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Future-focused teacher education 33/365?

Last week Claire Amos wondered if New Zealand’s Graduating Teacher Standards were future-focused enough. Having come to know the standards well both through being a fairly recent graduate and having used the standards as framework for my eportfolio, I can say the standards need a tweak but it is the delivery of the standards that are a problem.

Aside from a mention in one of the standards of ‘demonstrates a level of proficiency in ICT relevant to their role’ the standards could easily be applied to someone teaching in a traditional school where using email meets this part of the standards to a future-focused modern learning environment.

So what does a modern teacher look like? I love this infographic from @wayfaringpath that demonstrates a number of the dispositions that we should be developing in our student teachers that the Graduate Teaching Standards could be more explicit about.

Profile of a modern teacher created by Reid Wilson used under a creative commons licence.

So what needs to be changed in the current Graduating Teacher Standards?

Embrace change in teaching practice a student teacher’s education is out of date before they’ve taught a class. They need to demonstrate not only that they can reflect critically on their practice but that they can build up their own networks of professional learning to develop their teaching.

Manage relationships effectively with other teachers and the wider community to promote student learning - Teachers who teach in their own isolated cell are depriving their students of opportunities for learning and growth. More teachers are going to be working in modern learning environments. Teachers need to be adept at developing links between the wider community and school to tap into expertise.

Integrates ICT effectively to promote student learning I would hope that the phrase ICT is redundant from the standards in a few years. But the ‘demonstrates a level of proficiency in ICT relevant to their role’ allows student teachers to meet this standard by simply turning on the electronic whiteboard.

However tweaking the graduating teacher standards are not going to promote future-focused learning when our provision of teacher education is firmly stuck in analogue mode.

What to do?

Ditch those forms and checklists. I’ve ranted before about how my experience of documenting my learning journey as a student teacher was more a bureaucratic process of filling in forms than anything meaningful. Future focused teachers need to think creatively so why not get students to find their own ways to document their own personalised learning journey and tag effectively.

Be more selective in mentors and develop them – From what I can glean associate teachers basically need to have full registration and be willing to have a student teacher in their class. Why aren’t teacher education providers more selective about this? Not every teacher has the skills to be an associate teacher yet they are the most important people in a student teacher’s learning journey. How much time and support is given to associate teachers to help them learn how to develop in their role as mentors? Could they follow the student teacher through to full registration?

Online courses for part of the programme – The first step to knowing how to teach is to learn. My experience as an online learner helped me to develop my online learning environment. Less time on campus opens up possibilities for teacher education to be more in tune with the school calendar than the university one. There could also be online mentors out there to help student teachers too.

More focus on time in schools. Much as I loathe some aspects of the TeachFirstNZ programme, I think the premise that old school lectures and exams are not the way we should be educating our future teachers is a good one. The post-graduate primary programme in particular suffers from trying to jam too much content into too little time and the lack of opportunity for supervised practice suffers as a result. I had two seven week blocks and only part of that was full control. Student teachers need to be in school for the first term of a school year to see how learning relationships are developed and maintained. 

Modern learning environments – Of all the groups to benefit from modern learning environments, students and beginning teachers have the most to gain. They get to see experienced teachers in action and have experienced teachers see them. There is nothing more isolating than those first few weeks as a teacher when you realise that it’s just you and a class full of kids and you have no idea what you are doing.

Too many teaching programmes. Lets focus on quality and a good experience for student teachers. Paying a liveable allowance so that students concentrate on learning to be an effective teacher is critical. No student teacher should be working when they are on teaching experience.  It is irrational that the government continues to fund programmes that churn out graduates into an over-saturated teaching market. Teaching is one of the few sectors where you can reasonably predict based on births and immigration rates the workforce needs. Why aren’t we using this to develop our workforce?

10 Tips for student teachers on placement

I was recently asked by a reader if I could give my tips for surviving teaching placement, practicum, teaching experience. Having gone through the experience myself and having watched two sets of student teachers come into our school, I’m not too far removed but I also get the benefit of seeing part of the other side of the fence. However I’m not at the point where I have enough experience to mentor a student teacher so I can’t give the Associate Teacher’s point of view.

1. You are there to learn
Going into placement you have two what might seem like mutually exclusive goals. On one hand, you want to show what an awesome teacher you are to your Associate Teacher/School and get that elusive permanent teaching job post-graduation. But on the other, you are there to learn. Here’s my advice, stick with the former and the latter will take care of itself. Soak in as much as you can, ask questions, make mistakes. Lots of them. The most important quality student teachers need on placement is teachabilty. Nobody expects you to be perfect when you arrive. Being able to show improvement and take on advice is what will impress your associate teacher.

