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Steve McCabe: Pupils don't deserve to be Teach First guinea pigs

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The scheme is an insult to qualified teachers and to students. Photo / Thinkstock
The scheme is an insult to qualified teachers and to students. Photo / Thinkstock

I will be back in school this morning, ready to start another year of teaching, but if plans of Teach First NZ come to pass this could well be the last time I come back to a staffroom full of qualified teachers.

If the Teachers' Council signs off on plans by Teach First NZ, then this time next year I could expect to be working alongside untrained, inexperienced teachers recruited under a new scheme intended to encourage into the teaching profession graduates who might not otherwise have considered education as a career.

But in practice it will open rifts, promote divisiveness and antagonise trained and qualified teachers.

Teach First NZ is a venture that will take graduates with no experience, no training and no qualifications in teaching, give them a month and a half of intensive lectures, and then turn them loose in the classrooms of low-decile secondary schools.

While this initiative might place a few new teachers in harder-to-staff schools, it does nothing to address the root problem, which is why these schools are harder to staff. It also insults the qualified teachers at these schools, who have put their careers on hold for the year they spend at Teachers' College gaining a post-graduate qualification in teaching.

Starting next year, it seems, they will be told they wasted their time. Reinforcing the age-old myth that anyone who knows their subject can teach it, graduates with a bare minimum of teaching theory will be put in the classroom on an equal footing with qualified professionals.

Teach First NZ's website says these unqualified, inexperienced teachers can expect a salary of "around $37,000" in their first year - what a slap in the face for their qualified neighbours on their starting salary of $36,523. The inequity increases when one factors in the $6257 in tuition fees that qualified teachers have to spend to complete their graduate teaching diploma.

A more appropriate starting salary for an unqualified Teach First NZ teacher would be the standard starting pay rate for any other unqualified teacher: $30,000. But this pay rate might not attract the right candidates to this programme. Such candidates, according to Teach First NZ's website, would be "hard-working" and "enthusiastic" and "energetic".

But let us just assume there is some merit to this scheme. In this fantasy world, there should be no practical and meaningful difference between the two groups of teachers. In this scenario, there is no reason why these six-week wonders should be sent only to "hard-to-staff low-decile schools". Surely, if their teaching skills are comparable to those of real teachers, they should be as attractive in the upper deciles of Newmarket and Epsom as they are in the schools of South Auckland.

But as long as we fail to address the staffing difficulties faced by the lower-decile schools, then we insult their students by telling them that although central Auckland's grammar schools are entitled to skilled, trained and dedicated professionals, lesser economic status means they should be grateful for whomever their schools can get to stand up in front of a class.

At a time when the teaching profession is undervalued and underpaid in New Zealand, to introduce a two-tier system serves only to denigrate the profession more.

Doctors are in short supply, but nobody is suggesting a fast track to the operating theatre. Airlines in New Zealand are recruiting fairly aggressively, but I have yet to see a "learn to fly in the cockpit of a Boeing" programme being mooted.

Teaching, despite its ever-diminishing status, is a respectable and noble profession.

It behoves the Ministry of Education and the Teachers' Council to use what funds they have to recruit gifted, skilled and committed teachers to the most needy schools, not to provide a two-year work-experience scheme to unfocused graduates who fancy dipping their toes in the waters of education.

The guinea pigs they practise their teaching on deserve better than to be used as a back door to further erosion of the integrity of the teaching profession.

Steve McCabe is a teacher at a decile 2 school in South Auckland.

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