Finding the right stuff

March 2011


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Stuart Middleton looks at new ways to attract a variety of people to the profession.

Getting people into teaching has always challenged teacher education providers – not just quality, but also the ability of teaching to attract the ‘right sort of person’, whatever that might mean.

It certainly means different things to different people.

I was attracted into teaching by three significant factors. I had enjoyed school in every way despite being only averagely successful academically, I had enjoyed the teachers and there was the secondary teaching studentship, a wage to prepare for teaching. It wasn’t a wage without strings, but I don’t remember ever being worried about that. The ‘bond’ seemed fair in an age when fairness was a pretty strong value.

The teachers through my schooling were of great variety. Some were the conventional career path teachers but others were attracted into teaching from wonderful backgrounds during the shortages of the 1960s. I was taught music by a musician from the Scots Guards who had been musical director of the Kings African Rifles in Sararwak. His anecdotes were sometimes about music. I was taught English by an MA(Oxon) who had been a successful importer in Hong Kong at the height of British rule of the colony. But most years I was taught by one of New Zealand’s great short story writers whose wit and engagement with language and literature were wonderful but whose methods might have remained untouched by the exhortations of Donald Schön.

So are we effectively setting about attracting teachers into the profession? Unlike other professions, we find it hard to do our washing at home and instead prefer to hang it all out on the revolving clothesline of the media. There is a lot of noise about teaching (and teachers) that surely can’t help. Yet many are still attracted.

In the United States there is a programme called ‘Teach for America’ that seeks to place young graduates into schools which predominantly teach students from disadvantaged communities and from which the outcomes are clearly iniquitous. It is the kind of peace corps you can do without leaving home (in fact those in the programme are referred to as “members of the corps”). The graduates are given a short course of preparation and then work in those schools with ongoing teacher education block courses in vacations. There is also ongoing supervision. Programmes of this kind have been proposed in the past in New Zealand, but have never found favour ahead of pre-service programmes.

In New Zealand we have a TeachNZ programme offering scholarships for a range of subjects to those who wish to change their career direction, and for new entrants into the profession. These are related to particular subjects and the choice has always seemed to me to be a little arbitrary. Of course this is well intentioned, being aimed at high priority subjects and those in which there is a shortage.

It might be better targeted at attracting key target groups of teachers – young New Zealanders across the entire teaching range, successful people who wish to enter teaching as a second career, teachers with top academic results, and teachers reflecting the demographics of New Zealand, including those from immigrant groups.

Just as multiple pathways are becoming a central focus in the development of education systems, especially in the English speaking world – they are well known and well executed in most other countries – so too should there be multiple pathways into teaching. A major one will remain the conventional career path of school, university, pre-service teacher education and back into school.

But there could be many other pathways. Secondments both into and out of business, industry and commerce might have a role to play, so too might greater flow to, from and between tertiary education providers and secondary schools. Perhaps there is a place for new graduates to work in schools alongside teachers prior to undertaking the commitment required to formally prepare for teaching.

Above all, let’s celebrate the fact that so many excellent people wish to be teachers and let’s create pathways allowing many more to also enjoy a career that on a good day is as good as it gets and even on a bad day, is still to be enjoyed.

###Stuart Middleton is director of external relations at Manukau Institute of Technology. He writes a weekly blog, EDTalkNZ