2. No staying out late on a school night
A student teacher from another institution once showed up to my placement school very hungover. While it’s not against the rules to have late nights on the town, it really isn’t a good look on placement and you will be judged negatively on it.

3. Building relationships with your students
There’s a fine line to be trod between being liked and being respected. Often student teachers try to be buddies with the kids and then find classroom management is a challenge once they take full control. By all means be friendly with your students but remember that this different from being their friend. The kids will test the boundaries just by your mere presence. They’ll want to know if the no-nos with their own teacher are a yes with you. Make sure you find out from your associate how behaviour is managed in your school and if you are unsure in any situation, ask your associate teacher.

4. Observe other teachers doing their thing. Ask them lots of questions.
While the bulk of your time will be spent in your Associate Teacher’s placement, do make sure you that you arrange time to see other teachers doing their thing. If you are teaching juniors, ask to see a Year 5/6 class. If you are at an intermediate, be sure to spend some time in the specialist classes. Ask lots of questions. Teachers by their very nature are usually keen to share their knowledge with others.

5. Keep up with your paperwork
Universities love paper. Every week you’ll likely have some sort of form to fill in to keep your university happy. It’s really important that you familiarise yourself with the paperwork requirements of your placement and make sure that you keep yourself up to date.

6. Never say ‘no’ to an opportunity to teach
If a teacher is handing over control of the classroom to you, it means that they trust you. Yes things might go horribly and you will have your share of bad days. Even taking the roll will help you learn and grown into a better teacher. It’s not unheard of for student teachers to be called on to cover a class but strictly speaking you should have a registered teacher in the room with you.

7. Planning
A source of grizzling about student teachers from associates often comes from planning. No teacher will let you in charge of your class without lesson plans. I think some teacher education providers could do a better job of teaching student teachers how to plan a lesson effectively. However to head off uncertainties in planning ask to see your associate teacher’s template early on and adapt that (with permission) for your planning.

8. Be Professional
In essence your placement is an extended job interview. Dress professionally, be on time, attend all staff meetings. Try and schedule a meeting with the principal of your school during placement. Make sure you have questions prepared in advance to make the most of the meeting.

9. You’re going to get sick
There’s no nice way of saying this schools are vectors of disease. At some point you will get heinously ill and most likely at the most inopportune time.

10. Thank you
It goes without saying that you need to thank your school and associate teacher for the placement. A small gift and a heart-felt card for your associate is probably a good idea. Some sort of morning tea or some offering of food wouldn’t go amiss either.

Anymore tips for would-be teachers?

To walk in another teachers shoes


Cupcake designed by student (image by author)

One of the joys of teaching primary school is that, in theory, you get to teach a bit of everything.

In practice the bulk of my time is still reading, writing, maths with some PE thrown in for good measure. Most schools also have an inquiry/topic which covers everything else.

Intermediate kids go off for specialist teaching in some subjects those opportunities to teach the ‘fun’ stuff is even further stretched for generalist teachers.

Simply put there are not enough hours in the day to get to get through all the other must dos let alone those practical hands-on type activities.

Our school is very fortunate to have a kitchen where all kids get a chance to learn more about cooking. On Wednesdays an advanced class runs for some students.

Knowing about my love of cake decorating the foods teacher graciously let me have a go at teaching the kids some basic cake decorating skills.

As an added bonus, my class went up in the morning to bake bread. We had a look at yeast yesterday, what it looked like, what it smelled like. Then left our bread to rise overnight.

We came back in the morning, happens to the mixture over time.

I even found a nifty timelapse on youtube for the kids to look out the changes in the dough.

Take aways from today.

Food = Smiles

There’s something about sharing food that always gets the same sheepish grin from kids.

Hands-on learning = exhaustion

Even by my standards, today was manic. On top of PD before school, colouring fondant during morning tea as well as having a late finish on cupcakes, I also had student council plus saw a couple of maths groups before assembly. I was on feet rushing around. But I know when all is said and done my kids might not remember the lesson I gave on fractions but they will remember eating hot bread on a cold winters day.

School maths does not equal real world maths

A student who has never answered a test question about fractions correctly on a test was able to tell me lightening fast how many 1/4 teaspoons I would need to make 1 + 1/2 teaspoons of salt.  Context is everything.

