Teach First, Repent at Leisure

July 8, 2007

The latest initiative for tricking gullible fools into ruining their lives by becoming teachers* is called “Teach First”. It is based on an American scheme and is a bit different to what has gone before. Firstly, it is run by a charity and has specific social purposes. It only works in “challenging” schools and is focused on “making a difference” to the underprivileged. Secondly, it is aimed at “top graduates” and is quite explicit that it wants to shape future leaders, whether they stay in teaching or not. This is made particularly clear by the following blurb from their website:

“Teach First unashamedly expects many of its participants to become the future Ministers, CEOs, and serial entrepreneurs of our age.”

The agenda is clear: what challenging schools need are bright, academically able, young people with a social conscience who want to make a difference to the lives of children from deprived backgrounds.

Now, I was once a bright, academically able young person with a social conscience who wanted to make a difference to the lives of children from deprived backgrounds. In fact, except for the “young” bit, I just about still fit that description (although I think the term “sucker” sums such people up a bit more accurately). I therefore feel qualified to comment on the little flaw in this scheme: challenging schools don’t actually want bright, academically able teachers who want to make a difference.

Now, there might be a few well run schools that count as challenging, but schools that are well run soon improve. Any school that has been “challenging” for a considerable length of time will be run, or have been run, by idiots, those too stupid to either improve the school or to leave. The last thing they want is anyone with even half a brain asking questions or pointing out when something they are told makes no sense. There is an anti-academic, anti-intellectual, anti-thinking culture in these schools. If you are academically well qualified you will be repeatedly told that you must be mainly interested in A-level classes or top sets. If you have a good memory of what people say then you will be resented for knowing how many promises those who manage you have broken. If you are alert enough to point out problems before they happen, then you will be considered responsible for creating those problems. If you use long words then you will confuse members of SMT who have a more limited vocabulary (I still cringe with embarrassment about the time I identified the “most egregious offenders” in a class to an Assistant Head at Woodrow Wilson School) . On top of that many teachers with good qualifications will have gone to good schools themselves and know immediately that what is going on around them is a tragic betrayal of the disadvantaged rather than a triumph of heroic school managers over difficult circumstances.

Wanting to make a difference is also a real handicap for an aspiring teacher. It leads you to try to teach your classes, even year 11 bottom groups. It might make you point out when students are in the wrong sets. It can cause you to resent doing glorified baby-sitting and make you unsympathetic to the dumbing down of the curriculum. It might make you disagree with the endless lowering of expectations on the grounds that nobody can expect much from “kids like these”. It might even make you suggest avoiding the easy option when you know that students are going to lose out. Most of all, it might make you an unbearable cynic who whinges ceaselessly about the terribly disregard for the children’s future that is an every day reality in sink schools.

Because of this I genuinely believe that those who Teach First will be shocked, not just at the state of these schools, but the extent to which their talents and good intentions will not be appreciated. The scheme presumably has been a success in America, which is a reminder of the differences in our cultures. The British class system is enforced from above and below and anybody trying to change society will not be welcome. All I can say to anyone who is prepared to Teach First is good luck. It would be great if you can prove me wrong. There are a number of graduates from the scheme starting at my school next year, filling the vacancies where we simply couldn’t get qualified staff. I’ll do my best to return to this subject when I’ve seen how they get on. That is assuming, of course, that I don’t give up trying to make a difference before they do.

*It’s been a long year. I’ve earned the right to be that cynical. I’ll be alright after the summer holidays. If I survive that long.

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  1. I applied to the teachfirst scheme and was rejected. Now on my way to Glasgow instead, I hope it works out better for me in the end. Hope you enjoy the summer!

  2. Equivalent programs have not been any more successful in the US, as far as I’m aware of. Of course I’m a Californian, and we suffer some of the most problematic schools in the nation.

    I personally would love to teach, specifically math and science. I will not be going into teaching however, because I object to mandatory union membership that will use my money to support causes I disagree with. Along with our abysmal situation where teachers must buy their own classroom supplies while bloated administrations make six figures per desk.

    I figure I will concentrate on making ridiculously amounts of money in the private sector, use that to create schools that will compete with the current system, and hire only people like you to teach in them.

  3. I can point you to Teach for America http://www.teachforamerica.org – they put in college grads from the top schools into public schools. Research has shown conflicting evidence, but 3 major points of view are accepted:

    1. These teachers do make a difference to results as measured by standardised tests. Not a great difference, but yes a slight difference.

