WHAT ARE WE DOING FOR/TO “OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN”?

Last week Labor announced that if elected it will extend the Teach for Australia program to more graduates and to new states, and provide a further $8.1m for a new grants program to find more ways of bringing Australia’s brightest into teaching.

The LNP has also indicated that it will continue to support this program.

Teach for Australia TFA (AU) is based on Teach for America TFA, which has expanded to more than 20 other countries over the past two decades. The programs recruit high-performing graduates, who undertake a six week long intensive teaching course before being placed in disadvantaged schools as teacher associates where they teach for 4 days a week with the support of mentors.

So it looks like TFA (AU) is here to stay.

I went on-line this week to search for articles about this program and found remarkably little.  There was an evaluation undertaken by ACER that was neither damming nor overly praising but that is about it.

This is in stark contrast to Teach for America (TFA) that seems to be becoming besieged by detractors from within and without, and not without reason.

One of the reasons why TFA (AU) may have managed to steer an easier path in the Australian context is its more careful approach to engaging with Australian education politics.  It has not been used to promote market model based education reforms as it has in the US or to undermine the working conditions of traditional teachers.  And this makes it less on the nose.

However, I still believe there are problems with allowing this program to continue to expand based on the current training model and contract model and the lack of sound evidence that the additional costs of the program are worth it.

Now the strongest argument for the introduction of TFA (AU) is that there is a desperate need to get great teachers into our most disadvantaged schools and this program brings in the brightest and the best, who have a passion for making a difference.  I have spent an evening with one of the TFA groups and I can attest to the fact that these people are impressive – smart, interesting, critically curious, value driven individuals with immense energy and enthusiasm.

But my overriding concern is, ‘how do the children who end up with these TFA-ers as their teacher experience this situation?’   After-all, the children who end up with a TFA teacher will not be your children or my grandchildren. They will be ‘other people’s children’ – children in highly disadvantaged schools.

At the start of the year when a TFA-er commences a stint in a school, they are allocated a class, just like anyone else.  They are called associate teachers, not teachers, but as far as I can make out, the only difference is that they have this class for 4 days out of 5 and have a mentor who also spends time in this class.  At the point of commencement this teacher will have had just 6 weeks of teacher education.

Now in 2011, when the State and Commonwealth Ministers of Education (previously known as MCEECDYA)  met to discuss teacher standards with AITSL, they endorsed the “Accreditation of Initial teacher education programs in Australia: Standards and Procedures” document that made it mandatory that graduate entrants to the teaching profession be through a longer course than the standard one year Diploma of Education course because of the complexity of what they are being asked to learn and develop. Yet here we are putting people in front of children after a six week course.

Now I have no doubt that by the end of this highly exciting intense and possibly life changing experience TFA graduates are likely to be outstanding teachers. Not just teachers, but leaders ready for a high-flying career almost anywhere.  At least this is what the TFA brochure suggests

Over the course of two years you will develop a unique and highly marketable set of skills, as well as emerge with a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching (TFA) – and believe us you will have earned it!

As an alumnus you will join a global movement of leaders working for greater educational opportunity and social equity. You’ll have opportunities to use the skills and leadership practises gained throughout the program to further your career in teaching, social entrepreneurship, government, the business world…or anywhere. The world is your oyster.

And this gets to the heart of the issue for me.  It is clearly a fantastic program for providing unique leadership experiences for our brightest and best students, but its design is built with this end in mind, and I believe that is at the expense of the children for whom it is meant to serve.  It builds in exposing our most needy children to less than fully trained teachers on a regular basis and contributes to high churn.  It is not good enough to view the initial teaching as a learning time because, for these children, it is a year they cant have again.

Imagine if this program keeps on expanding.  You probably won’t notice it in your schools, but what about the children of Tennant Creek?   How long will it take until they have TFA-ers over consecutive years?  And what about the churn then?

The Onion wrote this imagined piece from the point of view of the children who are most likely to experience the wash up of this – other people’s children.

You’ve got to be kidding me. How does this keep happening? I realize that as a fourth-grader I probably don’t have the best handle on the financial situation of my school district, but dealing with a new fresh-faced college graduate who doesn’t know what he or she is doing year after year is growing just a little bit tiresome. Seriously, can we get an actual teacher in here sometime in the next decade, please? That would be terrific.

Just once, it would be nice to walk into a classroom and see a teacher who has a real, honest-to-God degree in education and not a twenty-something English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a qualified educator who has experience standing up in front of a classroom and isn’t desperately trying to prove to herself that she’s a good person.

I’m not some sort of stepping stone to a larger career, okay? I’m an actual child with a single working mother, and I need to be educated by someone who actually wants to be a teacher, actually comprehends the mechanics of teaching, and won’t get completely eaten alive by a classroom full of 10-year-olds within the first two months on the job.

How about a person who can actually teach me math for a change? Boy, wouldn’t that be a novel concept!

I fully understand that our nation is currently facing an extreme shortage of teachers and that we all have to make do with what we can get. But does that really mean we have to be stuck with some privileged college grad who completed a five-week training program and now wants to document every single moment of her life-changing year on a Tumblr?

For crying out loud, we’re not adopted puppies you can show off to your friends.

Look, we all get it. Underprivileged children occasionally say some really sad things that open your eyes and make you feel as though you’ve grown as a person, but this is my actual education we’re talking about here. Graduating high school is the only way for me to get out of the malignant cycle of poverty endemic to my neighborhood and to many other impoverished neighborhoods throughout the United States. I can’t afford to spend these vital few years of my cognitive development becoming a small thread in someone’s inspirational narrative.

But hey, how much can I really know, anyway? I haven’t had an actual teacher in three years.

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