I’ve been scratching my head for sometime trying to work out why people think it would be a good idea to put a bunch of untrained yet high achieving university graduates into low-decile schools. But since there is a bit of a media love-fest in progress for Teach First New Zealand I’ve been prompted to write about the topic.
I’m dumbfounded by the logic that requiring our educators to be less educated is a good thing. No sane person would set foot on an aircraft with a pilot who aced physics and had a 6 weeks in a flight simulator, pay money for legal advice from someone who did well in political studies, or let someone with good grades in biology and pair of pliers do some dentistry work unless they were pretty desperate. So to take a person who is academically successful and stick them in a boot camp for 6 weeks before putting them in a position where they are responsible for a class of children should be setting off major alarm bells in most people’s heads. Shouldn’t people who want to be in the education game be committed to educating themselves on how to be a good teacher before jumping into a classroom?
On one level I get it.
The best way to learn to be a teacher is to be out in the classroom teaching. But on another level I see value in gaining knowledge in learning theories, child development, classroom management, assessment techniques and developing a reflective practice before being let loose in a classroom. After all it took 6 months of pretty intense study for me to get my head around the idea that this teaching business is not really about the teaching it is about the learning. I also know people doing the 3 year degree must scratch their heads in wonder at how those in the graduate diploma manage to squeeze learning how to be a teacher into a year-long condensed course and on occasion I’ve agreed with them.
But how we train teachers is a diversion from a far deeper issue and it took me a while to work out what makes me so uncomfortable about the ‘place a high achieving graduate in a poor school’ idea and then I worked out.
What this scheme says to our recent graduates is ‘your knowledge is so important to the education system that you get to bypass all the work we make these other clowns do and parachute you straight into the classroom because we need you right now.’ In essence they receive a ‘get out of jail free’ card in which they are entitled to bypass teacher training collecting their $200 as they pass go under the ‘Aura of selectivity’ as Teach First New Zealand calls it.
But hang on.
This sounds a bit like sour grapes from someone who probably doesn’t have smarts to be selected into such a prestigious programme. The graduates selected into these schemes are the best and brightest graduates and they want to help reduce educational inequality why wouldn’t we want them in the classroom?
The answer to that question depends on what kind of knowledge you value.
Let’s change the goalposts on this conversation for a minute.
Suppose tomorrow the government announced the following: “we want every child in New Zealand to learn Te Reo Maori. We don’t have enough teachers of Te Reo and our current teaching workforce’s grasp of the language really isn’t up to standard. So we will get a bunch of highly proficient speakers of Te Reo who haven’t trained as teachers and put them into our nation’s classrooms so that our children can learn the official language of New Zealand.”
I can already hear the howls of opposition to such an idea emanating from the talkback radio stations on this idea: ‘Learning Maori is a waste of time. It’s a dead language and no way is some untrained teacher getting near my kids. This is PC gone mad!’
But somehow sending a bunch of high-achieving university graduates into schools with, lets face it, a disproportionate number of Maori and Pasifika students is seen as ok because it is for the kids’ own good. Wouldn’t the answer be that we need more Maori and Pasifika teachers who will spend more than just two years in the classroom? Because judging from similar schemes overseas the graduates parachuted into the classrooms of the poor don’t come from the communities that they wish serve.
In fact this scheme has the potential to make the problem of educational inequality a lot worse. The kids in Epsom get qualified and experienced teachers while the kids I went to school end up with a revolving door system of untrained grads pumped up on slogans like ‘poverty is not destiny.’ This is true if the grads are saying that it is possible for some to overcome the effects of poverty, but not true if they are saying that teachers alone — and untrained teachers at that — have the power to do this. To me this is a failure of our public system that our ‘high flying’ graduates can spend 13 years in public education and not understand the causes of educational inequality go beyond teachers simply having high expectations because New Zealand schools and their communities have become so segregated by income and – yes lets address the elephant in the room- race.
I’m sure most of the graduates’ intentions are right, wanting to help, but you’ll excuse me if I’m a little cynical about what the motivations of the scheme’s backers really are. Is it really about closing the educational gap or is it about a broader agenda of getting the ‘right people‘ into the school system to pursue an agenda that the current teaching profession in New Zealand opposes; the introduction of the American-style corporate reforms of high-stakes testing for primary school kids, charter schools,
performance test-result-based pay for teachers, a narrowing of the curriculum and the closure of large numbers of ‘low performing’ public schools.
Because looking beyond the hype:
1. Far from a shortage there’s actually a glut of qualified beginning teachers looking for work. Most of the students from my course are still looking for teaching jobs which at this time of year means they don’t have a full-time teaching position for 2012 school year.
2. Teaching qualification programmes for graduates only take a year to complete. There are some not particularly generous scholarships available for teachers in areas like maths and science plus the graduate bonding scheme offers almost $20,000 in additional payments if teachers stay at least 5 years in some low-decile schools.
3. The recruits for Teach First only sign up for two years before they are free to pursue careers presumably at the corporate sponsors of the scheme. Our current system of teacher registration in New Zealand recognizes than even qualified teachers need support in the early years of teaching to become effective in the classroom. The commitment for Teach First ends just at the point when some teachers will be starting to hit their stride.
Do our neediest kids really need people who are only in the classroom as a two year OE in Otara before moving to glass offices in central Auckland?
I do agree with Teach First that teaching should be right up there with other professions as an attractive option for graduates. It annoys me to no end when I read the stories that pop up at this time of year about kids who have done exceptionally well in exams almost always have their sights set on doing law or possibly medicine at university. Why not teaching?
Part of the reason is money.
I have an Honours degree and my Teaching Diploma which equates to five years of full-time university study, two at graduate level, and have/will repay in excess of $30,000 on my student loan. I could have paid that loan off a lot faster in other professions not to mention the opportunity costs of a salary scale where I will hit the top pay rate in 5-6 years. Suffice to say that top rate doesn’t compare favourably to similarly-qualified jobs however finding the moments of teaching magic is why I’m in the classroom.
What scares me about Teach First New Zealand is that they are in effect saying to all aspiring teachers, not to mention the general public, that learning how to be a good teacher really isn’t that important. All teachers need is some innate talent and high expectations so that we can flip open these kids heads and shove it in and hey presto educational success! I haven’t been out in the sector long enough to say it with any authority but I don’t think that approach works. Because if it did, teachers and schools as we know it would have become redundant not long after Marconi developed the radio. All a learner would need to do is simply tune in to hear from an expert and they would learn too.
I really hate to snarl at people who are trying to help and I don’t doubt that the teachers who are selected will do a good job. After all they will be hand-picked out of likely hundreds of applications to ensure success and presumably will have a lot of support to do so. Because even with a year-long formal teaching credential and supervised student teaching under my belt, I know I still have a lot to learn about educating kids. I’m not sure what anyone could pick up in just six weeks to become an effective teacher of children living in New Zealand’s most deprived neighbourhoods by the time term 1 rolls around in 2013.
The question that needs to be asked is going down this road of de-professionalizing teaching in order to attract ’talent’ into our schools really a good use of educational resources?
Because there seems to be an awful lot of money going into a scheme that places a very small number of people into the profession but does little to keep them there over the long-term. In fact looking beyond the spin that’s found in the media Teach First describes itself as a ‘leadership development programme’ which suggests that building a capable teaching workforce in New Zealand is actually of secondary importance to the organisation. I’m at a loss as to why anyone would think our neediest kids should be subjected to untrained graduates developing their ‘leadership skills’ when they should have as of right highly qualified and competent teachers in their classrooms.
This scheme looks at best self-serving, at worst down right exploitative of the kids at the bottom of the heap.