“I may not have gone where I intended
to go, but I think I have ended up where
I needed to be.”- Douglas Adams
Joining Teach First
I grew up in Oldham, one of the poorest regions in the North West. I also grew up in council housing with a single parent. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I struggled with my sense of self-worth which came to afflict me with consistently low motivation to succeed. My teachers were the ones who changed that- those brave souls who chose deliberately to work in a destitute post-industrial town with very difficult kids.
The whole mission statement of Teach First really resonated with me (as did the prospect of gaining a PGDE for free). Just like my teachers before me, I could willingly throw myself into an area where the likelihood of there being kids just like me was high. Although I suffered with low levels of motivation, I did always have a predilection for academics (see, I can use big words now). Teach First makes it absolutely clear that it is dedicated to eradicating one of the most pernicious causes and effects of poverty: educational inequality. Hooked by strong marketing and my own intrinsic desire to make a difference for the poorest among us, I decided Teach First was the route for me… So long as I got into secondary school to teach History. After all, I have put myself into astronomic levels of debt to hold a degree in History and Politics.
What happened next was all a bit of a whirligig. After teaching a mock lesson to two adults pretending to be 14 years old, Teach First made me an offer. The offer was to teach in a primary school down in Thurrock, Essex. For a number of reasons, this offer initially made me feel a little nauseous. Firstly… primary? Secondly, I stated that London would be my preferred working area; so, hearing the word ‘Essex’ left me feeling rather confused. The person on the phone deployed a lovely sales technique, reminding me of how fun the primary days were and how I should just give it a go. That last part really resonated with me. Not long before my Teach First interview, I’d intended to do a TEFL programme in Shenzhen, China for one year. Due to the fear of moving away, I let that collapse. Perhaps it was the thought of my older self asking ‘what if you did give it a go?’ That prompted me to take a job in a totally different key stage, nestled down in an area I certainly did not choose.
Is Teach First a good route into teaching?
Getting to work on eradicating educational inequality, Teach First poaches graduates with a 2:1 degree or above and then develops them via an intensive, classroom-based training route. From its marketing right through to its preparatory 5-week ‘Summer Institute’, Teach First preaches the cause of fostering educational equity. Over time, however, this mission statement begins to dilute as the importance of actually training to be a teacher takes precedence. Eager to secure your progress, Teach First has developed a comprehensive approach to support and professional development. Teach Like a Champion (TLaC) has a near-biblical status, due mostly to the way it breaks down high-impact strategies for trainees to use right from day one. Throughout the Summer Institute, trainees are encouraged to learn a core set of TLaC techniques off by heart to take with them into the classroom. This kind of approach is highly-focused, and I found that my early practice was anchored down to securing good relationships, developing strong routines, and ensuring that planning went from the end, backwards. Through the combination of teaching your own class and attending two university sessions per-term, Teach First strongly encourages trainees to deliberately practice research-informed approaches. Personally, I found that this approach kept me on the better side of the sink or swim equilibrium. Your teaching is highly-scaffolded in the early days, enabling you to develop strong foundations for the rest of the year.
Your support network is the crucial component that ensures your steady progress. Consisting of a Personal Development Lead (PDL) from Teach First, a tutor from your University, and your in-school mentor, these three roles triangulate to ensure that your professional development remains focused and clear. Whilst you certainly learn the most from your in-school mentor, your PDL and tutor enjoy a kind of distance from the school, meaning their advice isn’t tied to school policy and so gives you access to a wider variety of techniques and approaches. Should your school neglect your much-needed “trainee time”, your PDL can bring reminders of obligations and such. So, in reality, Teach First is actually somewhat distant from your day-to-day practice, only knocking at the door to spread the good word via semi-regular University sessions and short trainee bulletins. Over time, I did not see my PDL as part of Teach First, but rather someone who used their close knowledge of my emergent practice to foster my sustained development.
However, the Teach First name comes with a degree of infamy for two reasons: its degree of difficulty, and its uneasy relationship with social class. I cannot speak for other training routes, but I will never forget my first week in the classroom. By Wednesday we thought we had lost a child (thankfully we did not lose said child), and by Friday I had realised any notion of what it felt like to be tired before teaching was just child’s play. Within weeks, conversations emerge about the progress children are making and that accountability falls straight away onto you. Trainee teachers have to navigate the cruel accountability culture of our educational system whilst being expected to write two essays per-year, write weekly reflections, attend 4 Saturday training sessions per-year, and before I forget… they need to deliver quality-first teaching. All of this happens from day one, and it is very difficult to manage. Burnout is common at the end of a half-term, but one has to simply accept that the time for burnout must come later because there is an essay that needs writing. This model of training is very hard to sustain, and comes with a high drop-out rate. I have considered dropping out twice, and came very close the second time. I struggled desperately to balance my commitments whilst securing my own progress, let alone that of my children.
The issue that has stood out the most for me is Teach First’s uneasy relationship with social class. During the 5-week long Summer Institute, trainees are to live with each other in university halls. Something that dawned on me quite quickly was the makeup of my cohort. I was drink- sorry, studying with people from mostly middle-class backgrounds. More so, a sizeable number of these people wanted to do their two years of teaching and then find a job in Canary Wharf. Titled the ‘Leadership Development Programme’, the Teach First route and the skills it nurtures are akin enough to the skills desired in the corporate sector to encourage graduates to take a two-year detour on their way to Deloitte or Barclays. I am not trying to argue that people from the middle class cannot play a part in ending systemic poverty, or relate to the experiences of working-class people. After all, Marx was able to publish Das Kapital whilst relying on the wealth of his industrialist friend, Engels. Rather, it raises questions about the efficacy of poaching purely 2:1 and above graduates from mostly Russel-group universities. I need not digress too much, but most if not all Russel-group Universities have a predominantly middle-class composition. Teach First schools operate in areas with high levels of poverty. Are all middle-class teachers going to be able to relate to the lived experiences of pupils of a working-class background? How effective is the teacher who yearns for the boardroom and not the classroom?
Your reason for starting goes beyond a mission statement
Ultimately, whether or not the mission statement of Teach First becomes shrouded by the intense world of teaching and teacher training, your reason for starting will always remain if you keep focused on it. Teach First asks for those willing to commit to two long, hard, but very developmental years of teaching. My single biggest takeaway is that my most valuable learning experiences have developed as I have been increasingly able to understand and articulate my philosophy of teaching and learning, and my reasons for joining this profession. I have established my vision, and Teach First has given me the tools to achieve it. Despite its issues, Teach First is a great vehicle for new teachers who actually want to teach and make a difference.