Tough Young Teachers: Episodes 5 and 6

As I mentioned previously, I’m not a watcher of reality TV. I’ve seen a couple of individual episodes over the last five years (struggling to remember what the shows were called) but it’s not my genre. Real aficionados of the genre tell me I should have watched the ‘Educating Essex/Yorkshire’ series but, frankly, the trailers put me off as did the head of English in the last one. I am sure he is a nice man but there is something about men in their 30s with ambition and few inhibitions that … well, I don’t like to watch it on TV.

My ill-informed sense, though, is that Tough Young Teachers wasn’t very good reality TV. It certainly wasn’t documentary. I think it is telling that I can only remember two of their names (both at the Harefield Academy) and the face of another one, the young woman with blond hair in her second year. The reason I remember her is that she described the children she was teaching as ‘little thugs’ – on camera, on TV, at primetime. Nice.

The other two I remember because one (Meryl) was clearly the one who was meant to fail but didn’t. And so a half-hearted cheer in the final episode. And the other one (Nick) because it looked like he would be good and made a promising start and then left the profession having got QTS at the end of the series. I also remember them because of the excruciatingly bad sex education lesson in episode 5. The scene where the pupils called out various four letter words and had them written on the board – just so they could learn the scientific names, apparently. It was bad, very bad. I think it’s highly likely that if you know the word ‘prick’ you also know the word ‘penis’. Aged 11 or 12, you probably don’t need to be introduced to the word ‘penis’. So the whole attempt just looked like a ‘cool’ idea to show they/the school were ‘down with the kids’. Frankly, nonsense.

Sex education/religious education?

Sex education/religious education?

More worrying was these two teachers’ approach in a sex education lesson they taught jointly where they teetered on the brink of telling the children that masturbation was wrong, on some sort of ‘medical’ grounds. It was difficult to tell. But we had already been told that their Christian faith made it difficult for them to deal with masturbation. In which case, allow them to steer clear of sex education – but don’t allow them to confuse wanking with smoking.

All of which just rammed home the impression that these ‘tough young teachers’ were actually ‘tough young missionaries’. ‘Tough’ because they had ‘only had six weeks’ training’, as the opening v/o told us every episode. ‘Young’ because, in the end, this way of looking at teacher preparation is all about a ‘cult of youth’, as an article in the New York Times put it (see here; as did The Economist, see here). ‘Missionaries’ because above all else these people were told and often seemed to believe that they were dropping down into the great unwashed and they, with their elite brilliance and faith and zeal were the only things standing between the children in their schools and a life of grime, crime and doing time. Only they could ‘save’ these kids and, heck, time was running out. The children we were given any insight into (precious few of them) conformed to this prophecy-fulfilling stereotype and one ended up excluded from school, on the ‘road to nowhere’. Look at the wonderful opportunities these tough young missionaries were giving him, it was implied, and he still walked away. The tough young missionary could have lifted you out of your single-parent, working class, impoverished environment. What a tragedy! You could have been a tough young missionary too.

This presentation of the six protagonists as tough young missionaries was reinforced in that we saw very little teaching. Classroom shots were concerned with pupil disruption and misbehaviour about 90% of the time. We did not see and therefore did not get to understand how these trainees’ teaching developed. We just saw their relative effectiveness at silencing a class. So for me, in the end, it wasn’t about teaching.

I think there were several losers from the series. First, Teach First who seemed absent and ineffective in their portrayal on screen. Even I know they are better than that so it was probably a mistake for TF to sign up to this series. Second, senior management at some of the schools who, in dealing with pupils, seemed to lack empathy and just raised their voice, and in dealing with trainees were seen to just give them feedback after observations. I am sure they did more than that. Third, the higher education institution involved that, albeit seen only briefly, seemed to have become simply a bureaucratic, paralegal entity. Again, I am sure they contributed more. Fourth, that Bunty, or whatever her name was. The one in her second year. ‘Little thugs’. Mmm.

All of which just confirms to me that I shouldn’t watch reality TV.

If you are interested in what happened to the tough young missionaries, click here.

And if you haven’t watched any of the show, watch this instead. It’s shorter and funnier (like many of the best things in life) but, in the American context, does pretty much the same job as the six-part BBC3 series.

Oh, and they just announced that BBC3 is going off air. So hopefully we will all have to look very hard for more of the missionaries at work.