An Education Revolution?

‘Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe…hear it? Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.’ - Prof. John Keating, from Dead Poets Society.

Many of us have had one, maybe even a few, whether we realize it or not. Some of us aspire to someday play the role. A great teacher or mentor can have an extraordinary effect on one’s life, giving them a better awareness of their opportunities and grasp of their own potential, especially during particularly transformative periods, such as high school. This is the assumption on which Dead Poets Society builds its compelling storyline. It is also one of the assumptions of a growing non-for-profit social enterprise called Teach for Australia. The organisation gathers high-achieving students from non-education backgrounds and disciplines, placing them in disadvantaged schools across the country, under a unique and flexible teacher education program run by the University of Melbourne.

The program is largely funded by the Department of Education and Training, and its main aim is to confront the huge level of educational disadvantage in Australia. Graduates are paid a teacher’s starting salary and come out after two years with a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching from the University of Melbourne. Although it started here in 2007, the concept is not new. It is built upon other organisations, such as Teach For America, that form part of the “Teach For All” global network.

What makes Australia somewhat unique is the combination of exceptionally high performance in standardized tests among OECD countries and concurrently high levels of education inequality. Teach for Australia cites a two to three year gap in basic literacy and numeracy between year nine students from poor and wealthy backgrounds, as found by the 2011 PISA study. Furthermore, educational inequality is comparatively worse than income inequality, perhaps foreshadowing a rise in the latter if we don’t make education more equitable for this generation of students. Few people know about this situation, especially in a place such as the University of Sydney, where quality education is often taken for granted.
The program also involves extensive mentoring from the Teach For Australia organization itself, as well as from the school and from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, which Teach For Australia partner with to deliver its program. This is part of the third component of TFA’s “theory of change”, which involves ingraining Associates with leadership skills and bringing them together in a leadership network that sustains a lifelong personal and political commitment to improving educational equity.

The program’s marketing campaign bears the motto: “Ambition, Meet Conscience”, qualities not lacking in the individuals I met in the program. A Teach For Australia Ambassador told me that the dream behind his NGO start-up, the Raising Hope Education Foundation, is to give every high school student in Australia access to a mentor. Of course, given such generality, the program’s effectiveness does raise a few additional questions, such as whether personal ambition should be one of the main drivers behind the education sector.

I spoke with two Associates currently in their second year of the program, both graduates of Sydney University who teach at schools in or near Melbourne. Katy Fernandez, who completed a Masters in Media Practice and was President of the USU from ’06 to ’07, is currently teaching Media Studies at Caroline Chisholm Catholic College. Hugh Bachmann, who completed his Bachelor of Economic and Social Sciences in 2010, is currently teaching at Fairhills High.

One of the main criticisms is that TFA neither gives teachers sufficient time to integrate themselves within the school nor gives the school a long enough benefit of having Associates teaching there.

One of the defining characteristics of privilege and wealth in our society is that the more of these one possesses, the invariably greater access to opportunities that one has. Wealthy people can choose to live similar lifestyles to those who are not as well off, at least on a superficial level. The converse is not true. This characterization informs the basis for many of the criticisms of interventionist programs of social reform – that they merely reinforce the differences in social mobility available to people disadvantaged socio-economic contexts. This is not mere “tall poppy syndrome”, but a genuine concern that, instead of eroding structures of disadvantage and resolving these issues within their given contexts, they are simply giving the odd disadvantaged person the “elite path” to a different lifestyle. One of the terms thrown around in the parlance of Teach for Australia Associate training is of Associates as “interventionist practitioners”.

It is true that Teach For Australia Associates by and large come from privileged backgrounds. However, there is a healthy amount of reflexivity among Associates that not only compensates for this fact, but also gives it a unique position among education reformers to create new linkages and pathways within an often rigid system. Many Associates understand that their students do not necessarily want to follow a similar path to success as them, that their ambitions are more modest.

Associates put much energy, just like any other teacher, in to helping their students resolve issues at home, where they may be responsible for caring for relatives. Indeed, the relationships that Associates seem to share with their students transcend economic and social divides. My interviewees describe their own teaching experience as transitional and as pivotal in their careers as the late stages of high school are in these students’ lives.
Hugh finds himself coming full circle. “I finished school only five years ago, so I understand much of what the kids are going through,” he says. “As a result, they open up to me.”

