Teach For Australia program arrives in Tasmania

GIVING BACK: Robert Lee, of Glengarry, will be teaching at Burnie High School as part of the Teach For Australia program. Picture: Neil Richardson
GIVING BACK: Robert Lee, of Glengarry, will be teaching at Burnie High School as part of the Teach For Australia program. Picture: Neil Richardson

A controversial program that puts “career changers” and high-achieving university graduates in front of classrooms at disadvantaged schools without teaching degrees has arrived in Tasmania.

The Teach For Australia program was launched in 2009, with the first cohort of 45 associates being placed in Victorian schools in 2010.

The Turnbull government announced a funding boost to the program last month, ensuring the project would run for at least another four years.

Tasmania is benefiting from the program for the first time in 2017, with 13 associates beginning their teaching careers in the next two weeks, across nine schools.

They participated in a 13-week initial intensive program late last year, and will face the classroom, working as teachers while completing their Master of Teaching.

Glengarry’s Robert Lee was one of those “career changers”, and will be teaching science and maths at Burnie High School this year.

He studied science at university, and then worked for years in a number of roles, including chemistry work in a laboratory, then in the oil industry.

Mr Lee spent 11 years as a wine maker and then six years working for a biotech company developing products for wineries and breweries.

He worked as an agronomist for the past five years, and then participated in the intensive 13-week teaching course in 2016.

“I’d been thinking about teaching for five or 10 years,” Mr Lee said.

“I thought it would be good to give back, which is what teaching is.

“But kids and mortgages and that sort of thing make it hard to go back to full-time studying. I probably wouldn’t have been able to get into teaching at all if this hadn’t been available.”

The focus of the program was to boost disadvantaged schools across the country.

“That focus on disadvantaged kids and schools really appealed to me.

“I came from a disadvantaged family and I was the only one out of my siblings who went to university.

“Both my parents left school at the age of 15. My father was a labourer and with the different recessions over the years there wasn’t a lot of work.

“They had five kids and we moved constantly for him to find work.”

Mr Lee was originally from NSW, and lived all over Australia before moving to Glengarry in Tasmania nine years ago.

“I had been visiting Tasmania since I was 20 and I fell in love with the place and the people.

“We chose Glengarry because it’s a nice quiet, rural spot with good access to everything.”

The federal government announced it would spend $20.5 million to fund another two cohorts of the Teach For Australia program, as part of its mid-year economic and fiscal outlook in December.

The ambitious and highly competitive program was launched by the Gillard government in 2009 to fast-track high-achieving university graduates and “career changers” into teaching roles at regional and low socio-economic schools.

It has been a controversial issue with teachers’ unions since its inception.

But its supporters maintain it could offer something extra to students, especially from those who have had a lot of industry and work experience.

“It’s certainly another perspective coming in with different experiences,” Mr Lee said.

“That’s not to take away from traditional teachers, or to say its better, but there’s room and a need for both.”

Tasmania is the only new state to come on board in 2017, with the program already running in Victoria, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.

The new funding will run until the 2020-21 financial year, and will allow up to 300 new teachers to participate in the program.