Is commitment a professional matter?

There has been a lot about pre-nuptial agreements in the press recently. You don’t have to be a multi-millionaire to go in for one these days. Apparently they are becoming much more common, even for the ordinary plebs like you and me and some groups are campaigning for them to be legally enforceable. I think I know what my wife would have said to me if I had suggested a ‘pre-nup’ as the premise to marrying her…

But even with the best of intentions, commitment can be sorely tested.

My first year in teaching was a nightmare. I made so many horrendous mistakes that some days I thought I would die. Just read a few other blogs I have written in this series on the newteachersblog to see what I mean – losing kids on school outings, shouting at the whole class for the misbehaviour of a few, disproportionate and collective punishments, electric shock, water-boarding and summary execution for miscreants… (the last three were only my fantasies). But you probably get the idea.  My NQT year was so awful that by the end of it I said to myself that if I couldn’t get this teaching business right within three years, I would choose another career.

My second year was one of the most successful and thrilling of my thirty-odd years in education. My third year was even better than that. Though I continued to have some serious and volatile ups and downs – even well into my career – I learned that my commitment to teaching shouldn’t be contingent upon my annual performance but upon my tenacity, stamina and willingness to learn often from horrible mistakes.

As an NQT, don’t worry about too much about having an awful induction year – or any other year for that matter.  You will learn by your mistakes – at least if you are any good you will.  It’s an important part of what professional people do – reflect and evaluate – in order to improve.

I am great believer in the apprenticeship model for training to be a teacher. There are three fundamental principles inherent within that model that I think are crucial. First – that the model relies on the ‘apprentice’ watching and learning from the good practice of the ‘craftsman/woman’.  Second – you and everyone else, accepts that while you are learning you don’t yet assume the responsibilities of a fully qualified person. Third – you are allowed to make mistakes – lots of them -(as long as they are not truly catastrophic) during your apprenticeship period. As I just said – people learn by their mistakes.

I have just written a book about working in teaching. (Funnily enough it’s called “Working in Teaching” ;-). In it, I describe the various ways to train as a teacher and the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of each training model. I genuinely believe there is no one ‘best way’. It’s very much a matter of ‘horses for courses’.

However, I do have some misgivings about the features of those routes that throw people in at the deep end as if commitment to teaching is somehow tested by enormous stress, intense pressure and the ability to harness unrealistic amounts of enthusiasm, passion and moral courage every day.  The job is difficult, complex and demanding enough – even for experienced and qualified people – without having to start your career as if it were on an SAS assessment course.

In my view, all routes into teaching should support and prepare their recruits on the basis of the apprenticeship model I have described above – at least if they want to give them a good chance of succeeding and being retained for the long term.  Operating that model can be done well or badly whether you choose a university-based route like a BA QTS or PGCE or an employment-based route like School Direct or Teach First.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Tough Young Teachers on BBC3 recently – and I take my hat off to all the trainees and the schools who exposed themselves to the unfair and uninformed scrutiny and mickey-taking by the huge national tv audience that it attracted. But of the many issues the programme raised, the premise of commitment of those embarking on this career was of particular interest to me.

In the last ten years, I have met quite a lot of people – probably around 30 anyway – who trained through Teach First. They were as you might expect, extremely intelligent, able people with good degrees from top universities. They were all very nice people too – hard-working, motivated and well-intentioned with good social values. Unfortunately after two years of undeniably total commitment to what they were doing in their schools, they all ended putting teaching second and left to pursue another career.

My experience may be far from typical I grant you that, and I don’t want to turn this blog into an attack on Teach First – because in many ways I think they are an admirable organization and have done some good things in raising the profile of teaching.  However, if Teach First recruit people on the premise that “this is a two year commitment” at the outset, then I wonder if we should be asking additional questions to the people who apply.

Teach First make a robust defence of their retention rates and even those who don’t stay after two years become ambassadors and advocates for Teach First. Let’s not forget either that retention rates can be a serious issue across the profession, so TF are not unique in dealing with issues around that. My point is, whatever route people choose to enter teaching – the premise should be to encourage them to commit to teaching as a career, not as a kind of VSO for inner city schools.

In my view, children have a right to expect that. People claiming to be professional teachers should demonstrate tenacity, stamina and endurance as part of their commitment.

