Tough Young Teachers is better tv than The Apprentice, but appears to lack one essential feature…

BBC3’s Tough Young Teachers is fantastic entertainment.

It certainly shows 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 show enormous courage and tenacity. Good for them!

But I can’t help wondering if the show 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 damages 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 – like Teach First – 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 – and 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.

Good Luck!

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.


6 thoughts on “Tough Young Teachers is better tv than The Apprentice, but appears to lack one essential feature…

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post. Yes I find myself cheering Meryl on too! And if you do a quick google search (interview with Teach First) you can find out how she is doing now.

    I think the purpose of the ‘documentary’ was more so to market Teach First AND to show kids how much hard work being a teacher is. Twitter has a lot of posts by teenagers talking about the show and in my view its generally quite positive.

    1. Hi Tom,

      thanks for that. It’s interesting you say the purpose of this series was to market Teach First and show kids – I presume you mean secondary school age kids – how hard teaching is. If that is the case, and I’m presuming as a Teacher First person you have informed knowledge of that, I think it raises a few questions. One is to ask whether it is the job of the BBC to market any organisation, albeit a ‘charity’ for its own purposes. I would be interested to know how the idea of the programme was initiated. The second question it raises for me is whether the programme has done anything to raise awareness with young people about the nature of teaching and how hard it is. I think it may have done with some but then the kids who stop and reflect on this can see it every day of the week if they want to – just by looking at and asking their own teachers how hard they work. It’s obvious to anyone who wants to see, and easy to see if you are a secondary school student. You don’t need to watch a tv series to learn that.

      But I think you would also have to concede the trainees have exposed almost every aspect of themselves, even their most vulnerable aspects, to the full glare of publicity and sometimes that has made them look ridiculous. For example, Oliver writing a song in the toilets, Meryl crashing her car and asking the children not to laugh – this brings the programme in line not with a “documentary” but with a reality tv show more akin to The Apprentice and even Big Brother, where the entertainment value is seeing people not only succeed, but look ridiculous and fail too.

      So even though Oliver and Meryl will undoubtedly have happy endings – and they are clearly charming and wonderful people who are very dedicated – the professional practice of training to be a teacher is, in my view, being dangerously brought to the edge of ridicule in the PR interests of what is effectively a private enterprise. And as great as the programme is – I’m not comfortable with that.

      Thanks again for your post and good luck with your career.

      1. I can definitely see where you are coming from.

        I don’t think it is the job of the BBC to market such an organisation and I agree it would be wrong for the BBC to endorse a business for its own purposes.

        But in my view, BBC weren’t explicitly doing was more in the sense ‘these are 6 teachers who joined the unconventional route which happens to be called Teach First’.

        This still is marketing as it creates awareness of the company which would benefit Teach First certainly. But the BBC were more interesting convincing viewers that their show different to Educating Essex/Yorkshire rather than advertising TF.

        I agree that kids could just observe their own school experiences etc. but having a TV show does bring people another way of understanding what its possible like to be a trainee teacher. A bit like how watching Junior Doctors gives us a bit more of an understanding to that profession

        But you are right this is all at a cost of potentially ridiculing the profession. But I wouldn’t go as far as to say I opposed it because I think the benefits outweigh the costs.

        Perhaps my views will change and I will be more opposed to the documentary when I do eventually become a full-time teacher (I’ve yet to start my summer institute training).

      2. Thanks Tom – I think you make an important point about Educating Essex / Yorkshire – they seem to me, over the long term anyway, to have made an important contribution to the public understanding of the nature and challenges of the teaching profession and are an interesting contrast to the approach taken by TYT. I know which one I prefer.

        Having said that, I agree – TYT has been great tv and I hope the benefits outweigh the possible down-side.

        Good Luck with your summer school and school placement!

  2. I agree with Tom. While it might be good advertising for Teach First, I think the main focus of the programme was on the teacher themselves – their journeys into the teaching world. I also think that it is hard for a student to get an understanding of how hard a teacher works at school, without seeing it from an all round perspective like Tough Young Teachers showed. It’s also good for parents to watch too, to see how part of the education system works and how teaching is a very tricky job.

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