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.


37 thoughts on “Six weeks teacher training? Our neediest kids deserve better than that

Add yours

  1. Often people make the assumption that smart people would be able to teach, because, obviously, they have the knowledge. However as a student I know that smart people can’t necessarily teach well at all. That seems to be something that has been overlooked, smart people do not always have the ability get up in front of thirty or so students and explain something. I can’t imagine a six week course could prepare anyone for that.


  2. Enjoyed your thoughts on this a lot! As was suggested on Twitter discussion, I think it is based on the Teach for America programme, which has had a lot of hot debate around it since its inception years ago… but on a quick round up of the last decade of research on TfA your thoughts seem pretty spot on: TfA has been an excellent opportunity for those on the programme, as a stepping stone and CV asset. As you note about the NZ programme, TfA often appears to be a “leadership programme”: a way for high-flyers to get some “community service” on the CV rather than about education outcomes. And the outcomes for the students of those teachers on the programme has been shown to be sigificantly worse than those with full trained teachers. So if this is about the kids, they deserve better….


    1. Hi Ellen
      That’s interesting to hear. There seems to be a major suspension in belief about the importance about of educating educators which I find utterly terrifying. I think a lot of it comes down to the value that society places on working with children.



  3. Stephanie
    I hadn’t heard of this initiative. Is it for real? Really?

    You put your argument so clearly and well and I entirely agree with you. These students should be getting our most trained and expert teachers, or expert teachers that are guided the newly trained. Six weeks is a joke. I hope the kids would eat them for lunch!

    Of course it says a whole lot about where trained teachers are in the pecking order in New Zealand. Low!



  4. Hi Stephanie,
    I have to respectfully disagree with many of your points. I am currently taking a condensed 7-month Grad Dip, following my undergrad in Law and Commerce, and many teachers have expressed similar sentiments to you regarding my course, ie insufficient preparation etc. My course selection was fairly rigorous and most students come from strong academic backgrounds.
    I think one of the greatest assets of a prospective teacher is their ability to relate to students and that simply cannot be taught.
    As you say, one of the most important elements of being a great teacher is the ability to be a great learner, and the academic results of these candidates indicate that.
    I agree, the cliche is law and medicine for high-achievers, and that is what I did with my score of 99.55/100 as a confused 17 year-old. After a year in my profession, I realised it was not going to provide me with the professional and personal fulfilment I needed in order to dedicate my career (and life) to it and I now know teaching is what will fulfil those needs. I am not entering teaching for a year or two; I am in it for life and if Teach for Australia was available for primary school qualifications in my country, I would have applied for it and stayed in the profession for life.
    My intellectual capacity is higher than most and that is because, through my undergraduate degrees, I have been so rigorously trained in (law) problem-solving, arguing a wide range of points of view and (commerce) applied financial and algebraic mathematics. For students that want and need a great score to enter university courses, some of the best people to teach them how to achieve that are those who did it themselves. It would be scary sometimes being taught by someone who got a score of 80 when you need 99. Yes, education is not about the score at the end of the 13 years, but without that score many disadvantaged students will be deprived of opportunities they deserve to harness.
    No matter how long or short a course is, I know I will be a great teacher and the longer I’m in university, the longer I’m away from influencing students. It’s easy to be scared and sceptical of change but I think as teachers, particularly ones as reflective as you, we should embrace it in this case.
    Many students come out with debts just as big, or bigger, than $30k and want to teach, rather than be lectured to about teaching, as soon as possible. As you say, they will learn the most when they are out there and, so long as they are chosen very carefully, the program will contribute positively to students, particularly disadvantaged ones.
    Thanks for your post. I respect your views and know where you are coming from, but I hope you can see the merit in some of my opinions too.


    1. Hi Anna,
      I don’t disagree that the people picked for such schemes are talented and smart. But talent alone does not a teacher make and will set up a lot of grads for burnout and stress because they haven’t been well prepared. I fundamentally disagree with the idea that you don’t need to learn how to teach and relate to children. It’s something you need to keep doing and thinking about because children and their needs do change not to mention the world within which we live.



