BBC3’s Tough Young Teachers has been fantastic entertainment for the last six weeks.
It has certainly shown some very frank exchanges, authentic incidents and realistic challenges that young trainee teachers face. I take my hat off to the trainees – all of them have showed enormous courage and tenacity. Good for them!
But I can’t help wondering if it has been an own goal for Teach First – the ‘charity’ that recruits so-called high-flyers from top universities to teach at tough schools. Worse – I wonder if it has it damaged the prospects for teacher training recruitment, at least for this year, and even the image of teaching more widely?
I have just written a book about working in teaching. It covers all the various routes of qualification into what I regard as the most fundamental profession of all.
I have been careful not to recommend one route over another. My experience tells me that training to be a teacher is definitely a matter of ‘horses for courses’ – and in my thirty-odd years in education I also spent six years training teachers, which included all the main routes as well pioneering the so-called ‘employment-based’ ones – so I have seen some people thrive on one course when it’s been clear they would have drowned doing another.
But watching Tough Young Teachers has made me think a lot about aspects of teaching that these brave but naïve young people have exposed to the world.
For example, in Week Three, the much-derided Nicholas (“I knew he was posh! I knew it!”) took one noticeably recalcitrant fourteen year-old urchin on what was really a personal outing one Saturday morning. Nicholas drove the lad in his own car – without any apparent risk assessment – to shoot pheasants with his Barbour-coated pals on a country estate (yes… if you haven’t seen the programme, I can assure you, you are reading all of this correctly.) Twitter was alive with hilarious derision – I know because I attempted to contribute to some of it – but the really interesting thing was how the outing clearly had an enormous positive impact on the youngster – though he still showed his ‘appreciation’ by calling Nicolas “a posh prat” behind his back – but then, that’s kids for you.
What Nicholas knew was that the boy will never forget that visceral feeling of a double-barrel gun going off in his hands and the massive kick-back he had into his shoulder from it. The boy’s eyes lit up. It was a real experience. One day that (currently) ungrateful little brat will come to acknowledge it as an important, perhaps even seminal moment – because he had a teacher who was prepared to risk his reputation to believe in him.
Similarly was the effort made by Charles in Week Four – another one who was clearly born with a silver spade in his mouth (this guy entertained his fellow trainees to dinner by employing a Master-Chef to serve a 12-course taster menu while Post-Impressionist paintings hung from the dining room walls). Nevertheless, Charles got another ‘ne’r-do-well’ fifteen-year-old – Walid – to go on a farm week – to get his hands thoroughly dirty, to milk cows and goats, to slop out pig sties and to sing soppy songs around a camp fire with his school friends. Experiences even Walid acknowledged he will never forget.
Then there’s Meryl – the lovely, totally naïve, almost hopelessly idealistic young woman who is trying to teach English (and sex education, for goodness sake..!) to kids who are systematically taking her apart – bit by tortuous bit – while her tutors and mentors seem to be observing her every hapless lesson. But she is so motivated and hard working it makes your eyes water. Twitter was rightly trending #ComeOnMeryl! every week.
As I said earlier, I take no ideological stand on the merits and de-merits of different ways of training to be a teacher – all have their pros and cons – and I am all for widening access to the teaching profession as long as standards of qualification are maintained.
But I do hold these principles dear:
First, that teaching is a profession. It is not merely a craft. It does not just rely on the application of practical skills – however inspired or imaginative they may be. You can’t just turn up – even with bags of enthusiasm, high ideals, regular use of the word ‘passionate’ – and hope to succeed, not in the long-term anyway.
Secondly, education theory is important. Not least because ultimately it underpins, guides and re-assures you that first, you know where you are and secondly, you know what you are doing once you have used up all those great ideas from your ‘bag of tricks’.
Thirdly, as the Tough Young Teachers have found out, teaching is not a game or a game-show. I don’t doubt Teach First’s genuinely good intentions – but was it wise to turn the serious business of training to be a teacher into a reality TV show? The contrast with Channel 4’s Educating Essex / Yorkshire is stark. They seem to me, over the long term, to have made an important contribution to the public understanding of the nature and challenges of the teaching profession.
Training to be a teacher, again in my humble opinion, requires both the understanding and the application of theory; alongside the acquisition of a wide range of practical skills; under intense pressure; over a substantial period of time; but within a supportive and developmental environment. That’s the apprentice model. It’s a model tried and tested over centuries and passed down to us from the artisans of ancient guilds. Crucially, apprenticeship is a period both necessary and required before you can call yourself a qualified professional.
If you are thinking of training to be a teacher – and I hope you are – my advice is to choose a route that most closely approximates to that definition.
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.