Katy told me: “I think the reaction of my students to the knowledge that I had studied something completely different (to teaching) was met with both surprise that I ended up here and admiration for my background.” Katy said her most fulfilling moment was receiving a letter from one of her year 8 arts students, who had just been offered a scholarship to attend a selective school. “She continues to write to me about her new experiences,” Katy says. Students often just want a chance to see the world from a different perspective, one without the pressures that financial stress both at school and at home place on them.

Associates, as part of their leadership training, are taught about the power of imagination in helping others set new goals for themselves. Hugh tells of his most memorable moment as an Associate, when he signed up his class to be the first in Australia to take part in a World Vision international volunteering program, for which they are currently raising money. For the first time, he says, students felt like they had put their faith into something completely new and together achieved something momentous.

Hugh describes a kind of freedom within this program that he had not felt in many of his other endeavours, be they in the workplace or other social ventures. Unlike Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society, these Associates are not subverting the official school curriculum. They do not necessarily want to rock the boat by implementing styles of teaching tried elsewhere, such as in the US by Teach for America. Rather, through their ambition, they are part of a process by which schools become conscious of the obstacles they must overcome to raise their educational standards and student experience.

However, this has not stopped the program from attracting much criticism. One of the main criticisms is that TFA neither gives teachers sufficient time to integrate themselves within the school nor gives the school a long enough benefit of having Associates teaching there. Regarding the latter, both Katy and Hugh agree that this should be considered an affirmation that the program is making the right contribution to resolving these problems, given that participant schools value Associates enough that they want to keep them.

Others would like to see a more structural response to this demand. They argue that the program, in terms of numbers, does not go far enough in resolving shortages – and if it did, it would undermine teachers’ ability to force the government to respond by raising salaries. It is too early to tell whether this program will ever be as big as its US counterpart, which is the second-largest graduate recruiter there.

A further claim posits that teachers sent to more difficult learning environments, such as the remote Northern Territory, should be weathered and experienced, not newly minted graduates without an education degree. In reality, up to 20 per cent of teachers ordinarily sent to these areas by the DET have just graduated from their first teaching degree. So for the moment, TFA are making a contribution, however small, to resolving shortages.
Both Hugh and Katy agree that the media attention being drawn to the costs and retention rates of TFA is legitimate. But according to Roberto Finamore, a spokesman for the organisation, this: “needs to be seen in light of the fact that the first cohort of Associates have only just finished the program. This is still a young organization with future plans to consolidate and lower costs.”

Fortunately, these criticisms are not manifested in a lack of faith. Individuals on all sides acknowledge they are working towards the same goals. Both Katy and Hugh themselves are members of their respective teachers’ unions. Both of them expressed great resentment about performance-based pay and teacher evaluation based on standardized tests, as proposed by the NSW Government. Hugh pointed out that if there is any resentment of Associates from other staff, it is generally expressed within the first few days of arrival, and is: “directed more at the general structure of the program than at the individual as an agent of it.” Katy spoke of the pride that her fellow teachers share in being part of the profession, and their preoccupation with getting on with the job rather than worrying about the “socio-economic identity” of the school. This, surely, comes from an appreciation of teaching as a personal choice requiring a specific personal relationship with the students.

But that doesn’t make it a career our society can necessarily embrace. Both Hugh and Katy resent the fact that teaching is perceived to be less valuable and prestigious than other disciplines, reflected in course entry requirements. The highest required ATAR for a Bachelor of Education is 87.25 at the University of Sydney; however, scores go as low as 59.2 at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra. Entry into Teach for Australia, on the other hand, is built on somewhat different assumptions, requiring high academic scores throughout university. Hugh emphasizes the importance of showing people that teaching can be a natural extension of many of their pre-existing skills, regardless of how they enter the profession.

Hugh says his main motivation throughout his studies and later as an Associate is: “the belief that knowledge is power”, and that it should be spread around. We should be sceptical, though, of claims to inherent power, for at the very least power is vacuous without an intention to wield it for a particular purpose.

Perhaps this maxim is better rephrased as “wisdom is power” – that is, the type of wisdom that is handed down when we teach as if knowledge is universal and democratic rather than purely technical and set in stone. When students realise that the assumptions of mathematics can be used to clarify some of the most deep-seated theories about how society works; that the characters in classic novels can give them a voice as much as they give voice to age-old sensibilities – that is when education starts to become effective as a vehicle for making society more equitable.
To find out more about Teach For Australia, visit Associate applications are now open, and will close on April the 10th.

Edwin Montoya Zorrilla is an Ambassador for Teach for Australia and a student at Sydney University.

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