Tough Young Teachers: Episode 1

‘I don’t know what I’m doing; they don’t know what I’m doing’

In many ways, Tough Young Teachers is paint-by-numbers reality TV = set up the protagonists (literally); exaggerate the nature of the challenge; mix hand-held footage with a few expensive crane shots for dramatic effect; provoke and encourage weeping and emotional outbursts and then do some close-ups; select the most bizarre utterances by the background players (in this case, the kids). It’s not documentary in that it doesn’t have a truly open gaze nor does it try to explain anything or put what we see in context. The fact that it is a reality show about Teach First trainees is much less important than it being a show about what happens to student teachers. And it’s very old fashioned in that sense, telling a similar story to everything from Please Sir! to Teachers to Waterloo Road. At least in this first episode.

I was surprised at the way the schools and the children were represented and I am guessing that some of the headteachers are regretting participating. Archbishop Lanfranc in Croydon, for example, was continually described as being built on a landfill, as crumbling, with shots of concrete render falling off walls, graffiti, all interspersed with vox pops with some of the more ‘challenging’ kids in the playground, fizzing on high fructose corn syrup and E numbers. Of course they were. The perfectly audible and often witty comments of the kids were usually subtitled just so we didn’t miss their ‘cheekiness’ or ‘dysfunction’. One of the second year Teach First trainees presumably made herself feel better by portraying the children as unwilling to learn and apathetic. ‘So unlike me when I was a child’, she said. ‘So unlike me’. And another Teach Firster even had her parents interviewed, saying they didn’t want her at such a school, one with ‘no principles’.

But of course I shouldn’t have been surprised. Teach First has appealed to these young people using just this sort of Romance narrative: schools are broken and failing; kids are apathetic, resistant, disordered and deprived; you, on your noble white steed will charge in and turn it all around. You, with your brilliant youth and your Oxbridge credentials and your fervent self-belief can make the school successful, make the kids successful, make the sky blue and Miss Piggy fly – just by your very presence. A narcissistic personality disorder is not essential but might be useful, seems to be the message.

I don’t want to be too critical of these six ‘tough young teachers’, though. They had choices. They chose to teach and, given what I do for a living, I think that’s a good thing. And I do admire them for their optimism and their hopefulness. Optimism and hopefulness are not weak dispositions.

But, how I wish that their idealism and energy could have been more fully supported and channeled by their training programme. Teach First did not come out well from this first episode, with the voice-over reminding us often that it was just a six week affair, with the trainees ‘thrown in at the deep end’, to sink or swim. We were told once that there were visits to the schools and tutor input but these weren’t seen in this episode. In this first encounter, these young people were on their own, mostly sinking, occasionally doggy-paddling, usually flailing around trying to keep their heads up.

A recent article in Management Today by former Teach First participant ‘Hattie Dennington’ draws attention to the weakness of the ‘sink or swim’ model, something that certainly wouldn’t be tolerated in the business world, as she points out, where the investment of time and the human resources would be taken a great deal more seriously. In the US, where Teach First’s predecessor Teach for America has been operating since 1990, a backlash from former Teach for America participants has been building now for over a year. Writing on critical education blog, alum¬†Chad Somers draws attention to the privatising intent of Teach for America and the corporate agenda of much education policy. The Teach for America resistance movement that protested in Chicago this past summer and continues to grow, offers strong opposition to this model of teacher preparation by people who have been through it themselves. Kids in schools used by Teach for America, they argue, schools a bit like those portrayed as literally falling down in Tough Young Teachers, need better prepared teachers, who know more about the kids, are more respectful towards them and what they know, and are supported to get better at teaching through properly organised early professional development.

For me, the most fascinating part of the first episode was teacher Ollie’s reliance on a book called Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov. I first came across Lemov’s book in Chicago 18 months ago during research for the ‘Pedagogies of Teacher Education for Urban Schools’ project. But I have never seen it used in the UK. Clearly, it is being used by Ollie – and perhaps Teach First? I’m looking out for Teach Like a Champion in future episodes. It’s a blast – 49 techniques that will make you a champion teacher. Guaranteed. Well, almost ….

Picture credit: BBC3