The debate about how best to attract, prepare, support and develop teachers and school leaders has perhaps never been more important than today. Education is faced with the parallel challenges of teacher shortage, a fast changing world, and the rapid development of digital technologies, presenting both opportunities and risks for learning.

In Aotearoa New Zealand some young people continue to be much less likely to fulfil their potential than others. Teach First NZ: Ako Mātātupu’s purpose as a charity is to support all young people to fulfil their potential by helping to address the causes of this inequality. While we most obviously contribute to addressing the first of the challenges above, our broader aim is to influence the systemic challenges which create this.

Our flagship teaching and education leadership programme is employment-based, with our participants completing teacher education whilst employed in a school, with a reduced teaching timetable. An aim of our programme is to make teaching and education leadership accessible and attractive to a new pool of people who otherwise would not or could not access these careers.

There are many excellent teachers and school leaders working in New Zealand schools who join the profession via a range of routes. Our aim is to complement, learn from and contribute learning to these other programmes by offering an alternative pathway into teaching and education leadership. To date we have provided an additional 150 new teachers to secondary schools serving low-income communities in New Zealand.

We invest significant resource in selecting the right people for our programme; people who will thrive and be able to manage the pressures of teaching and study in parallel. Our selection process is very rigorous, since such a pathway is not right for everyone. We take account of past academic and other achievement and assess individuals on a range of competencies. These include competence for teaching, resilience, humility, cultural competency, and leadership.

The selection process is managed by Teach First NZ, many of whose employees are educators with extensive experience in the schools serving low-income communities who we partner with. It also involves representatives with teacher education experience from our tertiary partner, and teachers and former principals of our partner schools.

Once selected, our participants are provided with intensive pre-service training, and ongoing support whilst employed. This includes non-teaching time, up to five hours a week funded in-school mentoring, visits from subject specialists from our tertiary partner, and responsive support from Teach First NZ. We also provide leadership development, which, in our model, is foundational for effective classroom teaching as well as school and system leadership.

Before the school year begins, participants complete nine-weeks pre-service training, of which seven are residential. This training requires participants to complete postgraduate papers, and undertake in-school practicum. Through the two-year programme they earn a Masters degree, and meet the professional standards required of all beginning teachers in New Zealand.

Our participants have worked in over thirty schools serving low-income communities, the principals of which are very supportive of our programme. These schools provide the supportive learning environment for our participants to grow as effective teachers, and often provide them with opportunities for broader leadership. Many ensure they can remain at the school beyond the end of their initial fixed term contract.

Over 90 per cent of those who have completed our programme continue to teach, which is high compared to retention in teaching through all routes. The majority will continue working in schools serving low-income communities. Many are now entering their fifth or sixth year in the profession. Twenty-five per cent have taken on some kind of leadership role in their school. Of those who do not continue teaching, a number study or work in education policy.

People apply to join our programme for diverse reasons, but all who join make a positive difference for children from low-income backgrounds. Beyond the programme, many will grow as outstanding classroom teachers, others develop into school leaders, and still others will eventually take up positions from which they can influence at a system level.

For those who choose it, the journey from classroom teacher to system leader is a well-trodden one. Many of those who today lead government, communities, universities, unions, non-profits, civil society and in other fields have taken it. Our hope at Teach First NZ is that, regardless of where this journey leads them, our alumni remain committed to addressing the systemic causes of educational inequality. That might be in their classroom, across their school, or as a leader in a new field.

While teachers are the greatest in-school influence on educational outcomes, there are other major factors well beyond teachers’ control which mean many young people do not fulfil their potential. Teachers did not create educational inequality, and cannot solve it alone. Thus, our aim is for our alumni to remain part of this solution for the long-term.

In our most recent cohort over half have joined from other careers. Forty-four percent of the cohort are either Māori or Pasifika, which is significantly higher than the rate for the teaching workforce overall. Seventy-four percent are teachers of either a STEM subject or Te Reo Māori, all in high demand by schools. All will teach in a secondary school serving a low-income community for a minimum of two years, with ongoing support.

We work hard to stay informed and guided by local and international research about excellent teacher education. This includes ensuring a rigorous recruitment process, investing in mentoring, working with schools to support teacher education, integrating theory and practice, and mapping our programme against professional teacher standards.

Our programme has been the subject of four independent evaluations by NZCER. These highlighted the quality with which the programme has been delivered, the difference our participants can make across their school, and support from the principals who hire them. They echo similar evaluations from overseas, and research in initial teacher education more generally. Of course, we continue to learn and evolve, and for our most recent cohort we have redesigned the qualification they complete based on this learning.

We could not have delivered any of the above without a range of partners in the education sector, including the Ministry of Education, the University of Auckland and the Mind Lab by Unitec. With these partners, we share a commitment to ensuring all children have the teachers they need to fulfil their potential.

We know that there are many others who share this same commitment, and that making it a reality will require ongoing collaboration, debate and innovation. The Teach First NZ Programme is just one of the many ways in which we can address the systemic causes of educational inequality in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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