Never stereotype any activity as ‘girly’

A lot of guys would probably roll their eyes at cake decorating and wonder why bother teaching boys about cupcake decorating. But here’s the thing. 12 year old boys haven’t figured out cake decorating is a ‘girly’ pursuit. They like eating and they get to play with fondant which is basically edible playdough. To a 12 year old, boy or girl, this is awesome.

Teaching out of my comfort zone makes me a better teacher

I have my room and my way of doing things. While there might be some cross-class collaboration in my syndicate, I can see how easy it is to fall into a teaching rut. Today gave me a good shake up and I learned tons. Moreover actually teaching rather than just popping in for a quick nosey gave me a huge appreciation for the incredible work that goes on up in technology classes.

Professional Development goes global – Why Twitter for teachers rocks

The days are starting to get shorter and stationary is starting to be bought which depending on your point of view is either the end of the holidays or the start of a new school year.

I’m going to go for a glass is half full interpretation and say it’s the start of 2013.

My holidays have been both equally manic and magic with 11 cities/towns, 8 border crossings and 3 cooking classes as I’m meandered around South East Asia in the space of five weeks. In my enthusiasm to dust off my passport, I left for the airport barely 12 hours after I waved goodbye to my students and will arrive just in time for the International Conference on Thinking.

Although most of my time has been spent marvelling at ancient and modern buildings in between eating copious amounts of street food, I did spend a couple of days in International Schools seeing the amazing teaching and learning going on there.

I know what you are thinking.

It takes a special kind of nerd to set aside time on holiday to do classroom observations but my time was PD on steroids. I have come back brimming with ideas to implement in the classroom and a love affair with the Primary Years Programme. As I look about my ideas around barcamps, impact projects and even the Daily 5 I can see how the programme gives some conceptual grunt to my ideas about effective teaching and learning. I would write more but I fear that such one-way gushing would be a bore to read.

These visits simply wouldn’t have been possible without twitter. Through twitter I had already virtually visited classrooms and met teachers. However while online is good face to face is so much better. You get to hear the conversations, the sights and yes even the smells of the classrooms. Nevertheless it is ever so surreal actually being in a classroom that you’ve been watching over the internet or putting a face to an avatar.

In other news I was pleased and humbled to have made it into the Apple Distinguished Educator programme. The calibre of the candidates who both made it into the programme and those who missed out is truly awe-inspiring. Alongside a digital community to join, I also have four days of learning and networking in Bali just before Easter.

2013 is looking to be an exciting year…


Proud to be a part of Teachers & Social Media

Image used under creative commons licence

It’s been a long time in the making but Teachers & Social Media has finally been launched. As I alluded to back in February, I was asked by Teachers Council to sit on the reference group for the project.  It’s been really interesting to be involved in the development of this resource but what’s been the hardest has been not blogging and tweeting about the project.

Bloggers love to share and keeping this experience quiet has taken a fair bit of willpower.

But now that the site has been launched, I am relatively free to write on the topic.

To say I was surprised to get an email asking me if I was interested in contributing to the project was a bit of an understatement. After all being a first year teacher what could I have to offer? However, I have rambled and ranted about social media use a lot on this blog. So what I lack in teaching experience, I more than make up in opinions on the subject teachers’ use of Social Media. It felt really satisfying to know that my work my actually influence people’s thinking on this topic.

Although the experience was  great to be part of there were multiple times where I wondered why on earth I add extra workload into my first year of teaching. And yes there  were some emails that sat in my inbox for waaaay too long while projects in the classroom took my attention. Nevertheless, I’m proud of what the awesome people at Teachers Council have produced and happy to be associated with the final outcome.

My participation in the project got me thinking.

Does being connected help get you recognized?

This is a difficult subject to writing about without being labelled as being smug, arrogant, conceited , or even all three but here goes.

Because the more I think about it, I simply wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be part of this project if I didn’t have a social media presence. I’m sure the cynics out there would go ‘well duh it’s a social media reference group of course they need a few social media junkies.’

But when I look back on my experience of finding a teaching job, something that is really tough in today’s market, my social media presence meant I secured a permanent position relatively quickly.

When I look at so many of the ideas that I’ve implemented in the classroom, they’ve come through social media.

When I look at the submission project in particular so much of what made the project effective, simply wouldn’t have happened without me being out there participating in social media.

I see such an immense value in being connected to not only other members of the global profession but also to wider society. And these connections have opened up opportunities not just for me but more importantly for my students.

