers to not all be of a certain quality. We seem to have all agreed that it is perfectly fine that students have to go to a private school, or in some states, selective schools, to get to meet with, and learn from, these amazing teachers. This is not to undercut the fantastic work that teachers are doing all over the country; I hold the utmost level of respect and appreciation for them. However, it is a fact that in universities, and especially courses with high cut-off marks, private schools and selective high schools are severely overrepresented; on average, private schools in Australia perform 11 ATAR points better than government schools.

Instead of firing off about Asian tiger mums or ‘pay-to-win’ tutoring practices on the letter section of the Sydney Morning Herald, perhaps the real discussion we should be having is why education isn’t attracting the best and brightest students and why we’ve all just silently acquiesced to this poor standard of secondary teaching in Australia.