Beyond TFA: an international perspective on disadvantage

After my two years teaching in regional Victoria with the Teach For Australia program, I had the opportunity to take on the final six months of my Master of Teaching on exchange. As a French and English teacher who’d experienced a school trip to France that blew our students’ minds, France was the obvious choice.

When we think France, we often think haute couture, luxury labels, perfume, cheese and wine. There is a small percentage of the French who live like this, like in many countries, like ours, but France is also seeing the effects of a widening of the gap between the richest and the poorest, high rates of unemployment and growing immigration and refugee resettlement, which can reappear as complexities in the school system.

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Well over twenty years ago, the French Department of Education defined a policy of “zones of educational priority” (ZEP), which sought to target areas with low student achievement by providing schools with greater means and additional autonomy to combat the difficulties they were facing.

Decades on, the policy has been re-shaped and re-named, its efficacy interrogated, but achievement rates have not improved. Regional towns and suburban schools in France are facing similar challenges to their Australian counterparts. I was able to undertake my research in a ZEP school in the suburbs of Bordeaux, where inter-racial violence, apathy and low-achievement levels fuelled incidents daily, issues we encounter in Australian schools.

In Australia, to improve achievement, we have an increased focus on differentiation in our pedagogy – we try to identify students’ levels, particularly those in difficulty, and cater to their particular needs. In France, there is a critique of this approach (particularly in the school of thought at the University of Bordeaux where I was undertaking my studies), linking it with a “pathologisation” of difficulties at school – where each student becomes a quasi- or fully medicalised “case”.

This French school of thought, entrenched as much in empirical data as in theory, is wary of the labels we apply to students in order to meet their needs. It posits that these labels set students on separate paths, which can identify, stigmatise and prevent them from taking up other paths. A similar critique could be heard from teachers at the school in which I taught surrounding programs such as VCAL in our school.

The research I undertook as part of my semester was a comparative study of student-teacher relationships in France and in Australia, and in particular, the intersection of the school systems, their policies, and students’ expectations of their teachers.

In France, where the school system is built on excellence and access to culture, do students value academic qualities, like expertise, in their teachers, more than relational qualities, like understanding? And vice versa, in Australia, where our curriculum is built on a values pedagogy – a holistic education based on values-rich relationships – do our students esteem as more important qualities such as an active ear over academic rigour?

After questioning over 150 students in two schools (one in France and one in Australia), I found that students in both schools rated the same four qualities as most important: listening, understanding, kindness and a sense of humour. I did not set out to make recommendations on student-teacher relationships, or on how to accommodate students in difficulty, but I think the students are onto something.

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