What does it take to make a really great teacher?

By Greg Whitby, Executive Director of Schools
Greg Whitby is Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta.

I wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald recently in response to NSW Minister for Education Adrian Piccoli’s plan to lift teaching standards in NSW by requiring higher ATAR results from future teachers. I’m all for investment in great teaching but the starting point has to be asking the right question: ‘what does it take to make a really great teacher?’

Higher ATAR results or sitting literacy and numeracy tests for aspiring teachers will not raise teaching standards. Critical skills required to teach in today’s world include collaboration, flexibility, emotional intelligence, creativity and the ability to analyse and diagnose student needs, in addition to subject knowledge and a deep understanding of how students learn. I’d add compassion to the list and a stubborn refusal to never give up on a student, no matter how challenging or complex.

To become a doctor in Australia, it takes much more than having the academic ability. Even students with an ATAR of 100 need to sit the UMAT (admissions test) and are assessed on skills in critical thinking, problem solving and understanding people. It’s an acknowledgement that medicine is not just an intellectual discipline, but like education, a human service and a relational process requiring the ability to understand and diagnose diverse needs. We need a rigorous selection process that assesses more than the academic ability of aspiring teachers.

World Teachers’ Day was celebrated on 30 October 2015. It is a great time to reflect on our own ‘best’ teachers and their lasting impressions on our learning. My primary schooldays at St Monica’s Primary, North Parramatta, are a reasonably distant memory. Yet I still remember teachers like Sr Rosarii and I guess most of us have had an unforgettable teacher or two!

In Catholic schools, great teachers are also integral to the evangelising mission of the Church. We can look to Jesus, whose teaching has surely endured the test of time, as a great model for our work as Catholic teachers.

Throughout the gospels, ‘rabbi’ (meaning teacher) is the most common way that Jesus is addressed. The preservation of many of Jesus’ teachings through the gospels demonstrates an extraordinary capacity as a teacher. Further, the gospels show Jesus’ humanity as he reaches out to the untouchable and those considered unteachable alike.

It is this quality, humanity, that makes a really great teacher. Jesus’ teaching ministry continues today in each of us, as does his humanity.

On behalf of our school communities I would like to recognise our teachers, school leaders, educators at the Catholic Education Office and the staff who support our schools in delivery quality Catholic schooling.

I trust that all my colleagues enjoyed a happy World Teachers’ Day!


Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools - Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta
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