Many people doing their NQT year this year will be seriously wondering whether they have chosen the right career. Like me in my first year they are probably having an horrendous time.  As I said, I had serious doubts that I had messed-up big time in my first year and gave myself three years to sort it out.

So is that any different to what is being asked of TF candidates?

Well in my view, yes, at least in one important respect – that is, the starting premise of my commitment.

Let’s imagine for a minute, you are not an NQT but that you are a headteacher of a thriving and successful school – as many of you will go on to be (believe me, you will!) – or a school governor or even a tutor on a teacher training course. Imagine you are interviewing candidates. If a one said to you: “I’m only prepared to commit to this for two years.” What would you think of that candidate?

I know what I would think. I would have no qualms about rejecting their application – whatever their alma mater, class of degree or professed passion for addressing the issues of educational inequality.

We expect people to make a commitment, even if their good intentions don’t work out. A career in teaching really is like a marriage in that respect (and bizarrely, retention rates in teaching are not that dissimilar to rates of divorce!) Sadly it’s a fact – lots of couples end up divorced.  But do we want the premise of any important commitment to be contingent upon a time limit with an option to discontinue? That’s not what we expect of people entering a marriage. In my view it’s not what we should expect of people entering teaching either.

What do you think? Is commitment a professional matter?

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) is published in March 2014.

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19 thoughts on “Is commitment a professional matter?

  1. I am an NQT who is loving the job but not yet succeeding at it. However, if I fail this year I will not be allowed to continue teaching. I am committed to teaching but the system is not committed to me.

    • Hi newbie, thanks for that post – and the excellent point you make. I think you raise an important issue about supporting NQTs and clearly in some places the resources schools can allocate to that leaves something to be desired.

      May I suggest a couple of things?
      First: Go and get Sue Cowley’s book “Guerilla Guide to Teaching: The Definitive Resource for New Teachers” from the library – it’ll help you with a lot of practical tips and suggestions.
      Second: Are you a member of a union? They will provide practical support, help and advice, especially if you fail your Induction Year (as you suspect you might) and they’ll support you in any Appeal you can make – which you should. In my view the NUT are the best for this. https://www.teachers.org.uk/join It’s free while you are an NQT.
      Third: call up the Teacher Support Network on 08000 562 561 – they have a 24hour helpline for teachers and especially helpful to NQTs who they know need advice and support – they’ll advise on all kinds of things and have a good website for new teachers too. http://www.teachersupport.info/get-support

      I hope things improve for you. Keep me posted on how it goes. Good Luck!

      • Many thanks for your practical suggestions.. My union (not NUT) has told me that school have given me all the support that I’m entitled to. I’ll get the book now and I’ll call the Teacher Support Network. Again, thanks for such a speedy and positive reply.

  2. Well, I did speak to the Teacher Support Network but, because they are an American organisation, I felt that they could not answer my questions. I skimmed their website but found their stress and work-life balance questions and advice banal. I’m now waiting for Sue Cowley’s advice and help from the union.

    • The Teacher Support Network are not American – at least the ones I am thinking of, though of course they may have one in the US too. The website has a new brand of http://www.teachersupport.info but they are known as Teacher Support Network – if you google that, the British one comes up top. Their number is 08000 652 651 – they are based in Islington in north London and in Wales.

      • Thanks for telling me that newbie – I’m going to complain about it. Personally, I don’t think that’s good enough. It wasn’t the case when I worked with them up until a couple of years ago. Thanks again, and sorry it was a red herring for you.

  3. You make good points about commitment to the profession but I think the idea of committing to any career ‘forever’ is one that is increasingly rare in the (post)modern world.
    As someone who trained with teach first and am currently in my fourth year at my original school there were several comments I wanted to make. Firstly, I do think it is unusual that all the TFers you’ve met have left teaching. Of those I know (through my training and at my school) the majority have stayed in education. Secondly, my school has so much trouble recruiting good teachers that a two year commitment is a lot longer than the vast majority of other new or experienced teachers give to our students. Finally, I would never have joined teaching if I had to do so as a forever career, I intended to leave after two years and had a pretty horrendous first year. Now I’m a good teacher and I love my job and have no intention of leaving my school or teaching. I’d like to think that I am making a positive difference to the young people I teach and that would not have been possible if the only way to enter teaching was to commit. To use your analogy, I presume you dated your wife before you married her.
    I think it is great that there are many roues into teaching that develop excellent teachers. I think teach first offers a lot, including the opportunity to find out that teaching is indeed a career to commit to.

