Career changers: Teach First New Zealand

Issue: Volume 96, Number 2

Posted: 13 February 2017
Reference #: 1H9d5x

Up to 30 driven and dedicated new teachers are being trained every year through the Teach First NZ pilot. Not only is the highly competitive programme changing the lives of its participants, it’s also changing the lives of the students they teach.

After spending several years working for a marketing company, film and theatre graduate Jeremy Downing knew he wanted a more rewarding career. He’d always liked the idea of teaching and had taken a year off to complete the English papers he needed for a teaching degree.

“I didn’t want to do another year at Teacher’s College. I was ready to get back into work. Then someone from Teach First NZ came into our class with a flyer. It was too good to be true.”

Teach First NZ is a charity set up to address educational inequality in New Zealand by attracting top graduates and career-changing professionals into teaching through hands-on training at lower-decile schools. It aims to create future leaders in the education system.

Launched in 2013 after successful similar programmes overseas, participants are employed full-time but only teach three classes a week. The rest of their time they’re completing a postgraduate teaching diploma at the University of Auckland.

Jeremy was part of the 2015 cohort and did his placement at James Cook High School in Manurewa. Two years later the 30-year-old is still at the decile 1 college, now as a fully qualified drama teacher.

Jeremy says he feels so welcomed by the James Cook school community. “There’s incredible warmth and kindness here.”

Honing skills

The Teach First programme enabled him to quickly hone his teaching skills. “All the assignments are really tailored to what you do in the classroom. You have to learn to quickly adapt and problem solve.”

During Jeremy’s first drama class he realised there was a lot of bullying going on. “So I developed a two-lesson anti-bullying drama unit. Being able to use what you are learning immediately is really rewarding.”

Spending two years together enables each cohort to develop a tight relationship, Jeremy says. “The supportive network is the best thing about the programme. The connection is amazing. Great friendships have formed.”

Almost 400 people applied for the 30 places in this year’s cohort. There was such high demand for the programme it was expanded from 20 places in previous years.

The fact it is so selective was one of the things that attracted Jeremy. “It’s something to achieve.”

He admits the two-year programme is tough. “Teaching for the first few years is, anyway. Once you’re teaching you think, ‘Holy hell, this is using all of my skills’.”

Teach First NZ chief executive Jay Allnutt makes no apologies for having a high bar. “Learning to be an outstanding teacher is hard, so our participants must have high prior achievement and be ready for the challenge.”

Trainees are only placed in decile 1–5 schools in Auckland and Northland but to-date 80 per cent have gone into decile 1–3 schools.

This year 60 per cent of the cohort is training to be much-needed science, technology and maths teachers. One-third are Māori or Pasifika, giving them invaluable cultural understanding and language skills for the schools they are going into.

One of the ways Teach First aims to reduce educational inequality is by giving lower-decile schools a choice of quality teachers, says Jay.

More teachers for low income schools

Professor Graeme Aitken, the University of Auckland’s Education and Social Work Dean, agrees the programme has increased the pool of talented teacher candidates for lower decile schools.

Teach First’s commitment to working with schools in low income communities aligned with his faculty’s commitment to equity and social justice.

Partnering with Teach First offered the University of Auckland the chance to experiment with a new approach to preparing teachers.

“I was keen to open new pathways into secondary teaching and therefore to attract to teaching those who might otherwise not have considered teaching as an option. It is important for universities to be at the forefront of innovative programmes,” says Graeme.

Demand for Teach First teachers has been so high that everyone has been placed, Jay says. “We’ve had fantastic feedback from schools. Every principal has said they would take more teachers because they’re so energetic and enthusiastic.”

Aorere College in Papatoetoe has taken an average of two Teach First trainees every year since 2015 – and all of them stayed on at the school after they qualified.

Principal Greg Pierce says Teach First teachers hit the ground running and are ready to go from day one.

“They’re actively involved in co-curricular activities and that helps them build relationships with the students; it puts them in a different light. They are also always prepared to look at their practice and consider new strategies to improve their students’ learning.”

Another benefit of having Teach First participants at the school is they come with life experience, he says. “They haven’t just gone straight to university and they’re not judgemental.
They are empathetic to our students but still have high expectations of them.”

One of the biggest challenges some of Aorere College’s students face is housing and overcrowding.

“That’s a constant issue. We give students homework to do at night but they might not have anywhere to do it or access to a computer. Some of them are transient and often have to shift.”

Teach First teachers are more likely to remain teachers, Greg believes. “They were high-performing students themselves and could go into higher paying professions.”

Life-changing experience

Jeremy says becoming a Teach First teacher was a turning point in his life.

Growing up in Nelson, he never really believed there was inequality and poverty in New Zealand. “The year I started the programme I’d boldly claimed that New Zealand doesn’t have a class system. I had no idea.”

Students at James Cook High School are 50 per cent Māori, 40 per cent Pasifika, 6 per cent ‘other’ (mainly African, Asian and Middle Eastern) and just 4 per cent Pākehā – a big change from the mainly Pākehā decile 6 Nayland College he went to.

“I’m the minority in the classroom. It decentralises my perspective of the world. I get to see so many other world views, cultural beliefs and definitions of success. How I saw that growing up is much different than my students.”

Jeremy says he believes his students have taught him more than he has taught them. “But I know I’ve already made a difference in some of their lives.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 12:07 AM, 13 February 2017

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