Immigrants Do Want to Learn English: Where Is The Funding?

When Sajid Javid, the first Asian Secretary of State, talks about assimilation and immigrants learning to speak English, I do not naturally object to anything he is saying.  His assertion that respecting a British way of life means “things like trying to learn English” seems sound, if a bit vague.  My family, for the large part, did just that and expected their children to do the same.  Conceptually, it’s a great idea.

My parents, East African Asian and first generation immigrants, spoke English pretty well as they came from former British colonies.  My grandparents, older, more set in their ways, found it more challenging.  Assimilation was an idea, a process that I absorbed without really thinking about what it meant politically. I grew up in a predominantly Asian community, choosing  to speak English all the time, refusing to go to Gujerati school because my uncle was the teacher and I was too embarrassed to attend, having my friends call me a ‘coconut’ (brown on the outside and white on the inside) – these were all part of my every day experience.  I became an English teacher.  About as assimilated as you can be, I suppose.

I wonder though, and I may be wearing something of a cynical hat, how much of Sajid Javid’s statements are really about the value of language learning to families who arrive on our shores.  In a political climate in which UKIP’s Nigel Farage openly scaremongers about Romanian families coming to live next door and possibly stealing from you, you can almost imagine the conversation at Tory headquarters.  How does a mainstream political party join in the populist rhetoric on immigration and yet not be seen as a group of fascists or loons?  I know, let’s send an Asian man to say it and then it won’t be seen as such a bad thing, because if the Asians are saying it, it’s okay right?  Right?  Dave, are you still listening?

So forgive me if I’m not seeing this for what it is – apparently an attempt by the Conservative Party to protect Britishness.  It reads a little bit like pre-election UKIP neutralisation, a little bit like ‘easy for me, therefore easy for you’ lazy politicking and also a little bit like internalised oppression.

I teach English to London’s melting pot.  I know the value of learning to speak the language of the country you are in.  Not because speaking a different language is somehow an insult to the country you have chosen to live in, but because it is useful to be able to communicate with education and medical professionals, especially if you have children.

Recently, I set up English classes for parents of a particular ethnic group at my school as I identified that many parents from this group, and in particular, mothers were finding it difficult to communicate with teachers.  Parents’ evenings were hard work and came with much embarrassment for all involved, children included.  I found a member of support staff who was TEFL trained and finally found some money for her to teach English, after school was finished for the day, to a group of parents.  The take up was fantastic and parents were enormously grateful for the opportunity.   It proved to me what I already knew, that immigrant families are keen for the opportunity to learn and will take it when offered.  My school made a small step in encouraging participation in society by doing something practical, by providing a solution.  You see, Mr Javid, as someone who also believes that speaking English is important in England, I put my money where my mouth is.

What occurs to me is that in all the rhetoric, Sajid Javid has forgotten something very simple.  Where is the government funding and access for keen families and individuals to learn English if they should wish it?  While the will may be there from immigrant families, the financial ability to attend classes may not be.  Schools could be, like mine, a hub for community learning, but there are staffing and funding implications for this.  As a qualified English teacher, who knows how important it is to the parents of my students to speak English, I do not have the funding or the power to offer them a way to communicate.  None of this has been addressed in Sajid Javid’s’s speech.  What is worse is that his speech somewhat relies on the fact that people may not remember the Conservative government cut funding to ESOL classes in 2011, meaning fewer immigrants could access these classes for free.   There will be people who ask why newcomers should have access to English classes for free.  Well, people, you can’t have it both ways.  I imagine, when it comes down to a choice between using limited family income on food, clothing and essentials, or English classes so no one around you feels uncomfortable when you speak your own language instead, it doesn’t take a genius to work out which route newcomers take.