Popular media stories of teachers using social media are almost always all bad. Career-ending tweets and the ever-present concerns about cyber-bullying.  I’m not saying that these issues aren’t serious and shouldn’t be worthy of consideration. However this fear is also  holding back innovation. Because being connected is an opportunity for me as a teacher to learn and maintain relevance with the ever-changing world.

Perhaps the Teachers & Social resource might actually change the course of our conversations in social media in education away from the risk of being connected towards more the risks in not being connected.

On the way home of my student submitters remarked, that the experience is something that the wanted to mention when they apply for a job.

To me this was a bit of a eureka moment.

Could social media have the potential to bridge that often-maligned gap between ‘school learning’ and the “real world?’ Could  the networks and knowledge that students develop when completing projects become the launching pad for a great career?

I’m not sure of the answer to that question but in the mean time being involved with this particular project has formed a great entry to show how I am meeting the Registered Teacher Criteria.

Enough with the superhero teacher meme economists!

Coming to a school near you: super teacher!

There’s a nasty narrative creeping into the national conversation New Zealand is having about education these days, that of the superhero teacher.

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot line, it goes a little something like this. There is a massive achievement gap in academic achievement and this gap is because of  bad schools. Since teachers are the most important things in schools, if the schools suck then it must be because teachers must suck.

Enter the superhero teacher.

Superhero teachers have the capacity to take any group of low-performing students and raise their academic achievement to heights on par with any student in the country, or at least reach them in a way no mere mortal teacher could.  But this special ability comes at a cost, the superhero teacher must devote every waking hour  (and some when they should be sleeping) to their students.  The natural corollary of this statement to some is that we need to staff every classroom with superhero teachers and then hey presto our problems as a country will be solved.

This narrative doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s been played out in many a Hollywood offering most notably Dangerous Minds where Michelle Pffifer was able to turn around a group of delinquent students into learners with the help of Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan and some chocolate bars as bribes. Of course anyone who has spent longer than 90 minutes in an actual classroom knows that the business of teaching and learning something new knows that resolving problems doesn’t happen in nice neat portions of time. It’s more like a slow accumulation of sabbaths than a sudden epiphany. Even LouAnne Johnson, the real teacher behind the movie, openly admits that the movie is only partially based on real life events.

Unfortunately the New Zealand Treasury is drinking some of that educational koolaid in this respect by advocating that things like class size don’t matter to the neediest students only teacher quality. Now I’m not saying that kids don’t deserve great teachers however the assumptions underpin the superhero teacher meme need some debunking so here goes.

The first is using research from  a series of studies back in the mid 1990s that state that the effective teachers can lift student achievement rates. I don’t doubt that having an effective teacher improves student learning. However it is a huge leap of logic to state that the effect that three great teachers have on students’ lives is so miraclous that it justifies having a few extra kids in each class to free up resources (read hire less qualified and/or experienced teachers) and indeed the bold claim that three accurate teachers in a row is life-changing doesn’t seem to pan out much in theory or in fact.

Of course anyone who spends time in a classroom knows those extra few kids make a difference. That’s a few extra pieces of assessment to analyize, more families to work with and then there’s that small matter of classroom management. Most teachers, especially at primary level, don’t spend much time with chalk and talk ie. lecturing entire classes of students about what to do and what to think yet larger classes will move us back towards that model if for no other reason than crowd control. Education needs to  become far more personalized yet the more kids there are in a class means the less time teachers get to spend interacting with kids one on one and bigger class sizes won’t help us achieve this goal.

More importantly underpinning the superhero teacher meme that is gaining traction in New Zealand is the idea that teaching is some  kind of innate talent.  Indeed the conversation that is emerging in New Zealand particularly around performance based pay and the emergence of Teach First New Zealand is that education policy is now becoming narrowly focused on the qualities of people who become teachers and on the process of educating, hiring and firing them while missing the boat almost entirely on the practices of these teachers and on the conditions that support those practices.

This mindset makes it easy to view initial and ongoing development of teachers as an inessential expenditure which what is already starting to creep into New Zealand teacher education with the government looking at disestablishing the 3 year undergraduate courses in favour of 1 year post-graduate courses or no initial teacher education in the case of Teach First New Zealand. Indeed we are now  based around the idea that attracting talent, if only for a few years, is far more preferable to a long-term vision of how to develop our average (ie. most of) our teachers over the long-term.

More importantly it allows the government to wash its hands of any the factors outside of school that effect students performance.

Your students are coming to school hungry and aren’t able to learn effectively? That doesn’t matter to a superhero teacher who will find ways to feed the children’s minds even when if their stomach’s are empty. You obviously aren’t trying hard enough.

