Memoir

Top of the class

Busting the meritocracy myth

IT WAS A strange moment, becoming aware that a school I had attended was classified as ‘disadvantaged’. I was standing on the edge of the water- logged deck of a shack down on Bruny Island and although I was protected from the breeze, I could see white horses capping the dark-blue wind slop in glimpses of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, cut into triangles by the cross-stick of trunks and branches. It was 2018 and my phone was pressed to my ear. I had a coffee in hand, but the taste wasn’t hitting the spot – funny I remember that so clearly.

‘We’ve found you a placement school,’ Charlie, the Teach for Australia (TFA) Tasmanian state manager, told me, and he named a city-based college that caters exclusively to Year 11 and 12 students. Until recently, young Tasmanians needed to move from the high schools they attended from Years 7–10 in order to complete their education. The disruption of this transition has led to a cultural perception in the state that senior secondary years are non-compulsory, and this has been widely blamed for Tasmania’s low attainment rate – the latest figures, from 2019, show that only 58 per cent of its potential Year 12 population achieved a Tasmanian Certificate of Education (TCE). Since taking government in 2014, the Tasmanian Liberals have enacted a series of policy changes aimed at addressing this issue, such as introducing ‘extension schools’ through which high schools can offer a limited range of senior secondary courses. However, colleges are still the pathway for most young people – and attainment rates are still low.

I registered the name Charlie had said. ‘Are you serious?’ I remember trying not to laugh with surprise.

‘They need someone to teach English writing,’ he said – an English subject with a creative, rather than analytical, focus.

‘I actually went there,’ I told him. ‘I won the creative writing prize.’ I instantly regretted saying this; it felt like I was bragging – but I wasn’t. I think I was musing on what felt oddly predestined: I’d learnt to write at this particular school, and with a writing career finally morphing into something that felt promising, I was going to take a break from writing full time to teach writing…possibly back in the same classroom where I’d sat thirteen years ago, contemplating the texture of the word ‘plum’. My teacher had introduced me to Seamus Heaney’s poetry and suddenly I was rolling nouns around in my mouth like they were wine. That was the moment I started thinking about not only the stories I was telling but the words I was using to shape them.

I did end up teaching in that same stuffy room, with its garish ’70s carpet and lack of ventilation or natural light. I told my students about ‘plum’ and how feeling its shape changed me as a writer. I encouraged them to find their own word or words over the course of the year. Some did, some didn’t.

That stuffy room was also where I’d read Gerard Manly Hopkins’ ‘Pied Beauty’ when I was sixteen, snippets of which always come back to me when I see sunlight through foliage:

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim…

The deck where I took that phone call from Charlie was mottled with sunlight and the shadows of the white peppermint gums. Maybe, I remember thinking, sipping that rank coffee and listening to Charlie talk logistics, maybe I’ll read Hopkins with my students and we’ll come up with our own examples of dappled things. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the poem’s religious overture.

I’d applied for TFA’s Leadership Development Program earlier that year. My partner and I had moved to Tasmania’s east coast for his work. I’d recently finished a PhD in creative writing and had been developing the creative component of my thesis into a full-length novel, writing essays and short fiction, and doing online sessional teaching work here and there for the University of Tasmania. Of the various factors that led me to TFA, four in particular stood out.

First, I was lonely. We were living in a tourist town empty of people in the winter months, and writing is solitary. I’d go days at a time speaking to no one but my partner, and I was losing things to say. ‘What did you get up to today?’ he would ask over dinner, and I would begin to tell him about this funny thing one character said to another before realising this wasn’t worth relating because it was a kind of you-had-to-be-there moment, and there didn’t exist except in my head. It was becoming increasingly apparent that I needed to spend time with real people.

Second, I had middle-class aspirations. I wanted financial security, a house and maybe, one day, a family. It’s difficult enough to make a living as an emerging writer, and casual employment in the university sector was notoriously precarious even before the pandemic. I wanted – needed – a job to sit alongside my writing work and offer stability for more than three months. My parents were both public high-school teachers. As a preschool child,

I’d made little cardboard desks and lined my teddies up in rows to impart my wisdom to them; everyone, myself included, had assumed I would be a teacher one day.