There is a real opportunity here to do something extremely positive for new communities in the UK.  I guess this is not just a Conservative issue; I am yet to hear any politician, mainstream or otherwise, provide a real solution to this age-old problem.  Instead of just telling us from what seems like a fairly privileged position what you think about speaking English in England, you could use your influence to provide funding, possibly to schools that already have the premises and in many cases, the staff, for ESOL classes for the immigrant parents of the children.  You could support the work of schools who already provide language classes for parents and the local community. If you are going to send an Asian man to deliver this message, you could have him explain how his family did it – and what resources they used to access the English language.

It would certainly take the fear and scaremongering out of the politics and serve to identify the political wheat from the chaff – parties that want to affect real change, not just pontificate on it.

Tough Young Teachers: In Loco Parentis?

On Tough Young Teachers this week, we witnessed a delightfully awkward Charles negotiate a fine line between tragedy and farce at parents’ evening when attempting to sternly inform a non-English speaking mother of her wayward son’s poor exam performance. Walid, the aforementioned naughty, made it quite clear that his mum did not have a good enough grasp of English to understand the gravity of his poor performance, a fact picked up on by Charles as he walked away at the end of the evening, with the kind of deflated skulk only experienced at the end of a long day – and evening – in January.

The show has struck a chord with teachers at all stages of their careers, because of the universality of the experience of training to be a teacher. When I started teaching, as a Teach First participant in an inner city borough, I brought my own naïveté with me. I grew up in a community where the standing joke about Asian parents was that if you went home with a B grade, they’d smack you with a sandal and demand to know why you didn’t get an A before threatening to ship you off to a boarding school in India. The truth was, when I first started teaching, I thought all parents were like that. But they’re not.

In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to achieve. Even the most difficult parents show you eventually that they care desperately about the health, happiness and future of their children. Parents who do not speak very much English show, sometimes by their very presence, that they care about their child. It is very rarely indifference that makes it difficult for a teacher to enlist a parent’s support in disciplining their child, or helping them to revise. It is almost always a lack of understanding of how to help, the language barrier, the lack of space at home, a problematic personal experience of schools. Like one frustrated father says on the show: “I don’t know how to help him.”

How poignant, then, when Charles’ mum tells him that he might be the only adult in some of those children’s lives who can make the difference. In her words lie a truth about our society and education system. It is problematic that she is held up in contrast to parents on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. But, she’s right; he can’t give up on the children because they need him to be, in some ways, a substitute parent for his wards – to fill in the gaps left by parents who cannot provide what he can.

It was interesting to see the differing approaches to relationships with students. Meryl, ever the warm hearted idealist, stated that a child’s whole life can be affected by a teacher. Charles’ view was less effusive. There needs to be a degree of separation, he said. “I’m not their father, or their brother.”

All of this brings me back to the phrase ‘in loco parentis’. In 1855, Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester adopted the phrase as its school motto because their student population was made up of orphans. The staff there were literally in the place of the absent parents. However, as teachers in mainstream schools, we are not responsible for orphans – they have parents and we cannot work in isolation from them.

So what do we do when experiencing that sinking feeling at parents’ evening, when you realise that the parent is no more capable of influencing their child’s behaviour than you are? Firstly, resist the urge to speak loudly and slowly if a parent doesn’t speak very much English. Check with children about the language abilities of their parents, speak to other staff and find out before the evening starts. Enlist an interpreter if you can – not the child, as we all know how that can go (“Of course, mum, she’s saying that I’m an excellent student and I don’t need to do homework ever again…!”) An older student who speaks the same language will do the job nicely. Even better if the school has invested in staff who reflect the ethnic make up of the student population and community – interpreting staff are an invaluable asset.

We spend a lot of time as teachers debating as to whether we can be substitute parents, ‘raising’ children in schools that are open all hours. What if we spent some time ‘raising’ parents? This week, I spent an hour helping to teach a group of parents how to speak English. It was a humbling experience as it showed me that I may have to discard some of my frustrations with parents who do not know how to support their children – as their frustration is worse. And it is not just about parents who don’t speak very much English.