    • Hi Kate, thanks for that post – I’m glad TF has been a successful and rewarding experience for you and I accept all your points – I particularly liked the analogy of dating my wife before I married her. Touche.

      Any criticisms of the TF model?

      • Hi,
        Of course all training methods have pros and cons. TF is exceptionally demanding and it’s not for everyone.
        I do worry that TFers tend to progress in their careers exceptionally quickly (at least in my school and others where I have friends) and there’s almost an expectation of this (not an entitlement, but a drive and passion to make a larger impact) among participants. I worry that this leaves us with little time to consolidate our teaching practice. As a head of faculty in my fourth year of teaching I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and for my long term career and skill in teaching and learning I’m very aware of the importance of a continuing focus on my development as a teacher and the teaching and learning in my class room.

      • Thanks for that Kate. I think you echo many people’s concerns about the idea that just because TFers are ” bright young things with good degrees from top universities” that they don’t need to acquire a lot of experience to be good teachers and good leaders. Personally I think it is especially essential in ‘tough’ schools because experience – painstakingly acquired – breaks down both misguided assumptions and well-meaning naiveté about the nature of working in such places.

        I also worry about the ‘corporate’ approach and style of Teach First – where it seems they employ a lot of well-honed phrases fashioned by PR copy-writers and where their ‘Ambassadors’ are lined-up to make rapid responses to any kind of criticism. It seems few ex-TFers are prepared to utter a bad word about them, which does seems very strange. You are the first I have come across.

        Is that fair?

      • In many ways I agree.
        I think there are a lots of reasons why ambassadors (and participants) are defensive of the program. Primarily, I would say because it’s really tough and we’re proud of making it and lots of people are very ready to criticise. We are also convinced that we are doing the right thing and making a positive impact. Partly because we (generally) work exceptionally hard to ensure that we are. We are encouraged to be very reflective and to take responsibility for what happens in our classrooms.
        Between ourselves we think critically and evaluate the program and TF (generally) listens and improves the program. But we’ll defend it to outsiders because we believe that we and the program are making a positive difference. Not because we’re better, or smarter or more anything really but because we work really hard to make sure we do. Some people misinterpret this as superiority, it’s not.

      • Hi Kate, thanks for responding. I don’t want to drag this on longer than you feel comfortable with and i appreciate your frankness – it’s an awful lot more than I’ve eve heard from a TFer before, so I am thankful.

        However, the things you say about “doing the right thing”, “making a positive impact” “working exceptionally hard”, “being reflective and critically evaluating” etc all sound like the same things that are expected and required from people on other routes.

        You refer to a perception that some people have about TF presenting itself as ‘superior’. I’m afraid I am one of those that perceive it that way and the reason for that is twofold. First, because I have met a few people who only want to do TF, they don’t want to train as a teacher any other way. That seems to me to to say something about the way they perceive TF too and goes to my second point and the reason I wrote the blog, which is the premise of entering a training route that only asks for a two year commitment at the beginning.

        It seems to me that people who only want to train as teachers through the TF route can, at the point at which they feel that teaching is too hard, walk away from it without feeling the guilt that others undoubtedly will. They can say “Well, I only intended to do it for two years anyway…” which is why I made the analogy with pre-nuptial agreements. That is also the reaction I have heard from many of the ex-TFers I’ve met in the past.

      • You’re completely right here, and maybe people should commit from the beginning and I think most TFers commit to doing the best they can for at least 2 years. I could argue that leaving teaching (with or without guilt) is the right thing to do if it is too hard, you’re not prepared to give what it takes or it’s just not what you thought it was then the best thing is to leave (best for the teacher and for students). If TF brings in more teachers who ARE right for the job, and for whom the job is right for surely it’s a good thing . And I think it’s important to have a range of routes in to try to make sure that these teachers find a route in whatever it is.
        I think there is a false dichotomy between TFers and other routes, I think there are more commonalities than differences and I think that’s the thing that I hope to make clear but I don’t think I did.
        I’ve enjoyed this discussion though, I think honest discussion around these issues is really important.

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