• Teacher Fiona McRobie with a pupil. (SBS)Source: SBS
Testing Teachers is a stark examination of the effects of the education gap and a progressive attempt to bridge it.
Jenna Martin

12 Apr 2017 - 12:37 PM  UPDATED 19 Apr 2017 - 11:29 AM

Testing Teachers, SBS’s new three-part observational documentary, follows six first-time teachers over the course of twelve months as they start their new careers.

The catch is, these aren’t regular graduates but rather high achievers from a range of professions who have all chosen to switch careers as part of the Teach for Australia program - a fast-tracked teacher training scheme that places exceptional minds in the lowest performing schools around the country in the hope that they might be the change that is needed for kids already behind the eight-ball simply by virtue of the postcode they live in. A study found that kids taught by the highest performing teachers learn as much in six months as what the lowest performing teachers manage in a year. Testing Teachers sets out to see if that’s true in a challenging look at Australia’s education gap, and the group of passionate individuals determined to close it once and for all. It’s ultimately a hopeful show, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t confronting. Watching the premiere, here are five things that truly shocked me.

The state of education in Australia isn’t great

I have a lot of friends and family who are teachers, so I’m used to horror stories. But some of the stats this series throws up are pretty dismal, like the fact that children from low income households are three years behind those from high income homes. Or the fact that Indigenous kids are, on average, six times more likely to be below national standards than their non-Indigenous peers. Finally, there’s the fact that many kids who come from a refugee background are put in year groups that correspond with their age, rather than their level of education, meaning on top of language and cultural barriers, they’re also years behind their peers when it comes to basic literacy and numerical skills.

The new teacher drop out rate is staggering… but not surprising

Nearly half of all new teachers quit in the first five years. One in four suffers from emotional exhaustion. That’s how damn tough it is. It’s so tough that Kitty, a former hydrogeologist with a toddler at home and a double degree in arts and science, finds it challenging to wrangle all those kids, their baggage, and the beauracracy that goes with it. It’s so confronting that Emmanuel, who lived in a refugee camp for 9 years after fleeing the Rwandan genocide, is shaken up when dealing with some of these kids and their behaviour - both in the classroom and after the school bell has rung. 

Attendance rates across the board aren’t great

I was so lucky to be born in an inner-city Sydney postcode with a good selection of high schools to choose from. At my school, if you didn’t show up for roll call, you couldn’t get away with it. Parents would get notified. People would care. If your parents didn’t, the school counselor did. You got the attention and often the help you needed.

At Fiona’s school, Tennant Creek High, there are around 200 kids, but on most day 40% are absent. Their parents don’t know where they are. The kids see no future and thus no reason to bother going to school. When Fiona starts her year 8 maths class she has 28 kids on the roll… and three in the class room. “At least I’ll learn their names”, she says, trying to remain positive. 

The kids aren’t alright 

The schools in Testing Teachers were chosen largely because they are in challenging communities, so it isn't suggesting that every school is as bad. But you get the feeling that this sample is pretty representative of a larger problem: kids are more troubled, more anxious, and more at risk than they used to be. In rural communities, like Tennant Creek for instance, many kids aren’t staying at home because their home lives aren’t stable. The run-on effect this has on the next day - lack of sleep, lack of good food - has a huge impact on their ability to learn and be present, with some kids even using class as a chance to catch up on their rest. And has a huge impact on their future success and ability to break the cycle of disadvantage they’ve been born into.  

You have to be a counselor as well as a teacher

As one of the new recruits says, her job feels more like behaviour management than actual teaching. It’s about wrangling thirty different personalities, all from different backgrounds and experiences and all with hormones running rampant. To be effective in your position, you need to know not just the curriculum, but also how best to approach each individual personality - because each one is going to require something different in order to not just learn, but to thrive.

It’s a seemingly impossible task.

Testing Teachers features six teachers and three public schools, all with one aim: to make a difference in young lives. The documentary debuts 19 April on SBS and will be available on SBS On Demand after broadcast. 

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