Parental engagement and support is absolutely vital in schools for parents of every walk of life – and it is often seen as such a Herculean feat that many schools do not attempt it. When it is committed to, it can change the educational experience of students, staff and parents alike. It’s worth it because everybody wins and parents’ evenings are suddenly less painfully awkward. It’s worth it for that alone!

First published on the Communitas PR Tough Young Teachers blog here

What is The Benefit of Benefits Street?

Channel 4’s controversial new show, deemed ‘poverty porn’ by social commentators, TV reviewers and critics, is an uncomfortable, uncompromising experience. Having watched two episodes now and having felt a little bit grubby afterwards, I have questioned not only the motivations of Channel 4 in airing something that has solicited such negative attention, but my own motivation and inability to turn it off. What is it about the show that makes it compelling?

Critics have slated the show as being a vehicle of ridicule for the residents of James Turner Street, citing their lack of awareness of how they were going to be portrayed on the show. 4.3 millions viewers have tuned in, commenting loudly on social media using the hashtag #benefitsstreet. Certainly, a problematic aspect of the show is the level of aftercare for the residents, considering the negativity the show has attracted. It also glosses over some of the reasons why the families living on James Turner Street live the way they do, allowing the public to make their own assumptions – a dangerous gambit. Owen Jones has been particularly critical. I have engaged in several debates about whether it is ethical to watch the show at all – after all, what is the benefit of Benefits Street?

Watching the show this evening, possibly against my better judgement at the end of a long day, I experienced the gamut of emotions I have come to associate with my Benefits Street viewing experience – a heady mix of disgust, of concern, of anger, of shame (yes, shame for watching!) and of horror as I followed the Twitter hashtag. Perhaps my argument today is a result of an inability to reconcile the desire to watch with the fear that I am part of something hideous – a baying crowd for what is reassuringly ‘Other’. I have to find a reason for the show, to understand it in some way, or I am just part of the circus that accompanies the whole thing.

So, with that in mind, it occurs to me that that the show provides something we do not often experience. For many, the recession is something other people have suffered. Financial hardship is at an arm’s length and we care about it in the same way we care about starving children in third world countries – with a condescending pity. We watch because it is comforting. We are not like those people. I am not like those people.

Yet it courts the worst elements in society. Follow #benefitsstreet and you will see the dregs of humanity, spewing the vilest comments. The inadvertent (or entirely intentional?) result of the show is the turning up of the rock. The show exposes not only the residents of the street, but the rampant prejudices of its viewers. And the viewers have reacted exactly as they must: a middle class, seemingly moderate crowd who bemoan the show’s exploitation of its ‘stars’, whilst keeping a respectful distance. But you see, I’ve had that thought. And I watch with everyone else, with my central heating on and food on a plate because I am not those people on TV. I have something to be grateful for. And I can watch them and follow the viciousness on Twitter because it reaffirms everything I subconsciously believe. I am not those people, on screen or off screen.

Maybe those who have complained about the show are uncomfortable with the truth that it accidentally exposes. We don’t live in a Working Title movie. While we might have believed that the recession meant that some people had to ‘tighten their belts’ and that government cuts meant that some people might be a little less well off, the show shatters any rose-tinted illusions about inequality and the income gap. There are some very poor people and as much as social media and the press may want to point fingers at those individuals to blame them for their own predicaments, it is also clear that the poverty depicted on the show is ingrained – not a conscious choice, but the result of decades of neglect and failures of the state to break the cycle of that poverty.

My worry is that the show is actually too subtle for some watching it. Look closely and you might see the crippling addictions of one its characters, the strange anger of a serial criminal and the self destruction that goes with his behaviour. Look closely and you will see the contrasts presented between different groups of residents in the street. But the reactionary world of Twitter and Facebook, where armchair commentary means you can swing your fist no matter who you punch in the face, is rife with those who have not stopped to consider the smaller points. It is altogether easier for some to utter the immortal words about Romanian immigrants: “Go back to where you came from if you don’t like it here!” Probably whilst making several grammatical errors.

