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.