Friday, March 4, 2011

Are Teach for Australia teachers remembered for all the wrong reasons?

You never forget your best and worst teachers.

These individuals seem to have a massive impact on the decisions we make and continue to influence our lives a long time after we have left school.

I’ve always been envious of those who can teach and sometimes wished that I would be that way inclined. I especially admire those who seem to have the innate skills and true calling to teach a room of kids who don’t always want to be there.

It takes such a special person to be actually good at teaching and so many end up in this noble profession who should be doing something else.

Having recently visited the Teach for Australia (TFA) website by accident, my concern with this programme is that the Teach for Australia teachers being remembered for all the wrong reasons.

There is high praise for this programme in that it gets the crème-de-la-crème into a profession that, despite its importance, is seen as not as good as law, medicine or engineering.

But is this really an answer to assisting schools in meeting the needs of disadvantaged students?

My first reason for concern is that the children in the most disadvantaged schools need the best trained teachers with the most experience and not graduates from non-teaching discipline with only 6 or so weeks of training behind them.

The level of training is a common criticism of TFA.

Katrina Morrison and Laura Tiernan wrote an article in September 2009 has quote Laczko-Kerr and Berliner (both are vocal critics of Teach for America and authors of many papers on TFA) who argue that Teach For America teachers produced 20 percent less academic growth a year than graduate teachers with full certification as well as lack the training in class room management and adequate understanding of fundamentals of teaching.

Morrison and Tiernan later cite ‘Jonathan Schorr (1993), a former TFA teacher, describes the inadequate training and preparation that he and other TFA teachers received prior to being placed into schools. He notes, ‘just eight-weeks training is not enough for teachers’. Schorr admits, ‘I was not a successful teacher, and the loss to the students was real and large’

Courtney Trenwith argues in a Brisbane Times article in February 2010 that ‘Queensland parents and teachers this morning labelled as "inadequate" a new national initiative that would have teachers leading classrooms after only six weeks of training’

As Kristi Eaton argues, in her on article on Teach for America dropouts, ‘though some TFA corps members ultimately succeed and find the experience valuable, some corps members are unprepared and ill-trained for the challenges they face as a teacher’.

Secondly, why is it that when you mention “best and the brightest” that people suddenly start becoming interested in something?

For many years now, the number of people applying for mainstream teaching programmes has gone down but it is strange that when a teacher training programme markets itself as attracting the best and the brightest that they receive many hundreds of applications.

Thirdly, the TFA website states that the programme allows participants to discover their strengths and in what way they can contribute. TFA also offer extensive opportunities to move across to industries other than education.

With 40-50% of Alumni going on to work in the public and corporate sectors, in particular law, commerce, engineering and public policy, TFA sound like a professional gap year programme rather than a strategy to increase the number of teachers working in disadvantage schools.

Would you be happy with this figure if you were funding a programme that aimed to improve the educational outcomes of disadvantaged schools and 40-50% of graduates went on to work in other sectors?

We can only wait and see what the benefits of this programme will be. I hope that participants are planning to become teachers for the long term rather than seeing Teach for Australia as a gap year opportunity and a foundation on which to build a corporate career.

After all we wouldn’t want to see TFA teachers being remembered for all the wrong reasons. The world has enough teachers who don’t have the tools to be good at what they have chosen to do. Quality teaching in a disadvantaged school can change the lives of the children that go there and it is a wasted opportunity if teachers who are there are under-prepared and under-trained, however bright and enthusiastic.

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