It is easy to level the accusation that Channel 4 are behaving irresponsibly by airing the show because they are providing fodder for the racists and misogynists online and elsewhere. Is it better to play it safe and sugar-coat our national identity so we don’t have to what it can be like on ‘the other side’? Or should Channel 4 show us that we are capable of turning into a baying crowd when faced with an aspect of our society we cannot assimilate into our consciousness?

The vitriol on the hashtag that accompanies the show should be a stark warning to our government. What causes such anger against people less fortunate than others? Have we always been a nation so lacking in empathy that we would suggest ‘bombing’ James Turner Street? When did we become these people?

In many ways, Channel 4 has accomplished something that very rarely happens in the mainstream media. It has managed to create a three way dynamic that forces us to question ourselves. It has asked us to watch ourselves watching the residents of Benefits Street. Now that I can see that, I’m not sure I like what I see.

No Riots Here: Why Tottenham has Some Hope

It’s not often that you find yourself in the middle of what might turn into a hostile crowd at eight in the evening. It’s not often that you watch press photographers jostling for position, surrounded by angry onlookers and see faces of people who have just been on the news. It’s not often that happens to me and it’s not often that it happens round the corner from my house.

That’s where I found myself yesterday evening after the verdict from the inquest on the death of Mark Duggan. When you live in Tottenham that verdict – for the rest of the nation something to tweet about or to discuss in the office the next morning – becomes suddenly the source of consternation.

I watched as the crowd grew larger and more agitated; some women shouted in the direction of cameras, some hung back, shaking heads. Groups of men gathered. As the police came out of Tottenham police station, a little part of me despaired. Was that a good idea? That was the moment that it felt unstable, unsafe, like one thrown bottle could domino into something more uncontrolled, a crescendo of discontent manifesting in the kind of disorder I saw in August 2011. Back then, I wrote about the aftermath of the first night of rioting on my doorstep and I said that nothing justified the burning and looting of a community, not even the death of Mark Duggan.

I am not qualified to comment on the verdict of the inquest into Mark Duggan’s death. Nothing I can say is new or original and despite my surprise at the outcome, I have seen enough of the reaction on twitter to know that the verdict is as divisive as they come. I have abhorred the racist comments and the lack of empathy and found myself agreeing with the more considered voices out there. What I think of the verdict doesn’t matter.

What does matter is what happened last night. Fortunately, within a couple of hours, the crowd outside the police station had cleared – with the exception of a few, ill-advised Socialist Workers who turned up late to the party. It took me a while to sleep because I kept ruminating on the situation. What would have happened if the man I saw being held back by his friends had successfully gone after the police walking down the road? What would have happened if more people had arrived?

I am grateful that it rained last night. I am grateful people calmed their friends. I am even more grateful, as a Tottenham resident, that Carole Duggan – Mark Duggan’s aunt – has called for friends, family and the community to seek recourse in the law, not to spill their anger onto the streets as was the case in 2011. Her words could not have come at a better time. A vigil for Mark Duggan will take place this weekend in Tottenham and as much as I would love to see this as the event its organisers intend it to be – a remembrance of someone they loved and lost – I can only anticipate it with dread.

The thought of a vigil for the deceased shouldn’t stir this strange nervousness. I should be able to see this for it might be – a peaceful gathering of sad mourners who want to pay their respects. But I can’t. Seeing the fury last night and remembering the result of that fury 2011, I am just left with a lingering anxiety. I want to be able to trust that it will go well, that police will patrol quietly and the mourners will save their feelings of anger and disappointment for a day when they can be heard by a court, if they so wish. I want to be able to trust that the people of Tottenham will let the day pass with dignity.

