Speech at Teach for Australia event, Parliament House



Simon Birmingham:     Well thanks, thanks very much, Peter, for that kiss of death.


All those interviews with you that I’ve survived so far over the years, and now of course just in innocuous circumstances of introducing me in your speech you go and render me, basically, politically [indistinct].


So, thank you for that. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for the opportunity to be with you tonight. I too acknowledge the traditional owners, the Ngunnawal people here in the Canberra region, and all of Australia’s Indigenous people and as I often do as Education Minister acknowledge that we continue to learn so much more from Australian Indigenous culture, learn so much more of it, and of course together we reflect on it together as a nation.


So growing up, Melodie told a story of growing up, I’m going to tell a story of growing up too. I was very lucky, growing up, to spend about six years of my childhood living with my grandmother, my Nan, who was my primary caregiver in those years. She was a retired school teacher, recently retired, still living just in the adjacent suburb to where she taught all those years. And trips to the supermarket were rather lengthy occasions. We would go along to the local supermarket, and as we went up and down the shopping aisles, and she was forever being stopped by a former student, the parent of a former student, to thank her, to relay a story of the impact she’d had, or what they were up to. At the time, the six-year-old grandson thought this was a great opportunity to squeeze some more chocolate biscuits in the shopping trolley while she was distracted, and was probably a little bit annoying. But now I look back on those years, and it absolutely gives me, as Education Minister, an additional sense of perspective. I get that today as a dad, I get that in different ways, but I definitely remember those times with Nan, and the impact clearly that she had had on the lives of so many.


Most of us – I think all of the 226 Members and Senators who inhabit this floor come here in the hope and aspiration, and genuine intent of making a difference. Some succeed. Some don’t. Some have great impact in the time that they’re here. But of course, teachers make an incredible difference; an incredible difference to individual lives, as we’ve heard in what’s been said already this evening, the potential to make a difference far beyond those individual lives. I was reminded of that again just this morning. I was chatting to a graduate who had work in the Education Department at present, who was working out of my office today to get to see how well-functioning our Canberra democracy is, how smoothly this place runs, and to get a full appreciation as a new young graduate into the Australian Public Service, and at just what he’s got – what he’s up against. I was chatting to Paul, and he’s a maths grad. And I said, maths, that’s an interesting pathway into the public service. He said, you know, I just love maths, and it was my Year 10 teacher who really just sparked that love and interest in following maths. And now he’s doing all sorts of data analytics. And of course, so many of us can cite those individual stories that have changed our trajectory.


But teaching is tough. Teaching is tough. Day-in, day-out grind. It is an absolutely challenge, and I do stand in awe and with enormous respect for those who, every day, front up to a classroom of young people, and seek to capture their attention, seek to ensure their motivation, seek to pass on knowledge, seek to build capability of those young people. And it is absolutely an enormous challenge for individuals. And to do that day-in, day-out, with discipline, motivation in themselves, with focus on the results that they are achieving; with focus on how to have impact, that critical attribute we look for in teaching. Impact that leads to progression, that leads to advancement of those individual students.


And so Teach For Australia is something really special in terms of the change in the form of achievements in the last few years. Peter made reference to school funding in his induction and I’m proud of the reforms that we’ve implemented to deliver a fair and consistent national approach of needs-based school funding around the country. But I also know the passage of those reforms gives us a chance as a nation to stop endlessly talking about funding; how much, where it goes. It’s important. It’s critical. You can’t run schools without adequate resources and funding but equally, it’s been an enormous distraction to what has to be a critical main game of public policy and education for the future which is how that funding is used as effectively as possible to make the greatest difference in terms of that impact on students’ lives within the classroom.


Teach for Australia is but one in a number of measures that we as a Government are proud to have supported and sought to pursue as an outcome. To have that impact on what is the greatest in-school impact and attribute and influence on a child’s educational outcomes. The single biggest impact is the home environment, and that is something that teachers, amongst the many challenges they face, grapple with day in and day out, in terms of different home environments that shape the student’s in their journey. But the greatest impact within the school is the teacher. Teachers that are encountered, followed very closely by leadership in school. Teach for Australia; wisely, cleverly, smartly, seeks to build capabilities involved in teaching and leadership in a school environment and that is so evident from speaking with, and looking at many of the associates that come through the program; 549 to date, who’ve had that impact and influence across 130 schools.


We need to look at Teach For Australia in coming years in terms of how it is we take some of the great attributes from this program that do make a difference, and ensure we replicate it more broadly across our teacher training systems, across our teacher support systems. The type of mentoring that we’ve heard about that is so essential to ensure that a young, bright, capable, individual who has decided to take a career change into teaching is supported. The same type of support that’s essential for anybody else starting out in terms of their teaching pathway to ensure that they become truly proficient, truly capable in their teaching ways. 


Pete spoke about three changes in mindset that he hoped to see. Well there’s a further change in mindset that I am hopeful Teach For Australia can contribute to, that I hope through careful, clever, ongoing policy work [indistinct] and that is to ensure that teaching is regarded and respected as a noble profession, a noticed profession. I welcome Tanya back from divisions and other parliamentary colleagues, both sitting down and wandering past who should be encouraged to come and hear about Teach for Australia.


But as I was closing in a timely way for Tanya’s return, as I was closing in a timely way for Tanya’s return, if there is one addition to mindset change to add on to Pete’s, it is to see that regard for the teaching profession as the noblest of professions, as an aspirational point that we hope young people at school, in other communities, career changes through their lives think about as an opportunity to make a contribution, to make a difference, and to know also that they will be respected and regarded for their contribution and the difference that they make.


So to Melodie and your team, thank you for what you have contributed to date and the achievement with that change of mindset, achievement and aspiration and to the associates who are here tonight; know that your help with mentoring, training, support, and funding as well through the private donors that been supportive of the program, thank you for all you’ve contributed. We certainly look forward to teaming up with you moving into the future. Thanks very much.