New Zealand school principals should add to their skills repertoire: ‘Magician’.

In the week leading to the first day of school, leaders were reaching into their hats of creative tricks to fill vacancies.

The Herald reported that one in five Auckland schools, and one in 10 in the rest of the country were still trying to find staff.

Work-arounds included increasing class sizes, enticing overseas and retired teachers, or, in worst case scenarios, scrapping subjects altogether.

But these are temporary patch jobs that fail to address a root problem: Few school leavers want to teach.

Between 2008 and 2012, the number of teacher trainees fell by 10 percent while engineering, IT, and health numbers increased. In 2017, there were 700 teacher graduates; enough to fill only half the open vacancies.

But low trainee numbers are a challenge that can be overcome, as overseas experience demonstrates.

School districts in America have worked out that if they signal to school leavers that a choice to teach can be rewarding, they get a better pick of graduates.

A Brookings Institution paper released last week found that districts with pay-for-performance schemes, on average, recruited more graduates from universities with strong academic records than districts without such schemes.

The researchers found similar results even when other recruitment strategies, such as those used in New Zealand, had been implemented.

So, money may not be why people get into teaching, but it may be a reason they stay out of it.

Recruiting is only part of the solution. Retaining the graduates is the other. The U.S. approach to recognise smart and effective teachers knocks both with one stone. Washington DC’s teacher development and reward system is a case in point: when effective teachers get recognition, they choose to stay.

If implemented right, pay-for-performance systems are a win-win-win: for students, teachers, and school principals.

We need the brightest graduates in front of kids in classrooms. But until those making the choice see teaching as a match for their skills as compared to other professions, every school term will see principals pulling tricks out of hats.


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