Teach First, Repent at LeisureJuly 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.