January 26, 2011

Reflections on resilience and some media articles about Teach for Australia

My desk during initial intensive


I’ve officially moved into my new house.  What a crazy year, and it’s only just begun.  New career, new state, new city… an entire new life, just like that.  It’s been stressful but I feel like it’s the calm before the storm.  There’s been a few moments when I’ve felt like I’m about to lose it completely.  Was at yum cha with two friends on the weekend and started feeling like I couldn’t breathe properly. 


Must make sure I keep up with the meditating, having a good support network and finding outlets to de-stress. 


I’m super excited about this first year of teaching.  I think it’s going to be one of the best years of my life.  I’m finally doing something that feels right and where I’m free to be myself – I can’t stress this enough.  I don’t want to compartmentalise so much of my life and personality as I was doing previously. 


During the recruitment process for TFA, we’re asked to give examples of when we’ve gone through some hardship.  I think this reflects how tough teaching can be.  Being in a classroom can be especially mentally, emotionally, physically draining.  I know I’m sounded rather pessimistic, but I think it’s much better to be realistic and excited, than naive and optimistic.  I know it’s going to be hard, but it’s what I want to do and I am going to give it my best shot and keep learning and improving to be the best teacher that I can for my students.


I was chatting to one of the TFA staff members who was part of the first cohort of Teach First, the UK-equivalent.  She said that two of the most important qualities TFA looks for in associates are resilience and empathy.  Resilience meaning increasing effort, or not giving up, when things get tough.  I suppose that reflects some of my previous experiences: my first year as a lawyer was one of the worst years of my life – coping with a health condition and constantly seeing doctors, being in and ending an abusive relationship, insane work hours 6 days a week for a few months while studying for exams to get admitted as a lawyer, moving house 4 times in as many months, tenancy issues with the agent and going to a failed conciliation, my house getting broken into and things stolen, housemate dramas, family issues…  Looking back I’m not sure how it all happened at once, but it’s definitely made me a lot stronger, more mature and able to face issues I wouldn’t otherwise be able to.  Well, that’s how I have to look at it because there’s no point feeling unlucky.  Half the time, good/bad experiences are a matter of perspective.  And it’s only now that I can finally be open about what I went through, instead of pretending to be the put together, hard working lawyer I appeared to be when it was just exhausting having to cope with each day.  But I did cope and I got through it and now I’m here! 


Below are some recent newspaper articles about Teach for Australia.  All pretty positive press coverage. 


I’m not sure I like the idea of “parachuting” into a tough school as the first article suggests.  The TFA associates are not Rambos and we’re not going to save any school from impending disaster.  I see myself as a beginner teacher just wanted to do a good job.  All Australian student deserve the same great education regardless of how much their parents earn.  It’s an axiomatic statement but one which, although is so intuitively correct, is sadly just not reflective of real life.


View from my dorm room during initial intensive


Novice teachers proving first class


ALMOST all the 45 non-teaching graduates parachuted into some of Victoria's toughest schools after just six weeks' training are still teaching a year after the introduction of the controversial pilot.


The 95 per cent retention rate is a vindication for the Teach for Australia scheme, which has faced fierce opposition from critics who warned graduates would be unequipped for the classroom after six weeks and a high drop-out rate would damage the program's reputation.


The scheme will expand to the ACT and the Catholic system for the first time this year following its success last year, when it was trialled at 13 disadvantaged government high schools in Victoria.


Of this year's 42 new recruits, selected from 750 applicants, five will teach in ACT schools and 37 in government and Catholic schools in Victoria. Federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett told The Age he would like to see the program introduced in other states following a review of the first two cohorts this year.

Teach for Australia, which is modelled on similar initiatives overseas, sees top university graduates undergo an intensive six-week training course at Melbourne University and then teach in disadvantaged schools for two years. The graduates, known as associates, continue to study and receive mentoring from other staff at their school and external education advisers.


They are paid about $45,000 a year and receive a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching at the end of the two years.


The Australian Education Union has railed against the program, arguing the skills required to teach children cannot be learnt in such a short time.


''I've yet to meet any parents who want to volunteer their child to be taught by unqualified teachers,'' president Angelo Gavrielatos said at the union's annual conference this week. But Mr Garrett said Teach for Australia needed to be judged on the response from principals, teachers and students. ''I'm very, very confident from the initial feedback it will prove to be a really effective, quite visionary program, which I hope in time the AEU and others will more fully support,'' he said.


