Attracting the ‘best and brightest’ into teaching…

If you want an explanation of the gulf of mistrust that exists between the teaching profession in New Zealand and the Minister of Education, you need only look at this article

Teaching needs to attract the best and brightest.

It sounds nice.

Saying you want to attract the best and brightest people into teaching is a bit like saying you want to raise educational standards.

Nobody is ever going to argue against higher standards or not having highly competent people employed in classrooms.

But much like the deeply unpopular national standards, how you define ‘best and brightest’ and more importantly how you reward ‘best and brightest’ play a very important role in determining how you build educational culture.

So for a Minister of Education to be quoted as saying if teaching is a higher-performing profession “it will attract more men” you are already off to a miserable start.

Firstly because are implying the profession isn’t performing well especially in comparison to the fields of law, medicine and engineering. More importantly, this underperformance is due to teaching being a female-dominated profession.

When you walk the halls of the Schools of Education around the country, you definitely notice that there aren’t as many school leavers as you’ll find in the other professional courses.

Teaching often attracts ‘mature’ students.

There some are second-chancers who didn’t do well in school and then rose up through foundation courses to start their degree.  There are also a number of students who have been out in the workforce for a number of years and are looking for a change of scene as well as those whose career priorities have changed as they’ve had kids.

I don’t see this as a bad thing.

Teaching is a job where interesting life experience is definitely an asset. Being inspired into teaching through your own children is is important rite of passage for many teachers, as you’ll spend most of your day interacting with children.

Not everyone is cut out to work with kids when they are 20 but might have a lightbulb moment at 35 once they’ve had their own children.

Which leaves the elephant in the room, teaching is for those not smart enough to gain entry into law and medicine which is why so many women are attracted to the course.

If we are going to narrowly define teaching quality in terms of passing exams, then our Schools of Education probably come up short. But passing exams is not the true measure of a teacher, the potential to inspire learning in children is far more important.

Often it is those who experience failure in the education system who go on to to be the most amazing teachers. They understand struggle, to bounce back from adversity and how those ‘hard to reach kids’ tick far more than the academic high fliers simply because at some point they were one of those kids.

To incentivise those with high grades at the exit point of high school into teaching through cutting off places to drive up demand as the Minister seems to be proposing may very well deprive the educational system of vital expertise.

So how do you attract people, especially young school leavers,  into teaching?

Rather than look to compete on ‘incentives,’ which the public sector will never be able to do, look for the strength within.

The best ambassadors for recruiting people into teaching are teachers.

Yet if I was a secondary student watching the teachers in my school would I be inspired to go into teaching?

I don’t just mean in terms of qualifications and teaching competency , although those are important, but do my teachers look like they are happy with their lives?

I suspect the kids see in too many of their teachers what New Zealand-based educators see in themselves and their colleagues, long hours, stress and tiredness.

Maybe the problem is that the ‘best and brightest’ have looked in their schools and seen there are far too many unhappy teachers.

No amount of new teachers will save a bad culture in education.

That’s evident by the number new of teachers who leave the system within the first few years of teaching. 

It is contradictory to say you want the best people possible to enter the classroom and then set up a working environment that micromanages those within it to the point where all creativity, innovation and passion is progressively squeezed out of them.

If we look at the current educational policy environment in New Zealand, that’s exactly what’s happening.

National standards, PaCT, a code of teacher conduct rather than ethics and stripping teachers of the right to democratically govern their profession goes against teacher opinion.

Don’t demand a cordon bleu chef to flip burgers at McDonalds year after year and then act surprised when they look elsewhere for opportunities.

The best advertisement to get people to enter teaching and stay there long term are happy teachers.

At the moment, teachers in New Zealand aren’t happy.

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

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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…

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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.