Your students don’t have families that read to them or value and encourage school? That doesn’t matter to  the superhero teacher who will provide that sense of belonging and purpose. You obviously aren’t working hard enough.

Your students are absent from school because they are catching preventable diseases due to poor housing. That doesn’t matter to the superhero teacher who will shall make up for those lost days. You obviously don’t care about your students enough.

We are being led to believe that great teachers alone have the capacity to overcome these barriers and we need to hold teachers accountable to a set of standards which ignore the deeper causes of educational inequality.  Clearly those causes are policy kryptonite to our economists.

The unbearable lightness of making an OTJ on National Standards

Time of year where we are sending home statements about what our students learning goals for the year are. As these are reports going home, they must include a statement about National Standards and be in plain English. Personally I prefer my English in pink and purple polka dots but I digress.

I’ve had a number of problems National Standards in the past but now I’m having to make an overall teacher judgement about whether I think my kids will be at standard by the end of the year I’ve run into a huge set of ethical dilemmas.

There are a few kids in my classroom who without any real input from me are already at standard right now. If National Standards measure success, then what is our system telling the kids who are already there? You’re deemed to be at where you should for your age now put your feet up and watch the year go by. At the other end of the spectrum there are a few kids who even with a herculean effort are unlikely to be at standard by the end of the year. I can’t think of anything more demoralizing for a kid, or anyone really, then being told at the start of the year that even if pull out all the stops and work harder than they ever imagined, you’ll still be below standard at the end of the year.

Yes I realize that standards are supposed to be aspirational and I should have high expectations of all my students, but this needs to balanced by principles of honesty and fairness. Yet even the principle of honesty must be couched. When I hear of stories of children in tears about being labelled below standard and how distressing this must be for some kids and some parents I know I need to be careful when giving those cold hard facts. And it this judgement without context which is the reason why a lot of teachers loathe national standards.

Yet I realize that these feelings aren’t the same for parents.

Last school reporting season I watched my facebook feed light up with friends proudly mentioning that their kids are above National Standards to know that the standards do mean something to parents.  A safeguard that yes my kid is doing ok, or no my kid needs help.

But the parents aren’t the only people who read school reports.

As I’m writing my comments and making my judgements on these statements I’m very aware of my student audience.  That audience is the reason why I’ve spent more time this weekend worrying about whether or not the kids in my classroom will meet National Standard at the end of the year than I have on identifying their next learning steps or even planning for next week’s classes. In short I’ve spent more time worrying about where the kids are according National Standards than I have working out where they need to go and how we are going to get them there.

I know I shouldn’t over think these judgements but it is such a big call to stick a label on kid.

People outside of the education sector seem to assume that there is a definite line in the sand between the kids that are achieving or not.  However even with the wealth of assessment information my school has on each child I still feel like I am performing nano surgery with a sledge hammer when it comes to making a judgement on national standards for some children.

For a number of children the weight of the previous teacher judgements weights heavily on my mind especially if the evidence I have supports an entirely different conclusion from a child’s previous report. The previous teacher might well have made a mistake. I know despite asking for the advice of others, there will be kids I have made an error of judgement on. This doesn’t make them or me a bad teacher. In fact it doesn’t make us any different from any primary teacher in New Zealand.

Because the bigger mistake that has been made is thinking of learning as a product rather than a process. And it worries me greatly that these labels are detracting us from the conversations we need to be having over a child’s next learning step. Despite arguments to the contrary, assessment isn’t a science and should not be treated as such. A guide to be sure, but ultimately like all measures of the human mind entirely fallible by our innate individuality.

Six weeks teacher training? Our neediest kids deserve better than that

A University degree is as good as gets (image by Nottingham Trent University used under creative commons licence)

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.

The right personality for teaching?

Children dwarfed by schools, a wordle of national's education policy

Like many teachers I’m astounded by the National’s Party’s plan to test aspiring teacher’s personality. Is the party’s answer to every problem in education to test students? However the rest of the party’s teacher education policy, behind the more headline-grabbing ideas is well worth an examination.

The first is the party’s plans to make teaching a post-graduate only qualification. At the moment there are two routes into teaching. The 3 year undergraduate degree which a lot of primary school teachers study and the 1 year graduate diploma. Massey University has already jumped the gun and is planning to disestablish the four year direct-entry Bachelor of Education degree. This policy isn’t particularly new. It stems from recommendations made by the Education Workforce Advisory Report which was released in April last year.