  5. I’d totally do this course, if I was allowed. I applied a few days ago, but was rebuffed. I finished my degree too long ago. I want to be a teacher, but can’t afford training college. I looked into every funding option, and not one of them is sufficient to even pay my mortgage, let alone keep my kids alive for a year.

    I can understand concerns that people doing it wouldn’t be giving the kids the highest quality teaching (at least for the first year), but that is why they have considerably less contact hours than is normal for a starting teacher, and much more attention is payed to mentoring them. At least that is what they say will happen.

    And practically every teacher I know (I come from a family of teachers) has said that actually, being dropped into a class was the only real way they learned teaching, and that they were never particularly well prepared for it by training college, which gave the impression that the art of teaching is a mere technical subject, rather than being like swimming – something you will never learn from a book.

    Of course the obvious solution to my conundrum is that training college should be well funded for students. But that’s just not going to happen under either National or Labour, so I’m not going to get down on any solution that might actually supply something the country desperately needs, more teachers.


  6. @anna good call there. I think this piece is extensive but it doesn’t address the many reasons why it’s good for the Teach for NZ associate. The debt is a huge thing. A lot of the post-grad units are prac units which effectively are covered by on the job training. The associates only do four out of five days, the fifth is for study. They also provide a ‘buddy’ for the associate, giving much needed support. How many new graduates can say they got that in their first appointment?

    And another big thing, which is also good for students is that applicants are screened for qualities like resilience. If more teachers were screened for the qualities Teach for NZ are looking for then teaching might not have such a massive dropout rate.

    If principals weren’t interested in what the associates had to offer then Teach for NZ would fall apart. It needs willing principals, and obviously there are enough out there who are open-minded enough to take a chance.

    Great post though. It was nice to see some calm and rational argument on the subject. Which is why, with complete respect, like Anna, I would have to disagree.


    1. Hi,
      In New Zealand are per registration requirements all beginning teachers are given classroom release time for professional development and are assigned a mentors to oversee their on-going education immediately post graduation. So in that respect Teach First teachers aren’t getting any more than qualified teachers however they won’t have had any student teaching (that’s teaching with qualified teachers in the room giving feedback) nor much in the way of learning theories nor assessment when they become responsible for a classroom full of learners.



      1. Fair enough. I still reckon it’s worth supporting as the current system – assuming you have similar regional disadvantage there as we do here in Aus – aint working so well.

        (and I will be applying!)


  7. Hi phuzzo,
    I come from a family of teachers and they all recognize the value that learning both inside and outside the classroom have to improve our jobs. Now I’m not saying that what is happening at teacher’s college is perfect, but doing away with time spent at teacher’s college is most definitely a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.



    1. Throwing out training college because this program exists is crazy talk. Is anyone advocating that seriously? They’re nuts. This is an experiment in a different way of training people, and it comes with very low risk for nearly everyone.

      Yes, it could does create bad narratives about teaching, to add to the entire library of bad narratives about teaching. That’s not in itself a reason not to at least trial the program. If it turns out disastrously, then doesn’t that justify everything about the lengthy teacher training that does happen?

      More likely, though, the end result will be in between. Some people will love doing it and thrive, a lot will hate it and drop out. It’s really the choice of teachers whether they decide to feel threatened by that, or simply admire and support the candidates who are in for a really rough first year.


  8. I wonder how tolerant these high achieving graduates will be with kids who may have learning difficulties or have English as a second language or are just unengaged with school? Will they have the patience or intelligence to work out that each child requires a separate approach, and find out what that is?


  9. Thanks for this, Steph.
    I condensed a 4-year teaching degree into 3 years. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you did a postgrad dip teaching after your arts degree.
    There are two vital issues here:
    1. There is a dire shortage of maths/science teachers. This is where the course will be working. They are all graduates with at least 3 years of study. They’re not just anybody off the street.
    2. So much of what was taught to me in University was life-skill material. The music pedagogy was completely impractical and frankly useless. The idea of these students doing an apprenticeship while they actually fill a need is awesome.
    I’ll cheat: there’s a 3rd: this is secondary school. You teach the same lesson over and over. The job is very different. There’s more room for practise.


    1. Hi Steve,

      Indeed my first placement had a secondary-like set up where I taught maths to four classes. So yes it was good to get an almost immediate do-over for some lessons which did help my learning. However as I mentioned in the post I think how we train teachers is actually a smoke screen for bigger debates.