    2. There is high attrition- after 5 years of entering a program like this, only 15% of the cohort is still teaching.

    3. There is a greater appreciation of development issues amongst the cohort and a continued interest/involvement in these issues much after the fellowship.

    Also, research – most recently by the hamilton project (dr. thomas kane at harvard) showed that certified, alternately certified or uncertified teachers have little difference in impact in the classroom.


    I blog at theredpencil.wordpress.com

  4. Interesting post.

    I was a teachfirst particpant. I lasted about a term, but handed my notice in much sooner than that.

    I’m not sure I agree with you about the difficulty of being accepted as a ‘bright young thing’ in a failing school, but I totally agree with your point that ‘wanting to make a difference is a real handicap for aspiring teachers’. As the new member of the department I was shafted with four years worth of bottom set Maths classes, I was told by my department head that I ‘shouldn’t try to teach them anything, just keep them busy’. This was babysitting pure and simple, not even ‘glorified’. Disappointing, demotivating and shocking.

    It is interesting to see that your school only got teachfirst students as it could not fill posts any other way, as participants we are told that schools are crying out for our genious!

    Another great teachfirst myth is that the participants are the brightest and the best; after leaving I took a more typical graduate role and the people I deal with now make my fellow teachfirsters appear average at best. About 50% of those who apply for teachfirst are offered a job, this compares to an average of about 5% of those who apply to milkround firms…

    I would be interested to hear how your schools new teachfirsters got on this year.

  5. one thing I missed out:

    The central conceit of the programme, that bright young things can do their time teaching before taking those skills to get a ‘proper job’ is both insulting and flawed.

    Flawed: skills aren’t that transferrable, the best way to get business skills from Uni is to…join a business. Becoming a teacher so that you can get your dream graduate role in a city firm in two years time is the same as becoming an accountant in order to land a job as a lawyer.

    Insulting: It doesn’t give a great message to your fellow staff that you are (sold as being) only here for a few years before you move off to better things while they are still stuck in their rut. Other teachers pre-conceptions will justifiably be that you are a tw*t.

  6. Because of the high staff turnover I was never quite sure exactly who the Teach-Firsters were and how many we still have. I will try and find out and report back but I am a bit worried that it might give away which school I’m working at.

    Despite my cynicism above I do welcome anything that gets academic high-fliers into the classroom. I just feel that, as ever in teaching, schemes/initiatives/gimmicks are used to address a problem instead of looking at the fundamental issue: teaching does not reward academic excellence.

  7. We’ve had Teach First teachers since the scheme started and although there was some resistance at first the new teachers proved their ability within the half term and confounded any criticism. We’ve had about 16 over the years and 2 drop outs – people who just realised teaching wasn’t for them.

    I think the scheme has its flaws but it has also been a great success, certainly in our school, where it has helped revitalise the staff and raise results and expectations.

    One thing though – I think the teachers have succeeded because of their drive, imagination and personalities as much as their academic excellence. Do we need academic excellence as you suggest, or excellent, valued, enthusiastic, imaginative and intelligent teachers? The world-class academics I have studied and worked with have made some of the dullest and most reluctant teachers of my experience.

  8. “Do we need academic excellence as you suggest, or excellent, valued, enthusiastic, imaginative and intelligent teachers?”

    I’m suggesting academic ability is a necessary rather than a sufficient condition. But I do think we have moved to a situation where the fluency in one’s subject which is required for effective teaching is utterly undervalued, and where low academic expectations on the part of teachers for themselves are being passed on to students.

    • Oh yes, absolutely. That I agree with.

  9. for A – level teaching I think a deep subject knowledge helps but isnt an absolute requirment. A well qualified maths teacher with poor discipline, poor communication skills and no ability to design engaging activities will be hopeless.

    Whereas I have seen semi qualified staff run wonderful classes and if they get stuck they look things up or ask colleagues and they gain expertise that way. The latter is much more preferable imo.

    for KS4 even the lowest of degress is perfectly adequate.

    In my experience phD students rarely make good teachers. I personally know of some exceptions but they buck the rule.

    I would go along with the idea that generally speaking 2.1+ degree students have more drive and ability than 2.2 and below students but its too unreliable a correlation.

    the proof is in the pudding. Can you communicate? Can you engage 30 students of varying abilities? Can you deal with awkward students and parents? Can you meet deadlines? Can you plan? Can you get on with colleagues? Can you be versatile? Can you take constructive critiscm?