Mum and Dad laughed knowingly when told them I was contemplating working in education, and when I asked them about the realities of being a teacher, Mum’s answers resonated: teaching, she said, is a job that’s never boring (‘tedious at times, but given the fact your day is dictated to a degree by the whims of twenty-eight-odd teenagers, it’s never boring’) and that allows you to make a difference (‘not all of the time, but enough of the time if you put in the effort’). That was my third reason: I was drawn to the idea of work that might be meaningful on a day-to-day level.

One thing made me hesitate. After spending my twenties completing a BA and then a doctorate, two more years as a student didn’t appeal. This was my fourth reason and what ultimately led me to TFA: through this pathway into teaching, you enter the workforce straight away and you’re paid accordingly.

 

THE TFA’S LEADERSHIP program seeks to recruit people from a range of backgrounds. These TFA associates participate in two short ‘intensives’ during which they complete roughly one quarter of a Master of Teaching through the Australian Catholic University (ACU). Over the following two years, with the assistance of an academic mentor provided by ACU, a teaching coach provided by TFA and a senior teacher from their placement school, they finish the remainder of the degree while working a four-days-a-week teaching load, completing assignments on weekends and attending classes in school holidays. Assignments are designed to allow associates to interrogate all aspects of teaching practice, from planning to lesson delivery, from behaviour management to the social and cultural contexts and needs of their students.

Throughout the competitive recruitment process, hopeful associates must demonstrate their skills and capabilities against a range of ‘competencies’, including ‘commitment to the TFA vision’. That vision is for ‘an Australia where education gives every child, regardless of background, greater choice for their future’. Because TFA isn’t just a teacher-training organisation – it’s an organisation that strives for social change. As we heard often during the training program, a child’s future shouldn’t be determined by their postcode – as in Australia it so often is. One of the ways TFA seeks to remedy this is by placing student teachers with leadership potential and a strong commitment to social justice with schools that service low socio-economic status (SES) neighbourhoods and by hothousing them with targeted and cutting-edge professional development. Ideally, this not only makes an immediate difference for those students in the classroom but also potentially ushers in future structural reform, as many alumni go on to assume leadership positions in schools or policy settings.

The algorithm TFA uses to determine these neighbourhoods is the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) score. To be an eligible TFA partner, a school’s rating must be below 1,000 – and this brings me back to my conversation with Charlie.

‘Is that really the sort of school Teach for Australia partners with?’ I asked. I thought about its airless rooms, its tired facades, the graffiti that was constantly being scrubbed away, the older kids smoking billies in their cars, the periodic appearance of the police in the car park. But I also thought about the energy of ideas in my classes, the buzz of learning about the place. Charlie explained: ‘In Tassie, every single public school except two are classified as disadvantaged according to their ICSEA rating, which means they’re potential TFA schools. If you think about it, it makes sense. The rating is determined by a whole range of factors, including things like if a kid’s parents are university educated. If you think about Hobart, most university- educated people live in town and send their kids to private schools.’

‘Or live out at the beaches and send their kids up to town,’ I put in, thinking of the relatively wealthy suburb by the beach where I’d grown up, half an hour out of Hobart. A lot of the kids from that suburb bypassed a lot of public schools to go to private ones in the city.

‘Yeah,’ Charlie said, ‘because pretty much all the private schools are in town, and all the public schools are out in the suburbs.’

What he didn’t say was this: these satellite suburbs often contain tracts of housing-commission estates where intergenerational unemployment and low literacy rates are far too common, and this is also the case in regional Tasmania. In fact, almost half of the adult Tasmanian population is function- ally illiterate. If the kids from those suburbs go to the local public schools, those schools’ low ICSEA ratings flow in part from this.

The extension school policy has been enacted to address these systemic issues with literacy and educational attainment in low-SES areas of Tasmania. While the roll-out of this policy has merit, it also has limitations in its current form.

The senior secondary curriculum in Tasmania is streamed into two levels: at the colleges, students self-select into these. Level 2 subjects are awarded TCE points; Level 3 subjects are awarded TCE and ATAR points, with the ATAR allowing students to seek admission to university. With a few exceptions, extension schools offer only Level 2 subjects, which means that while this policy seeks to increase base-level attainment, it does not foster higher educational aspirations in low-SES communities. In fact, it reproduces Tasmania’s class landscape while supposedly boosting TCE attainment, although low outcomes have stayed steady since this policy was implemented. ‘It’s not to say all public schools are equally disadvantaged,’ Charlie continued. ‘I mean, in the context of Tassie, your school is pretty middle class, but compared to, say, a public school in a wealthy suburb or Melbourne or Sydney…’ He didn’t finish the sentence, but I knew where he was going.