      There’s some rather nasty narratives coming out of this scheme that
      1. It’s just low expectations that hold kids in low-decile schools back and we just need some bright sparks in there.
      2. Teaching is really a brief stepping stone to bigger and better things for very important people. 2 years is doing the schools a favour rather than vice versa.



      1. Hi Stephanie,

        Regarding this point:

        “1. It’s just low expectations that hold kids in low-decile schools back and we just need some bright sparks in there.”

        I think modelling is huge especially when children get no positive modelling from home. So I think having bright sparks will be inspiring for them. Not the whole solution but how can having high achievers in schools hurt?

        I have noticed a pattern in the comments. There are a lot of generalisations about how being amazing at your content area doesn’t make you a good communicator or a good teacher. I just wanted to point out that it doesn’t mean you’ll be a *bad* teacher either. The associates are individuals, and like full trained teachers, there will be successes and failures and it’s unreasonable to expect otherwise.


        1. Hi
          Indeed I agree with you that content knowledge is important. But the thing is while the grads have had the system ‘vouch’ for their content knowledge they haven’t demonstrated whether they have developed the skills necessary to teach (I disagree that teaching is innate). This is what teaching qualifications are about. You spend time in supervised teaching having people give you advice and also have lecturers modelling effective classroom practice to you. Not everyone from my course passed their teaching placements or indeed the academic requirements for teaching. Some people have gone through teaching placements to find out teaching is not for them. I’m arguing that these filtering devices are put in place for the protection of kids not to mention the teachers.

          And in case of absolutes why shouldn’t the kids in decile 1 kids have qualified and smart teachers?

          Our high achievers might do well, but they may well do even better with some learning behind them.



  10. Very smart people often make quite poor teachers, in fact, because they innately understand a subject and thus don’t know how to explain it. If a child needs you to explain why something works to help them understand it, and the teacher isn’t able to slow down their own thinking enough to show them every step, the communication just won’t happen and it will only lead to frustration on both sides, the child disengaging and both parties deciding that the child is just stupid, when they could have learned it perfectly well if they’d had a teacher who knew the ins and outs of teaching instead of just knowing the subject really well.


    1. Hi Chris,
      You are right that explaining why something works is an important part of a teacher’s job. As is guiding, prompting, telling, questioning, modelling, directing and most importantly giving effective feedback to learners. In short it’s not just about knowing why 0.3>0.19 but also which kids think the reverse is true and how to shift those conceptions (in this case a likely problem with place value).



  11. Hi Stef,
    ALL of our kids deserve better than that. What a joke. Now I have a MUCH better idea…L\let’s give the most intelligent overachievers who score best in their Masters a 6 week crash course in ‘how to be a doctor’ and then send them out to our neediest patients. Why would that idea never be considered acceptable? Because the public and politicians CARE about their health. They CARE about who operates on them and they CARE about the outcome. Notice any differences in this? I am certain that this moronic scheme can only end up badly, both for the poor victimised teachers in training and the students who are the victims of a short-sighted plan.


    1. You’re dramatically overstating the problem, Kimberley. The true comparison is to get someone with a human biology degree, give them a 6 week course, then pay them pittance for a couple of years.


    2. Hi Kimberley,
      I think you hit the nail on the head insofar as I think that in general our society does not value those who work with children and young people and do not see it as real work.



  12. It is clear that you are approaching this issue from a negative and political perspective. You state you have an honours degree but you fail to demonstrate the fact that you have an educated mind to approach these issues. I am not necessarily supporting the initiative but your commentary overlooks a number of pertinent points. The result of this is that it comes across as an unbalanced perspective that lacks research and sounds like a child throwing toys out of a pram.

    Firstly, you presume that the Graduate Diploma of Teaching is an appropriate method for preparing teachers for the classroom. It is not. The relevant standards required in some programs (I cannot speak for all of them but I am aware of most of them) are poor and make it a questionable qualification to compare to other areas of expertise (flight training).