    I would put these qualities ahead of a fantastic subject knowledge in 98% of UK schools. That is not to say I want any dumbing down of standards. Its just you dont need a deep understanding of ‘string theory’ to teach Newtons 3 laws.

    • I don’t think anyone here is claiming that academic ability is enough to make anybody a good teacher, I’ve certainly already made it clear that I don’t think that.

      But I simply cannot agree that a teacher who often has to look things up or ask a colleague will ever be more than mediocre. Yes, they can prepare a lesson on a given topic and manage behaviour, but I think that a lesson can only be excellent (by my standards, not OFSTED’s) where the teacher can explain things, unplanned, in response to questions or formative assessment.

      Teachers who can’t answer questions stand out particularly at A-level, where topics can be complex. Teachers who muddle through at A-level (and many do) may think they are getting away with it, but the students really do notice. I actively try to avoid teaching A-level if I am going to have to share the class with another teacher with less subject knowledge. I get sick of hearing the class’s complaints about other teachers, having to deal with questions that other teachers can’t deal with and having to reteach material that they should have learnt fluently, but instead only covered superficially.

  10. in a good school with bright A Level kids I think that may be true with the Q & A thing.

    having detailed discussions with limited knowledge is never going to be easy.

    however, providing there is at least one expert within the dept for either the teacher to refer to, or the students directly even, then thats is, in my view, little cause for concern.

    also, if some very bright students do wish to satisfy a line of thought beyond the curriculum then the ‘tinternet’ will provide the answer.

    Sometimes even some PhD teachers get caught out in some lessons because the A levels often have topic material that wasnt in their degree(s). They have been known known to google that material on the spot when thrown a curve ball by the students.

    Unless, the students are unpleasant, arrogant brats, that should not be a problem in the slightest. At that age they should be aware adults dont know everything under the sun and are looking forward to higher education in an adult arena.

    • “looking forward to higher education in an adult arena”

      Isn’t that exactly the problem though? Teach Firsters would tend to get given the bottom sets that nobody else wants to teach, and for those kids, higher education might as well be taking place on another planet. If they’ve been pigeonholed as thick for years on end, they won’t see anything to gain by behaving pleasantly or engaging with the subject. Scoring points off the teacher is probably going to be the highlight of their academic career.

  11. I remember when I was at school when we had a physics teacher who did not have good A-level knowledge. Despite being a good school which did not have a discipline problem, once the class found out that he didn’t get the A-level syllabus then everyone did what they like as they knew they were not going to actually learn from him. If I recall correctly, enough students complained that we were given another teacher who actually had knowledge of A-level physics.

  12. I’m not sure I agree with you about the difficulty of being accepted as a ‘bright young thing’ in a failing school, but I totally agree with your point that ‘wanting to make a difference is a real handicap for aspiring teachers’. As the new member of the department I was shafted with four years worth of bottom set Maths classes, I was told by my department head that I ‘shouldn’t try to teach them anything, just keep them busy’. This was babysitting pure and simple, not even ‘glorified’. Disappointing, demotivating and shocking.

    I believe this hits the nail on the head.

    Teach First is led by self-satisfied middle class individuals with no real intelligence or talent but rabidly want to feel like they make a difference (rather than actually making a difference).

  13. Having been accepted onto Teach First for 2012 I guess I’m possibly going to be seen as one of those self-satisfied middle class individuals who wants to make a difference. Except I’m not middle-class and hopefully not overly self-satisfied or unrealistic about making a difference to the world. I’m nearly 40, don’t have particularly amazing results academically and I’m from a working-class background. I’m doing it because I want to teach and eventually work in education more generally. I’m also doing it because of the support, because it’s free and because there seem to be hardly any GTP schemes around anymore as far as I can tell. Is it really such a terrible scheme if participants enter with an open mind, resisting the sense of superiority that TF have been said to create, respect their colleagues and don’t expect miracles just because they have a degree?

    • At one time ,you could work on reduced pay as an unqualified teacher and from that experience ,decide whether to get a teaching qualification or move on to something else.Nobody suggested you’d be doing anybody any favours

  14. Unbelievably cynical. Get a grip.

  15. […] TeachFirst, Repent At Leisure – by oldandrewuk on teachingbattleground […]

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