Class was something I partially understood when I was at school; class differences were at once hazy and distinct. Some of my classmates had different attitudes to school. University wasn’t an assumed future pathway. Not everyone read for pleasure or played the piano. Not everyone’s parents watched ABC News every night or went to Melbourne to see musicals and football games. These differences in values, attitudes and lived experiences led to somewhat segregated social circles – even within one school. Although I didn’t know the concept at the time, I was aware of differences in cultural capital and that these differences could nearly always be traced back to where we lived. So while I was surprised to learn that the school I had attended was disadvantaged – because I was a middle-class student who moved in middle- class circles at school – in the context Charlie had explained, it made sense.

Returning as a teacher, the reality of the school’s social stratification and my privileged position in the education system as a middle-class student became stark.

 

TO ENGAGE WITH the education system in Australia is to engage with the class system in Australia. A range of research and data indicates that our schools are segregated along class lines in a manner that perpetuates social stratification, irrespective of state. In a recent article in The Conversation, Laura Perry points to data from the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment that indicates Australian students from the highest SES quartile outperform those from the lowest SES quartile in reading, maths and science and that this ‘gap represents almost three years of schooling in all three domains’. These educational inequalities, she argues, are a result of socially segregated schools. I can’t speak for traditional modes of entering the teaching workforce, but this is foregrounded from the outset with TFA – and TFA’s relationship with class is an openly complex one.

Although TFA strives for diversity, the program is highly selective and a significant portion of its teaching associates come from wealthy backgrounds and were educated at private schools. This means they haven’t necessarily been involved with the kinds of communities they’ll be working with. And this is something that in and of itself reveals the relationship between social stratification and segregation in the Australian education sector.

Looking around at our initial intensive in Melbourne, a part of me felt smug that I was from a ‘TFA school’; I felt like I knew what I was signing up for. I understood context and class because I had lived it…or so I thought.

And yet when a tutor – also a TFA alumni – asked about ‘the outcome of a successful education for our students’, I found that my values and assumptions revealed themselves as products of my own middle-class background. University was the first thing that sprang to my mind – and I wasn’t alone.

‘It’s not necessarily so straightforward,’ the tutor replied. ‘What if your family lives hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest uni, and going means that you’re leaving your mum and younger siblings in a hard spot because you help pay the bills with the money you earn from your part-time job, and you wouldn’t be able to afford to live in the city anyway? Some of your students will be in that situation, so what is the outcome of a successful education for them?’

‘There are different ways to do uni these days, though,’ another associate said. ‘Online or part time. And there’s financial support. Surely a part of our job as teachers is to help our students aspire to improve their situations and to help them find pathways to doing that.’

The tutor agreed. ‘But you’re also going to have to think about this: what if they don’t want to go to uni? What if they don’t have that aspiration? What does a successful education look like to that student, and how are you going to check your own values and motivate them to achieve that success in a non-judgmental way?’

‘This could be super obvious,’ another associate interjected, ‘but it’s not like the students are passive in this. Couldn’t you just ask them?’

‘You could,’ the tutor said. ‘It’s a great place to start the year, particularly for those of you teaching senior classes. Put it to them: what does a successful education look like to you? What do you want to get out of school? Where do you want to go in your future and how can school help you get there?

‘But there’s another side to it. Your students might not know what options there are out there, which comes back to what you were saying.’ He nodded to the first associate. ‘A part of the job is also to open our students’ eyes to the opportunities their futures could hold. That could be uni. But an ATAR isn’t the only indicator of educational success for every student.’

When I started teaching, one of the classes I was given was a Level 2, non-ATAR English class, and I asked my students these questions. For the majority, the outcome of a successful education meant the skills to get a job. Discussing further, it became apparent that many had no aspiration to go to uni, and they had a range of reasons. Many didn’t think they were capable of it and had never imagined their future held that option. Many had never been encouraged to consider it and no one in their family had ever been. In that class, there was one boy who was as capable as many of my ATAR students, if not more so.

‘Why aren’t you doing any Level 3 subjects?’ I asked him.

‘I wanted to do sociology,’ he told me, ‘but when we were picking our subjects my teacher laughed and said, what makes you think you could do uni?’