Interestingly Singapore also has gone through a process of reviewing teacher education. What struck me about the Singaporean report was that there was a clear vision of what they wanted for their kids and then looked at how teacher education programmes could help teachers to develop their professional capabilities in response to this need.  In contrast the New Zealand version is woeful both in terms of overall vision and the research to back up the report’s recommendations.   .

This makes me think that the move to making teaching a graduate-only qualification has more to do with productivity cost-cutting than any real desire to improve teacher education or elevate the the profession. As the OECD notes in report about the American system

“the best-performing countries are working to move their initial teacher-education programmes towards a model based less on preparing academics and more on preparing professionals in clinical settings, in
which they get into schools earlier, spend more time there and get more and better support in the process.”

So why are cutting back on the very degrees that offer clinical support? Because graduate diplomas are a lot cheaper for universities to run as the students are still at varsity studying for 4 years but the institution don’t have to maintain a large Faculty of Education to support the staffing demands of the Bachelor of Education.

What should concern everyone is that this potential narrowing of the curriculum for our would-be teachers.  As it stands you don’t have time to study a large amount of child psychology, pedagogy  or assessment theory in the 1 year course. Moreover at the primary level  there isn’t much time to plug any gaps a student might have in their content knowledge. Given the breadth of the New Zealand curriculum, particularly at primary level, this is concerning.

But what is more concerning is that party supports putting graduates without any teaching qualifications into classrooms. I’ve already written about Teach First New Zealand a scheme where ‘high achieving’ graduates  will be teaching in the classrooms of ‘low status‘ (their language)  secondary schools after 6 weeks training for a period of two years. National has earmarked $200,000 towards supporting. Not much in the grand scheme of things but we’ll be hearing a lot more about this programme in the coming years.

The scheme is modeled on similar ones in the United States and United Kingdom and it is worth noting that both countries score lower on international student achievement studies than New Zealand. The research into direct-entry teaching schemes shows that teachers coming out of the programmes are less effective in the classroom and leave the profession at higher rates than rates than teachers who go through teacher certification programmes however these gaps close once the teachers become certified.

Nevertheless the introduction of the scheme has been hailed by many players inside and outside the education system.  On first glance it has a nice narrative,  high-achieving graduates who would otherwise be destined for the glass towers of Shortland Street riding into to save poor children for two years under the banner of educational equity. But when you look at the wider picture things come unstuck. There are  hundreds of qualified teachers already looking for work which  begs the question why we need to be placing unqualified teachers in classroom. Moreover the experience overseas shows that the teachers don’t come from the communities they teach and the two year commitment means they necessarily stick around much after their tenure is over. This makes the scheme look at best self-serving  at worst down-right exploitative.

Given the small number of teachers (just 20 a year for the next 5 years) and large amount of private funding that appears to be supporting the initiative Teach First New Zealand, I’m sure the programme will be successful in terms of its stated goal of being an exclusive recruitment programme for recent graduates who will use the scheme as  stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Unfortunately the type of educational leaders that theses schemes spawns are well, kind of evil. They are the type of ‘leaders,’ and I do use the term loosely, who take pleasure in using test scores to label schools as failing and see that as some kind of success rather than their failure to lead. And unfortunately they are the ones Tolley is talking to.

I’m sure detractors would argue I just another lazy teacher looking to avoid any sort of accountability in my job. Let me be clear that the type of accountability measures National are introducing are great if you want conformity and control. But if you after things like engagement and creativity, which is what you want if your goal is to keep kids interested in learning, then these sort of measures actually impede that goal.

There is also a nasty undertone from National that teachers are there primarily to serve the interests of the parents and that value-added incentives are the way to get there. This move is designed to pit parents against teachers and teacher against each other rather than  trying to encourage a partnership so that we can all do the best for the kids (whose voices are almost completely absent from educational policy debates).

Least I be accused of being just another lefty teacher. Not all of National’s policies are bad. Their plans to rejuvenate school buildings are good and I’m cautiously optimistic about the Network for Learning. It’s just a shame that the money they are spending on 21st century buildings and technology will be wasted due to 19th century pedagogy and a smattering of colonial do-goodism thrown in for good measure.

It’s science week: so start your starter!

It’s specialist week this week and with a choice of social science, technology and science I just had to go for science. Science is fun, science is magic, science starts with a cup of flour?

Photo by author

No I haven’t gone for food tech I’m growing something! I wonder what this goopy mess of flour and warm water is going to grow into? Right now it looks and feels a bit like play dough. I think I’ll leave it in this jar for a day and see what happens…

A jar of flour and water...


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