Horsham College principal Frank Spiel had two associates last year and said his response to the program was simple: ''We've got three more this year.''

He said any misgivings staff had about Teach for Australia evaporated when they worked with the associates. ''Both ours have been excellent,'' he said.


James Murphy, a Horsham College associate, said 2010 had been filled with challenges - a student fainted in class on his second day - and exhilarating highs, which included a nomination for a World Teachers' Day Making a Difference Award and being asked to teach Year 12 English this year.


Mr Murphy intends to continue teaching when his two years are up. ''I've really developed a passion for this caper,'' he said. ''You need to weather a few bumps in the road, but the joys inherent for me justify getting out of bed and the long hours.''



Teach for Australia has great merit

This week, 45 top-ranking university graduates will begin a two-year teaching stint in some of Victoria's most disadvantaged schools. They do so as the first recruits of Teach for Australia, a program the Government believes will help tackle the teacher shortage and lift quality. The graduates will learn largely on the job, at the end of which they emerge with a postgraduate diploma of teaching. It is a bold experiment, albeit one that has been tried with apparent success in several countries, most notably Britain and America. After all, parachuting individuals with no teaching experience into the state's toughest classrooms after only six weeks of training - however intensive it is, and however gifted the graduates concerned - is a gamble of sorts.


But The Age believes it is a gamble with the potential to yield great dividends for generations of students. Education Minister Bronwyn Pike last year said the program ''will bring some of our state's brightest graduates into the classroom where they will not only pass on their knowledge, but also act as role models for other students''. This is indeed the right measure of success, and the program deserves broad community support as it seeks to deliver on this promise.


In an ideal world, every regular teacher would be one of ''our state's brightest''. But teaching as a profession has been so undervalued in recent years that lifting the standards and the diversity of teaching graduates emerges as one of the biggest policy challenges. There is every reason to try something new, notwithstanding the usual resistance from teacher unions. These high-achieving recruits, who may have taken a pay cut on signing on, demonstrate an obvious passion and commitment to teaching. Many people can testify to the life-changing influence of an outstanding teacher. And education, we know, is a ticket out of poverty. Unleashing the state's brightest on the state's most disadvantaged schools, in Melbourne's north and west and in country Victoria, is an exciting prospect.


The $22 million program, funded mainly by the Federal Government, clearly will not solve the teacher shortage problem and nor has it been designed for this purpose. It should be seen as part of the wider effort to increase the teaching pool, reward teaching excellence and lift student performance, both in struggling schools and across the board. On this last point, the evidence from similar programs overseas is encouraging. We wish this year's recruits the best of luck.


Letters to the editor – responses

Vocational rewards

THE discussion regarding the success or otherwise of the Teach for Australia program seems largely off the point. The objective was to engage some of Australia's brightest graduates in teaching as a worthwhile vocation. In this it has clearly been successful. These people have wide options, and their engagement is now tangible.

The Institute of Physics in the UK has achieved similar successes in promoting, encouraging and supporting some of the best physics graduates (and indeed postgraduates, a rare breed in Australia's schools) to engage in teaching.

The complaints about lack of training are misdirected. People with this level of capability and after such a successful engagement in teaching as a worthwhile career will not neglect this, but secure it on a continuing basis. It's what they do.

First catch your fish . . .

Marcus Wigan, Eaglemont

Results are in

AS THE Teach for Australia program places unqualified graduates in the most challenging educational circumstances, then the research on the effects of under-qualified teachers on children from disadvantaged schools is crucial, not whether principals describe them as "excellent" or whether they remain in teaching.
At least five US studies have been completed that include data on Teach for America (TFA), three of which have been published in peer-reviewed journals. The studies find the students of uncertified TFA teachers do significantly less well in reading than those of new, certified teachers, with the negative effects most pronounced in primary grades. In mathematics, three of the studies also report significantly lower scores for beginning TFA teachers' students than for traditionally prepared teachers.

Perhaps the seminal research has been conducted by the internationally recognised Professor Linda Darling-Hammond. She concluded that "the length of teacher preparation and certification have by far the strongest effects on student achievement in reading and mathematics, both before and after controlling for student poverty and language status".

David Zyngier, Monash University

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