    Secondly, my understanding of the program is that it is currently limited to hard to source subjects. The fact that some of your colleagues are qualified in subject areas that are not in demand and cannot get jobs has no relevance at this stage. They should have specialized in an area that would improve their chances of making them employable. Teachers in science and maths are limited and the problem is often that schools have to resort to either not offering the subject or employing teachers who are poor communicators or lack sufficient content knowledge. As most teachers tend to choose higher decile schools when they are in demand, it makes sense to provide schools who find it difficult to source staff in these areas with graduates with appropriate content knowledge.

    Thirdly, your commentary has a lot of assumptions. The reality is that current research suggests that in the subjects of maths and science, teachers in similar overseas programs outperform national averages significantly. In other subjects the evidence is less clear but research suggests that they are no worse than traditional teaching pathways. While much of the research is limited, even the PPTA commissioned literature review, that hoped to discredit the scheme, could not make any conclusions about the negative effects. In fact, it had to admit that in some subject areas the teach first model was superior.

    Finally, the scheme offers the opportunity for top graduates to either make a career change or begin teaching without taking a year and a significant salary cut. The reality is that I know a lot of people who entered the teaching profession as a last resort because they were unable to find a job. Recruiting individuals who are successful in university and in careers is something that can only enhance the image of teaching as a profession.

    While the jury is still out on the viability of the scheme and its performance in a New Zealand context, tit is still worth trialling. The fact that a number of prominent school principals from low decile schools are publicly supporting the initiative also indicates that the scheme is worth trialling.


  13. HI there

    I am impressed that you have stimulated conversation.

    I am disappointed that you have attacked my two colleagues on this programme who pass the priority test I have for teachers. Would I be happy to have my own children in their classes. My response: ABSOLUTELY.

    I am delighted that this programme has delivered children in our cluster teachers of this calibre who are doing a fabulous job.

    I disagree with every point you raise under “Looking beyond the hype”. But I live and work in a community which is the target for this initiative – and have had my own children schooled in this community.

    Imagine what NZ would be like if this “glut of qualified beginning teachers” were interested in applying to Decile 1a schools, bringing their training, their extensive content knowledge and their cultural responsiveness to our schools.

    Then we would not have to look at innovative solutions to staff our schools with high quality teachers.

    I anticipate your critique of our extension of this concept in 2014.


    1. Hi Dorothy
      I didn’t attack the participants of the scheme but rather the scheme itself. I have no doubt that they’ve got good people, as I’ve heard multiple times how hard it is to get into Teach First.

      From a financial stand point alone it makes sense to go through Teach First a free teaching qualification and salary paid. In contrast the post graduate teaching diploma costs at least $5,000 and students are ineligible for student allowance.

      When people scratch their heads and wonder why people don’t go into teaching that four years of full-time study for a very average income student debt is one of those reasons.

      The government has suspended Teach NZ scholarships and the graduate bonding scheme (the latter of which placed grads in low-decile schools for five years) partly because there was an oversupply of graduates.

      Given the demand our policy makers should be using this as a time to up skill our teaching profession not dumb it down. Internationally high-performing systems don’t do these sort of schemes. They insist on high standards and bright people. Not just bright people who make nice teachers.

      In my experience BTs have no problem working for low decile schools. In fact for the average teaching grad the job search mission was simple: the first school to offer me a job gets me. In these conditions an easy way and low-cost way for low-decile schools to get the cream of the beginning teacher is simply to say high decile schools aren’t allowed to start advertising jobs until November.

      Ask a question if you had $200,000 for staffing (which according to the charities commission was Teach First’s budget and I’m not going to even factor in other money spent on graduate salaries etc.) would you spend it on training a few brilliant student teachers that might stick around for two years before jettisoning low deciles schools for corporate careers or something else?

      Because according to Teach First

      “Our links to top graduate employers in the private and public sectors ensure that we know what organisations are looking for in their recruits, and they know how valuable Teach First NZ is as a personal and professional development opportunity. Through deferral programmes agreed with our partners, participants will have unique access to opportunities following their two-year teaching commitment. The problem solving, communication, people management and strategic planning skills developed in the classroom are sought after by employers in all fields.” (emphasis mine).

      It saddens me greatly how many educationalists are supporting a scheme which treats teaching as a two-year period of servitude after which you can rejoin the real world.



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