There is still work to be done in this community to repair the damage of the August 2011 riots. Businesses have reopened, buildings have sprung up in the gaping sockets left by fire-destroyed shops, money is coming in – the White Hart Lane regeneration, the plans at Seven Sisters for shopping and leisure facilities will change the face of this area. I can see a time when Tottenham is seen as a good place to live. Maybe that is a product of a ridiculous optimism, or just naïveté, but I can see it. And I couldn’t before. With that investment comes opportunity for local people. But the work to be done now is about showing that the people of Tottenham can look after their community and respect every one of its citizens, even when angry and hurt.

That is why this weekend, Tottenham needs to show the world another face – because the world may just be watching. It needs to take off its hoodie and smile, pay its respects and go home when the vigil is done. I saw restraint last night and long may it continue.

Careers Advice – Not Fit For Purpose?

In the middle of my Year 13 tutor group’s UCAS application season, I am reminded of the abject misery of the university application process. The tiresome slog of a personal statement that some say is not worth the paper it is written on, the endless sessions on mock interviews, the reminders that missed homework or lateness to lessons may result in a failure to achieve a university place (as if admissions tutors are strategically positioned at the gates of each Sixth Form, marking down the minutes) – all of these things remind that I’m glad I’m not 17 and applying for university again.

It’s not the paper work that is the problem. The biggest issue that my students have faced is a total lack of awareness of the range of courses and careers that are available to them should they wish to apply to university and I do not blame the students at all; I was exactly the same.

At the point when I had to make my choices, I wanted to study English Literature at university but that was as far as it went. I may have uttered the word ‘journalism’ in a panic to a tutor once, or perhaps to my mother, who was more than a little frustrated at my lack of desire to make a lot of money doing something scientific. “All your friends are going to be pharmacists, or optometrists,” she would remind me, as if I hadn’t noticed that my A-Level choices of English Literature, French and History would not be the perfect stepping stone to a white lab coat.

As usual, I see a metaphor in all of this. My students are able to tell me that they want to be a doctor, or a lawyer (when they’re not saying ‘footballer’ or ‘singer’). They see an entire field of study as their final destination – they see the tree. But they have a limited understanding of the ‘branches’. Have I ever taken the time to sketch out those branches for them? My students know there are careers, but not about the careers within careers. And to be honest, they are sitting at the bottom of those trees, looking up in confusion.

What experiences do students have of specific and personalised careers advice? An article in The Telegraph this afternoon serves as a depressing reminder of the gulf between careers advice in the state sector and careers advice in private schools. That gap is even more stark between schools with high proportions of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and private schools, where the connections of a wealthy parent or two makes work experience in Year 10 a stratospherically different learning curve for the differing sets of students.

Personalise the Programmes

To close this gap, work in state schools needs to start early – and the key term for our students is personalisation. Our students have aspirations, but lack the connections and confidence to be able to seek out the branches of the careers they may be interested in. When a child arrives in secondary school, they need to sketch out the branches of those trees for themselves, to learn the range of jobs they could aspire to. This cannot be done in a twenty minute session with a careers adviser they will never meet again. Pastoral teams have to make time for this in tutor time, in assembly and in those one-to-one conversations with their tutees. Using technology as a tool to unlock the world of work is a starting point; one organisation, BigAmbition, specialising in digital careers has proactively sought to work with students to develop a quiz that asks questions about personal working preferences and personality – the Dream Job game is a way to start thinking about the branches of the tree that is ICT.

Think beyond university

Considering the cost of a university education, the figures on drop-out rates in tertiary education in the UK makes for sobering reading, particularly when you examine where the majority of students are dropping out of their degrees. Students at lower-ranking universities are more likely to drop out than at Oxford or Cambridge. One only needs to extrapolate a little to know that some students are being given advice that leads them to the right degree choice and others are not given enough advice that enables them to make education choices that are sensible and sustainable.

