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.