I was genuinely shocked. I knew this teacher from when I had attended the same high school fifteen years earlier – a warm teacher, one who talked to students as confidantes.

The student was insistent. And a bit more digging revealed that he’d slacked off in this teacher’s class and for much of high school in general. ‘I’ve only really started trying now I’m at college,’ he confessed. And so, when he was choosing subjects for college, he’d been advised against selecting subjects that would open up a university pathway. Both his self-esteem and his sense of his academic potential had obviously been squashed by this. While I felt outraged on his behalf – and devastated by the damage caused by one comment from one teacher – I don’t for a moment believe that this teacher, or, with very few exceptions, any teacher, would do this with malicious intent. Rather, they would genuinely believe they were counselling students towards an appropriate pathway – albeit one that, like extension schools and their limited subject range, perpetuates rather than disrupts social reproduction.

‘You know, it’s not too late,’ I said. ‘We could look at transferring you into a different class. It would take work, but I could help you catch up.’

He seemed to consider it for a moment. ‘You think I could?’ he asked. ‘Yes.’

His evident pride was gut-wrenching: I had the feeling no one had ever expressed this type of belief in him.

But I wanted to be clear about the possibility I was offering: ‘You’d need to work hard to catch up so you could sit the exam at the end of the year. But you definitely write well enough.’

It might have been the mention of the exam, but anxiety sheened his eyes – then was it disappointment that clouded them, or was I projecting my own response?

‘Nah,’ he said. ‘Thanks, but I don’t think it’s for me.’

An ATAR could have been the outcome of a successful education for him; why does it feel so tragic that it wasn’t? He’s gone on to thrive, and university isn’t the gateway to prosperity that it once was. It’s also a gateway to debt, which is something that makes many of my lower middle-class and working-class students and their parents highly anxious.

Reflecting on this conversation later, I felt deeply uncomfortable. The unfairness with which this student had been treated was compounded in my mind by my own experience in a Year 10 subject in which learning was student-led, as per the Tasmanian curriculum at the time. I took the utter openness of learning and assessment in this subject as an opportunity to faff around with friends and do nothing. I don’t think I turned in one piece of work for the entire year, but I could talk the talk with the teacher when- ever necessary. We watched the news and documentaries at home, discussed politics over the dinner table. I read widely and was socially capable with adults. So I wielded my cultural capital. At the end of the year, I received the curriculum equivalent of straight As and at the end of school assembly I won this subject’s prize.

It’s a strange thing to be so confronted with your own privilege, to become aware of the unfairness of the system and know that you’re on the other side of it to one dispirited sixteen-year-old boy. I say ‘system’ intentionally. While the juxtaposition of this boy’s experience with mine could be deemed the outcome of teachers’ biases, I think it signals something more about the ways in which our education system and the overwhelmingly middle-class background of the teaching workforce passively – and at times actively – create and reinforce rafts of privilege and under-privilege in Australia’s student population, whether that’s through the public/private divide, disparity between public schools in different suburbs or the treatment of different students at ‘disadvantaged’ schools. Knowing this on this personal level makes me, as a teacher, want to unpick this system one student at a time. I’d taken Mum’s observation about making a difference to mean that teaching is a meaningful job, a job that would give my life meaning. This is important – it’s a relentlessly tough and draining career that requires hours upon hours of unpaid overtime and if I didn’t take meaning from it, I, like many early-career teachers, wouldn’t persist. But I now understand how self-centred my thinking was.

As a teacher, you make a difference in the lives of your students, for better or worse. As a student, so many teachers made a positive difference in my life – like the one who encouraged me to think about dappled things and words like plum. While I was diligent and hard-working, I felt like the system was there for me to waltz through, gathering up knowledge and skills as I went.

Did I know, even then, that the education system isn’t a meritocracy?

I’m not sure. But I certainly know it now.

The myth of meritocracy is something TFA strives to debunk through the social justice imperative of its training program. If I was partly drawn to apply because of its financial incentive, I was a successful applicant not only through merit but also because I was privileged by the very system in which this selective program seeks to intervene. Because of this, I achieved a middle-class income two years faster than those who make their way through the traditional tertiary education system. I’m uneasy about this. TFA’s mission and approach to teaching is currently working to enact social change in Australia, but I’m still not sure what to make of the program’s complex relationship with class.

 

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