The sad implication is that it is unlikely that it is privately-educated students who are either attending the lowest-ranked universities or dropping out of them. So, choices become important – and those choice start with GCSE options in Year 9. I have seen schools hand students a piece of paper with a coloured blocking diagram and tell them to hand the slip back with a parental signature. Who do our students talk to, if their parents aren’t aware of the implications of GCSE choices at 14? Starting on an inappropriate pathway potentially leads to failure – and that failure has financial implications at the age of 18 or 19. There is no point in saying: “all of our students will go on to university” like that is the be-all and end-all of education. It is our responsibility to ensure that if they choose to go, they are going to the right place and studying the right course.

Get work experience right

For some students, Year 10 work experience is two weeks off school, sweeping floors in a supermarket. While learning the value of all fields of work is important, quite often, student feedback shows that students are frustrated by their work experience. It’s not an insight into the field they are interested in – and this is partly because the responsibility for administration and sourcing of placements is handed to external organisations. The work experience placements my students benefit from the most are those they’ve found themselves or those that have been recommended by their tutors. It is clear that state schools need to bring work experience back into the hands of the people who know the students best – their teachers. If that means hiring a full time member of staff to co-ordinate work experience and to source appropriate placements, that is what needs to be done.

It is not difficult to see that the fundamental difference between state and private education is the level of personalised careers advice that students are given. I know the statistics on the effect of parental income and education background on the trajectory of their child, but I cannot help but think that we are able to redress the balance between socio-economic groups if we attempt to see our students as individuals who need guidance earlier on, and in more detail. How hard can that be?

A New Year, A New Me: The Teacher Resolutions

At this time of year, with Monday morning looming larger than I’m comfortable with, I am filled with good intentions – ones that I abandon mid-way through September when I am heaped miserably on the floor surrounded by exercise books and reluctantly re-visit in January when resolutions are made by normal people who can wake up at a normal time and buy a coffee on the way in to work. I always look back in August and shake my head at just how naive I was to make them in the first place. But here I am, like a woman who has forgotten the pain of childbirth, making vows again for this coming year at school.

I vow to dress to impress and be the professional I know I can be

You know that you’re a teacher when you have ‘buying new shoes’ scheduled in for the weekend immediately before 1st September. You know that you’ve been a teacher too long when you’ve not only scheduled it in, but researched the specific shoe that you want in advance of the shopping trip. I’d like to pretend that I have only now starting doing this, but I have to confess that’s not true. Every year, I promise myself I will be as smartly dressed as I on the first day back, but every year, I catch myself falling into decline. The tailored dress has been abandoned in favour of the slouchy trouser and the coffee stains on my lanyard are almost pleasing to the eye, if you like modern art. The morning internal dialogue becomes fascinating because those new shoes inevitably hurt like *snitches* (even though you are still convinced the leather will give at some point) and you end up debating whether anyone will notice you’re wearing trainers. You examine your trainers to see whether you can claim that they are orthopaedic and therefore entirely essential for you to do your job. I say ‘you’ like this is something that many teachers do, but I think, in this case, it might just be me.

I solemnly swear not to get wound up by news headlines about English teaching or to utter the words “It’s all Michael Gove’s fault”.

It’s coming to the official end of open season on teachers and exams in the news, although I have noticed a disturbing trend over the past few years that suggests that open season has been somewhat extended. News headlines about teachers and teaching seem to be prevalent throughout the year; from what I can gather, if there is a social ill, you can rest assured that The Telegraph will point a bony, accusing finger at the nearest teacher, and follow it up with an ill-advised column by La Birbalsingh or Toby Young. I heard somewhere that teachers are about to be blamed for Syria. Get in line, Ban-Ki Moon, we’re still busy being blamed for domestic issues like obesity and riots. It’s all Michael Gove’s fault.

