In light of the growing teacher supply crisis, a number of voices have called for less teacher training. By scrapping the need to study for a year, teachers can go straight into the classroom to fill the gaps.
In fact, in growing numbers of low-decile schools, students are already being taught by people who have no teaching qualifications. These people, as participants of a scheme called Teach First NZ, are working toward their teaching diplomas on the job.
Teach First is an organisation that is benefiting from the teacher shortage, presenting itself as a corrective.
Backed by high-powered marketing and sponsors with deep pockets, it recruits 'high-achieving' graduates from universities or other professions, gives them six weeks of teacher training (with zero fees and all accommodation and expenses paid for), before deploying them in schools. Participants teach in these schools for two years, after which time they are awarded a teaching qualification.
Teach First claims to be fighting educational inequality. Its participants are expertly selected—the cream of the aspiring teacher crop. Students in low-income communities will be inspired by bright and enthusiastic 'changemakers' in place of dusty old die-hards using overhead projectors.
The reality is a little more complicated.
The Teach First recruitment process leaves much to be desired. Participants are selected on academic records, their ability to demonstrate mysterious 'leadership qualities' and, ultimately, their ability to impress recruiters. None of these are a substitute for robust teacher education.
Teach First's recruitment team is not staffed by educators. One wonders how these recruiters can predict who will be a good teacher and who will not.
While the process may be successful in bringing some talented people into teaching, others are no doubt lured in by the prospect of a fee-free, fast-tracked pathway into a new profession. They may turn this into a career, but research on equivalent schemes internationally shows that a majority leave teaching within five years.
Significant numbers (40 per cent of the first Teach First NZ cohort) move into middle and high decile schools as soon as they graduate.
People considering teaching should be attracted by a passion for the work, by teacher education programmes that are stimulating and comprehensive, and by salaries that properly recognise the importance of the profession.
While it is true that ongoing support is provided to Teach First participants throughout the programme, this is in the form of an hour of mentoring each week, the occasional observation and workshop, and a series of university papers. Hardly reassuring.
This is also misses the point that, under Teach First, vulnerable students become subjects in someone else's training. Teach First tells its participants to expect failure: 'fail early, fail often' is the mantra. It's all part of the learning.
And failure happens. I have seen classrooms that might resemble Lord of The Flies if the Navy hadn't intervened. This is not the fault of the teacher, but of a system that throws them into the most challenging classrooms in the country after six weeks of lectures.
Teach First's training is also paid for mostly by the taxpayer. Even with private sector sponsorship, it still costs the public significantly more to train a Teach First participant than it does a 'regular' secondary school teacher.
Despite what the organisation may claim, there is no research to support the idea that Teach First teachers are any better than their plebeian counterparts.
Many Teach First participants are passionate and effective teachers. The point is that there is nothing beyond a questionable recruitment process conducted by a charity to prove that they have any ability to run a classroom at all before they stand in front of one.
There are systems of professional qualification and certification in this country. These standards ensure that people who carry out various social roles are qualified to do so. They protect the public.
It is no accident that the highest performing education systems in the world require the most rigorous and comprehensive education of their teachers.
Successful models of employment-based training exist in New Zealand. But comparison is hard. Teach First participants are like building apprentices with responsibility for the whole house. They are employed with all the responsibilities of a teacher and limited oversight.
Every student in this country deserves a trained and qualified teacher in front of them – this should be a basic, foundational element of our public education system. To lose sight of this in a crisis will only serve to compound it.
For these reasons, Teach First needs a second look.
* Sam Oldham is a graduate of the Teach First NZ programme and a teacher at a large Decile 1 school. He is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Melbourne's Graduate School of Education.