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Teach for NZ - Thoughts...

There's been coverage in the press recently about the Teach First NZ (TfNZ) programme, in the Herald, as well as morning TV.

There's also been some chatter on twitter, and Stephanie has written up a comprehensive post over on her blog. She covers a lot of ground, and there's some interesting discussion in the comments.

UPDATE: Stuart Middleton's post on this says some of what I say below, but far more succinctly and effectively.

I thought I'd add some thoughts into the mix, but after being accused of merely parroting the union line, I thought I'd offer up some perspective to my point of view.

  • I came to teaching at 30 - after a relatively successful 8 year career in my chosen field.
  • I worked as an employee and also as a freelance contractor.
  • I had a four year degree from Canterbury University.
  • I have a Fijian father - which made me a prime prospect for filling the shortage of Pacific Island teachers.
  • I was keen to retrain so I could enter the teaching profession.

I was, by definition, a prime candidate for a fast track teacher training programme.

But, I'm still unsure of the Teach for NZ programme.

The language on the site reeks of high-flying corporatized, Avon-inspired evangelism - bringing aspirationally correct education to the poor and downtrodden.

Yes, I am being cynical here - but there's an interesting turn of phrase across that website, that makes me a bit twitchy.  And while that is great for getting people to buy into their organisational vision, I'm not sure how that all directly translates to student-led success and outcomes in a New Zealand school.

The key point seems to be that is an "initiative to tackle educational inequality", and there is much made of the fact that it aims to make teaching a top graduate choice - but I'm still confused as to which problem the TfNZ programme is trying to solve.

Is it a teacher supply problem?

As far as I'm aware, teachers colleges are pushing out teachers every year, and teachers are being hired from overseas. In the skills shortage section of the Immigration NZ site, NZ currently only requires special ed teachers, and (somewhat ironically), more university lecturers. No need for secondary or primary teachers, in any area of expertise, on either the short term or long term skills shortage lists.

I'm happy to accept that anecdotal or hard evidence is to the contrary, but as far as I know - teacher supply in NZ is not a problem.

Secondary schools struggle to find teachers in low decile areas, because let's be honest, the majority of university graduates don't want to teach in decile 1 areas, precisely because they're decile 1 areas. With all the attendant icky human qualities that being a "decile 1" entails.

I started my career in a decile 2 school, and it was some of the best learning about how to be a teacher. But I'd applied for 8 positions before that - and got turned down for all of them. I wouldn't have chosen to teach in a low decile school out of teachers college. It was ultimately the best of places to start my career, and where I learned to be human - not just a teacher. But the fact remains, that it wasn't aspiration or desire to affect change that got me there - it was the fact that I needed a job.

Or is it a teacher quality problem?

This is the implicit statement behind these programmes - it's that our current teachers are not doing a good enough job and something must be done. This ideology of mistrusting the teaching profession underpins most strategies and proposals that this govt. has handed out or supported. National Standards, charter schools, and now TfNZ. There's a hint of 'business knows best' in the the list of TfNZ supporters. And I'm unsure as to why the focus on being a university graduate is so important - primary and secondary teachers have been required to have degree for at least the last 10 years.

But a 6 week condensed course of learning theory and then a 2 year programme of mentoring isn't going to guarantee any better or worse capacity to teach. The end quality of a teacher is governed by a whole host of factors, just as the end result of a student's ability to succeed or fail in life is governed by much more than just the teachers they have.

Dumping high-achieving, academically orientated, go-getting graduates into the arse end of our society, after a crash course in learning theory and expecting them to make meaningful enduring change inside a 2 year mentored programme - is like believing that Michelle Pfieffer can actually teach poor black children how to save the planet.

To be blunt, as a teacher, it's not the 6 hours a day you teach them that's the problem, it's the 18 hours of the day you don't have them. And it's the impact of that 18 hours on your daily practise, and how you deal with that impact that makes the most difference to your teaching. How will a TfNZ graduate be any better equipped to deal with this than a "regularly" trained teacher?

Yes, there's a case for revamping the programmes that teachers colleges are delivering. Yes, there's a case for some schools to have better governance. Yes, there's a case for a more professional attitude from some teachers.

But as far as I can tell none of those are being directly addressed by the TfNZ programme. There is this line in the FAQ: "To this end, our participants receive training, support and networking opportunities designed to prepare them for leadership roles in education, business, the public sector, and beyond.", which makes me think it's a corporatized version of any training course that prepares you for life.

I'd imagine that most of the 20 TfNZ graduates will turn into wonderful, powerful teachers, making a difference and affecting change. That is fantastic.

But oddly they'll be working in the existing systems, and face the same constant pressures and ongoing challenges, stigmas, prejudices and frustrations that existing teachers do. And it's in those systems that the real challenge to the future of education in NZ lie.

The biggest challenge is how do we sustain our teaching profession?

To my mind we don't have a teacher supply problem, and it's not a problem to ensure teacher quality - it's an ongoing constant.

The bigger problem we as a country have is with sustaining, respecting and valuing what teaching is, and how it looks in the communities that make up our nation. Without that discussion and honest, respectful approaches to ensuring sustainability in the profession, we're not going to have many teachers to do the work, regardless of how many TfNZ style policies we swing around.

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