I promise to stay on top of my marking and do it diligently and without complaint

Now that Speaking and Listening has been abandoned as a concept at KS4 by the powers that be, I am sure that the volume of written responses from my students will increase and in this case, I must be better at marking – as must we all. This means that I must attempt to cover my exercise books in meaningful red/green pen (let’s not go there) and not have that sinking, guilty feeling when I think about my Year 7 books. Every year I implement what I like to call a ‘system’. This ‘system’ usually involves various pieces of coloured paper that track progress in exercise books (last year I downgraded and just used white paper – it was liberating) and scheduling in ‘marking parties’ with others who have my unfortunate habit of ignoring the call of mock exam papers and homework until it is absolutely necessary to deal with them. Dealing with the marking is better than having to answer to Year 10 asking when their work will be finished ‘being moderated’. And yes, they say it sarcastically, because they’re not stupid, most of them.

I declare that I will get around the problem of it being ‘too late to go to the gym’ when I’ve finished work

As far as I can see, this one is only going to be solved by learning to incorporate gym based activities into my lessons. Forget Brain Gym, it’s Actual Gym and I’m probably going to be the only one doing it in the room, but I shrug nonchalantly in the face of embarrassment. Mine or anyone else’s. Yes, kids, two squats before I lean in to assess your work, a star jump or three when you get something right and some seated glute compressions when you’re doing controlled assessment. I’m quite amused at the thought of this resolution. I have visions of myself using the time spent handing out worksheets for sprinting around the classroom. It’s not quite the same thing as described in Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’ in that it doesn’t create a marginal gain for the children – but it does create a marginal gain for the teacher. Every bit counts, folks. For anyone who is thinking of adopting my resolutions, this is one you may want to miss out. You can achieve the same effect by just joining a gym that opens late and actually going.

I strongly believe I can schedule in time to see family and friends

So, the last time I visited my mother in term time was, let me think, when I was school myself and went home at the end of the day. Seeing people is hard when you’re a teacher. You can’t see people who are not teachers because they say that thing about 9-3 and long holidays which makes me want to stick a fork in their eye and play Taylor Mali’s ‘What Teachers Make’ like water torture until they stop speaking. I have to confess that I become victim to a vague sort of martyrdom during term time that involves me feeling hideously sorry for myself for working ridiculous hours and needing the weekend to myself to recover. This inevitably means that I promise to see people that I actually like and admire, but cancelling because I can’t shift myself out of bed by 4pm on a Saturday and then it’s too late to do anything, isn’t it? I am resolving to schedule in my Life. There, I said it. I will see people and I will not be too tired or too grumpy or tell too many stories about what happened in form time. Friends, you may hold me to this.

I intend to like all my students without fail

Okay, I won’t use bad words about them. I promise. Does it count if I adapt the bad words or use euphemisms? While 99.9% of the students are lovely in some way, there’s always that child that you just can’t abide. It’s usually not the child’s fault; it’s something in you that is triggered by a facet of their personality, which results in a relationship that can, euphemistically, be described as ‘poopy’. They don’t even know they’re winding you up. I intend to give them the benefit of the doubt and to be compassionate about their character flaws. I know I can do it. This year I am stronger.

If you have any resolutions as a teacher, take a moment to affirm them. While I am about as far removed from a self-help guru as a human being can be without being in space, breathe in and let the air flow out, leaving the year you’ve just had behind. Feel the Vitamin D stored in your skin from the holiday you’ve just returned from and savour that feeling of being refreshed and resolute.

It won’t last long, my lovelies. Have a great year.

Teacher Training: It Is What You Make It!

Is it ever a good idea to write an article about your first year of teaching, especially if you have chosen to quit? Last week saw the online publication of ‘Why I quit Teach First’ in Management Today, written by an anonymous graduate who has chosen to leave the programme for a cavalcade of reasons, but mostly as a result of what she deems to be poor training and preparation.

