Tough Young Teachers: Episodes 3 and 4

Two doses in one go. And quite a chore. The pattern of noisy classrooms, interviews with school management and evening chats between the Tough Young Teachers over a bottle of wine is becoming very formulaic. Apart from Meryl, who was struggling teaching English at Harefield Academy, the others just seem to blend in to each other. It’s the same story with each of them – ups and downs, tears and smiles, lesson plans and marking. Only Nicholas seems to be differentiating himself – my guess is that he probably was very, very different during the shoot and it could easily have turned into his programme.

Teach First finally showed up in the person of a young woman identified as a ‘coach’. She was ruthlessly ridiculed by some of the boys in Meryl’s class for her, in their eyes, vapid platitudes. Then we saw her interviewed and we got … some vapid platitudes. I am hoping that she offered more to Meryl than she did to camera; it’s difficult to know given the reality TV editing. And a higher education tutor was also seen from the university supporting Teach First in London (Canterbury Christ Church). This person’s role seemed to be to read aloud (she said she had to) a legalistic statement to Meryl about being a ’cause for concern’. She then followed it up with some vapid platitudes. A theme was emerging: the ‘tough young teacher’ is meant to sink or swim; the support they receive is lesson observation and feedback; if they can’t assimilate the feedback, they are deemed a ’cause for concern’; the style is vapid platitude and quasi-legal bureaucratese.

This really unsophisticated approach to teacher development was noted by the trainees in one of their evening wine discussions. You’re just given 20 things to do following a lesson observation, one said. Nicholas responded how pointless that was given that ‘human beings can probably only process three things’ in terms of feedback. Sink or swim. Triumph or failure. No sense of how you can support a beginning to teacher to learn and get better. No real sense of what learning is in terms of teaching. Once again, I was left with the feeling that these six teachers could have been so much better and have got to that point so much more efficiently and humanely than they did through the Teach First scheme.

Without a doubt, the best part of episode 3 was Nicholas’s contact with Zach, a boy he had accompanied on a school trip (shooting birds?!) and his attempt to understand how, when you get to know a child better, their misbehaviour hurts more. The emotional dimension of learning to teach and becoming a teacher was illustrated very well in the way that a developing personal relationship with Zach made establishing and maintaining authority over him not only more difficult but more distressing.

Some of the senior teachers from the schools involved didn’t come across at all well. One deputy head described the school as challenging as it had ‘a lot of one parent families’ in the area and they ‘brought that into school with them’. ‘Social deprivation’ was cited as a reason for ‘challenging pupils’ but the meaning of social deprivation just seemed to be that the child wasn’t easily aligned to the culture of the school. Crude characterisations of working class children seemed to drive the way school management organised the schools and the teaching. Children from other cultures seemed to be aberrations that needed kindly remediation. One deputy head emphasised that with ‘low ability learners like these’ you just need to, well, in effect dumb down. Teaching, overall, seemed to be something you did to other people’s children (not your own or those of middle class friends), elsewhere (not in the community in which you live) and just for a while (as a short term mission to save the souls of these poor ‘deprived’ kids).

The wisdom of some of the children came across strongly again in episode 4 when Charles accompanied a group of pupils on a visit to a farm. One pupil, Walid, when asked whether Charles was any good said yes, he was cool. ‘Why cool?’ asked the disembodied camera. ‘Because he is a child, even though he is 22.’ How true.

At the end of episode 4, we are left in pretty much the same place as episode 3. They’re still wobbling. Nicholas still stands out as a human being. Meryl is still on the brink. And the Teach First programme is still less a preparation for teaching and more a rite of passage.