Teaching: Is being a ‘top graduate’ good enough to be in front of our most vulnerable kids?

Over in the United States there’s a programme known as Teach For America where ‘top graduates’ go through a fast-tracked programmes to teach in schools that serve students in poor rural and inner-city schools. These programmes are seen as a win-win, the graduates ‘give something back’ and the kids get ‘top quality’ graduate teacher in front of them.

I heard on Radio NZ that similar scheme is now being set up in New Zealand for secondary schools.

Teach First New Zealand aims to put 20 graduates in hard-to-staff subjects from 2013.

But who really wins?

I’m not sure what you could learn in 6 weeks to be qualified to be put in front of a class of kids in low decile schools, especially given that you won’t get any practicum time before you end up in the classroom for real. Certainly the most useful aspect of my teacher education programme so far has been the time I’ve spent in school watching and learning from teachers. Right now I’ve taken some parts of the class and some small groups but I’ve got my associate teacher there giving me feedback and suggestions about how to do things better in the classroom. Every day I’m learning more about what it takes to be a great teacher, yes I’m making mistakes along the way and that’s ok because I’m not yet responsible for the kids.

And this isn’t my first time in front of a classroom.

I spent 3 years in a public school in Korea where I was a language assistant teacher where I had next to no training except having a degree and speaking English which made me ‘more’ qualified to teach English than the Korean teachers who had degrees in education and/or English. To be honest the first few year or so I wasn’t particularly good and it took a lot of trail and error in order for me to become an ‘ok’ teacher.

But is it ok for New Zealand students to have people who happen to have an excellent academic record in front of some of our most vulnerable kids and seeing whether they happen to sink or swim for the next two years? Firstly there’s the implication that the students in low-decile schools aren’t worthy enough to have qualified teachers in their classroom. I don’t think this sort of scheme would go down so well in affluent communities where the parents would rightly expect their kids’ teachers to be qualified. Shouldn’t the same be true of kids from low decile schools? Moreover for a lot of these kids school may be the only stable part of their lives. How does putting teachers who are only in it for a short-term commitment make things better for these kids?

Then there is the issue of teacher quality. Knowing a lot about the subject doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to teach a subject. Anyone who has a degree will know that there are academics out there who have no business teaching anyone let alone fee-paying students because in general universities don’t demand that lecturers go through any teacher training before they are inflicted upon students.

The oddest thing about this programme is that both the University of Auckland has thrown its lot in with supporting this scheme as has the Secondary Schools Principal Association. The idea that recruiting good people without qualifications is more important than pro­moting high quality teacher educa­tion programmes and teachers becoming more educated seem quite scary to me. But perhaps my cynicism about these sort of programmes is that participants who spend two years in a low decile school get lauded for their service on their way to bigger and ‘better’ things while those who wish to spend their entire working lives toiling in a classroom are viewed suspiciously as though they weren’t up to other challenges.

6 thoughts on “Teaching: Is being a ‘top graduate’ good enough to be in front of our most vulnerable kids?

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  1. Here here! I wholeheartedly agree.

    My issue with this has now become more of a pedagogical perspective. I’m in my 5th year of teaching. I can honestly say that only now, in the last year of so, am I starting to feel like ‘I’m getting it’…that this whole ‘teacher’ thing is something I can now ‘do properly’. Thinking back to my graduate years I wonder what on earth I was doing – and I did a 2 year degree before walking into front of my first class! Educational theory didn’t help me get through those years, dedication and hard work did – and there were many tears along the way. This job ain’t for the faint of heart.

    Only once the ‘day to day’ stuff became more second nature could I focus on building better teaching and learning practices – or more to the point, once that was under control did I have time to care about developing my pedagogy. This only happened last year! I agree with you, I honestly cannot see how someone with a great amount of knowledge in a certain content area can truly help disadvantaged/low socio-economic students when what they need is good pedagogy. I’m probably biased though, I’m a primary teacher and trained as a generalist classroom teacher. We were taught a range of strategies for teaching multiple content areas.

    I suppose one good thing that could come of this is that these Teach for *insert country name* (Australia has it now too) graduates is that if they are excited by their content and somehow in 6 weeks manage to pick up some great survival strategies that theri enthusiasm for their subjects ‘might’ see them through. But teaching is hard. I adore Literacy but by God do I have days where I’m just banging my head against a brick wall. I’d imagine those days are harder when you don’t have a good bank of teaching experiences (be they a practicum or something else) or strategies to fall back on when the lesson just goes belly up.

    Ultimately I think fully qualified teachers get the bad rap in all this. As you say, we are there for the long haul (or at least intend to be until you just feel so unappreciated that you give up), not for a couple of years to satisfy some governmental ideal or lining a university’s pockets! We are the ones who develop our pedagogies, who spend hour upon hour reading and researching best practise – and we intended to do this from the beginning. I can’t help but think of Finland in all this….oh the lessons we could learn if only certain groups were prepared to listen!


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