I started my journey with Teach First in 2003 as part of the first cohort. Prior to application, I had imagined I would work in publishing, or in journalism – my childish desires to be a teacher (influenced, I am reluctant to admit, by an unhealthy obsession with Anne of Green Gables) had been summarily nixed by my own teachers who told me to be better than that. I attended the six weeks training, provided solely then by Canterbury Christchurch University – and it was made up of visits to local schools, lectures, seminars on professional standards and subject studies. We had to read, research and become familiar with the key educational theories. We had what has been termed ‘inspiring talks’ but at no point did I feel that wasn’t necessary. I liked the fact that I was doing something that might make a difference. I liked the esprit de corps instilled in the group – and recognised years later that it was entirely fundamental to the Teach First movement. To build confidence, to create a lasting sense of collegiality, to encourage debate and discussion, to instil a lifelong desire to give something back as well as to learn to teach – those were the enduring impressions of the training I received.

Of course I didn’t feel prepared, but that wasn’t because I hadn’t been given essential training. Who does feel prepared to stand in front of children and teach on the first day? My first year is a hazy memory now, but yes, the children misbehaved, they didn’t always follow instructions. But I knew that wasn’t because I hadn’t had enough training. I knew it was because I hadn’t found the right strategies yet. Teaching is a constant battle to refine strategies. No one can tell you the theory and expect you go and do just those things; the best teachers I know (PGCE or Teach First) are the ones who stand in front of a difficult class and know that when they go home, they will need to examine the dozens of reasons why the lesson didn’t go as planned. I am reminded of my favourite quotation, one that I stuck to my classroom wall next to my desk in that first year.

“I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised.” Dr Haim Ginott.

A criticism that is often levelled at the Teach First training route is the one that starts with: “yes, but what about the children?” The implication is that having a Teach First teacher, learning on the job is somehow detrimental to the children’s learning. It is a criticism that could be levelled at a PGCE student on their school placements, or someone on the old GTP route. It is naive to declare that PGCE students aren’t left alone with classes during their placements. It does happen – scratch the surface and all sorts of odd things happen. My experience of having my own classes as a Teach First participant was not unusual. I felt that I needed to get better at teaching and fortunately, I had support from my in-school mentors and from the university that provided my training. I was subject to observations just like anyone else and the feedback was useful. I adapted, I learned and by the end of the year, even though I still didn’t feel like I was a proper teacher, I knew that I hadn’t let the students down. I had GCSE classes that performed well. I was ready for the new year, armed with professional experience that was invaluable to me.

I didn’t contemplate leaving. Drop out rates in the first year are minimal. My own experience as a Professional Mentor for Teach First over the past ten years has taught me that. Where people have chosen to leave, they have done so for personal reasons – something they may have done if they had completed a PGCE. My concern about articles such the one that I mentioned earlier, along with other critics of Teach First is that it s very rare to see a measured opinion, complete with comparative statistics for retention. This may be because those statistics are quite hard to find, simply because there are so many variables. Do we compare drop out rates between the initial PGCE year and the first Teach First year? Or the NQT year for PGCE students and the first year Teach Firsters? How do we know how many PGCE students are still teaching at the end of the second year? If not, what is their destination?

The fundamental fact is that teachers are being deployed in challenging schools – in 2003 who could have predicted that ten years from now a charity placing teachers in challenging schools would be the number one graduate employer? It says something about Teach First and the inspiring talks and the expansion currently taking place. Expansion is necessary and I welcome it. London is a city with an excellent track record of school improvement and this is sorely needed in other regions. Teach First have identified regions where socio-economic factors impede attainment – places that teachers do not see as desirable locations to work. Expansion will always be problematic at the start, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen.

What do I know about teacher training? I know that some of my most respected colleagues completed PGCEs and some of them came into teaching via Teach First. I don’t judge them on their training but on their ability to teach and to be consummate professionals in a job that requires strength and leadership.

Ten years ago, I understood that people may be sceptical at the commencement of a new training scheme and I experienced some intense negativity. No one likes change, no one likes the idea that the way they did something may have an alternative. But ten years on, with hard evidence that the programme works just as well as any other, with teaching now seen as a credible profession for the best graduates, maybe it is about time we gave Teach First a break.