Teach First often gets an odd hazing on social media. This is strange for several reasons, the first of which is that the same people who cry havoc at the first sign of politicians criticising teachers will bury their blades to the hilt in the backs of Teach Firsters and carry their heads on a pole as a warning to others. Christ, I'm glad I'm not on an alternative path into teaching, I mean, what a shower of *** ***, how dare they? I don't recall people on GTPs being stoned like this. There's the name of course, and its alleged insinuation that teaching is a stepping stone, which is given the lie by the retention figures, which compare pretty well to retention via other routes.
It seems to me that the only way you could bear a serious grievance against this whole programme is if you squint really, really hard at the PR and set your sensitivity levels to "inflamed testicle". People pointing out the unusual prominence of Teach Firsts in the emergent education establishment always remind me of when people point out how young coppers are getting these days – you're only noticing because you're worried about getting old.
Personally, I can't summon the effort to be offended when – so far – I've met nothing but decent, ambitious teachers tumble from the hatchery. I have a crazy idea that good teachers can come from different avenues. I did a PGCE and boy, are there bear traps in that process, just the same as there are in a degree path, in any path. It's sad that the young teachers have to be tough, not just because of the kids, the job or the school, but because of fellow teachers who should be comrades not inquisitors.
The Church of the Holy Hipsters
This year, I was pleased to be invited to the Teach First Summer Institute. I got to the conference/coven and was immediately disappointed – not by the host city of Leeds, which is a perfect simulacrum of a Glasgow, and reminds me that the Victorians terraformed every damn thing they touched as reliably as a buy-to-rent landlord IKEAs up every room. But the Leeds campus was so quiet, so grey. I found my room, which was as bare and still as a pharaoh's tomb and I wondered where the acolyte hordes were. I mean, I knew that they were probably cutting the throats of rams somewhere, and worshipping Cerunnos the horned One, but where? I wasn't expecting heads bouncing down the ziggurat, but a bit of chanting and a few chalk pentacles were the least I thought a civil introduction to the Church of the First Teacher. I used to work for TGI Fridays, so I know a corporate cult when I see one. The handshakes, the love bombing, the compulsory group sex with a near-divine leader...it's all there.
The Wigga Man
Actually, the monastic, elect DNA of Teach First is one of its strengths and its greatest exposure to criticism. Acolytes are initiated into an exclusive club (1,500 divinely chosen out of 10,000 applicants – that's quite a rapture, and reminiscent of the Jehovah's Witnesses' number of the saved), drilled in isolation from mainstream society, and sent out to baptise the nations of the world in the name of bridging the poverty gap. It's missionary work, if Next catalogue models did missionary work. And they're as handsome as an Arabian king's stables. Sam Freedman, director of research and impact at Teach First, insists there is no aesthetic component to the selection process, which explains nothing, and must be a lie. I felt quite the Caliban next to their pedigree cheekbones and sinews. An army of Eloi unleashed on a world of Morlocks.
Then they came, released from the opening ceremony, in a temple of Hell-Yeah, where I am told, popular music was played and sincere admonitions to go in peace, to take the Word of Grand Mufti Wigdortz to the four corners of the world, were made. Out they poured, like a World War Z of Virgin air stewards and stewardesses. Lurching. Hungry for brains. My brain.
I thought I was here to do one session of one hour. Turns out I was down to do two sessions of one and a half, so I did what I do and busked for the last half hour. Veterans of my presentations – not to mention former students – will be familiar with my Olympic levels of padding. Next time there's a rain delay at Wimbledon, I should be there in the commentary box.
Both sessions were pleasingly stuffed with...well, with normal teachers. With teachers like I was (composed, perhaps of better synthetic alloys and longer battery lives). Just as nervous about behaviour, just as paralysed with imposter syndrome, just as incapable of not giving a damn. In short, they were teachers, no tougher or younger than any others I have met. Ambitious, yes, determined, yes. But just like any other. Who could wish them anything else but success?
The Temple of BOOM
Granted, they have to meet two midnights a month in the Teach First Sepulchre to summon Cthulhu to assess their value added. Ok, so their robes frighten the primary kids a little. And the requirement that third-year novices commit a murder "to prove their commitment" deters some from embracing the concept. But no one's perfect. (Apart from dread lord Baphomet, obviously, who feasts on the souls of those who leave the programme).
But I'm a fan. It's one path into teaching, and not one of the people I've met see themselves as superior in any way. They're too busy busting their guts and trying to teach as well as possible to be snooty. Much recent research (such as the CfBT's analysis of the London miracle) has been kind to them. I see a lot of people who might not have been teachers otherwise. Teach First appear to be bending themselves in knots providing the healthiest, most relevant training programme they can to build (perhaps literally) the best teachers they can to serve the children of want. Preach it.