Shaun Sutton: Teaching - where only best will do

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The profession needs to be as competitive and prestigious as medicine, the law and engineering.
Graduates need to be able to see teaching as a desirable career. Photo / Getty Images
Graduates need to be able to see teaching as a desirable career. Photo / Getty Images

It was a brave move of New Zealand universities last week to admit that they are not attracting enough of the "best and brightest" graduates to train as teachers. Two universities even released data to the Herald showing students accepted into teaching degrees have some of the lowest entrance scores compared with bachelor programmes in other disciplines.

The fact that even the universities are prepared to be open about what is sensitive and damning data is an indication of how desperate the situation has become. The pressure that school principals are now applying on universities (and the Government) to once-and-for-all raise the bar to enter teaching is becoming a public issue.

The Herald reports that some teaching programmes have responded to a drop in trainee numbers by lowering the bar in an attempt to increase uptake. The current reversal of that strategy seems to be an admission that if you want to make teaching a high-status profession its entry criteria need to be challenging and at the level for our country's most talented individuals to aspire to.

The sector faces a number of tradeoffs. Should universities adopt a "bums on seats" approach to teacher training, recruiting as many people as possible and getting as much student funding as possible, hoping that as many of those as they train will be employed by schools? Or should universities have more of a moral responsibility to work more closely with schools to better match their workforce needs, and be brave enough to turn away those who are less suitable for teaching?

The evidence is clear - being more selective not only acts as a quality assurance mechanism, but more importantly it sends a wider message about the sector's expectations for its teaching workforce. This in turn impacts positively on the perceived status of the profession, and encourages even more talented individuals to consider entering teaching. We should be aiming for the day when becoming a teacher is as competitive and prestigious as it is to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.

But it isn't just about raising the bar into teaching - the millennial generation has proven that new models of teacher training are required if we are to attract more top candidates away from the competition teaching faces from other professions, corporate employers, tech start-ups and trendy portfolio careers.

OECD recommendations point to how the most successful school systems in the world have opened up multiple pathways into teaching (while raising entry standards across the board), in order to appeal to a broader pool of potential recruits, especially those who may not previously have considered teaching. Many of these pathways include more in-school training, scholarships, and bonding to a school. The Government's piloting of Masters-level teaching programmes, alongside the Teach First NZ programme, indicates the kind of openness in policy the sector needs in order to create new, more competitive, pathways into the profession.

Early evidence from the two pilots has shown that top graduates are successfully being lured away from corporate employment opportunities to teach. Over the past four years for example, Teach First NZ, which works in partnership with the University of Auckland to recruit and train graduates exclusively for low-decile schools, has received over 1000 applications and selects only around 7 per cent to enter the programme. 100 per cent of our applicants choose to teach in low-decile schools as a first choice, with 42 per cent teaching STEM subjects, an area of desperate need in our schools. Most of our teachers had not previously considered teaching, and they are remaining in their schools following their two-year bonding period as alumni of the programme. Our experience has found that, with careful positioning and highly selective recruitment, top graduates are getting excited at the sound of the school bell. It is encouraging that a top New Zealand university is supporting this kind of innovation.

The profession itself needs to do its bit too - key to success here is for teachers, and the groups that represent them, to be open to innovation and collaboration. The current system isn't working for all, and as a profession we must be prepared to work in different ways.

Shaun Sutton is a trained teacher, and co-founder and chief executive of Teach First NZ, which recruits top graduates to teach in low-decile schools. Teach First NZ is a cross-sector non-profit initiative set up in partnership with the University of Auckland and the Ministry of Education.

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- NZ Herald

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