Review: Tough Young Teachers, episode one
My blood sacrifice worked. No sooner had the chalk smoke settled from the pyre of Educating Yorkshire, than BBC3 (motto: "We'll Even Take Russell Howard Off Your Hands") spoiled us with the latest edu-telly: Tough Young Teachers.
Rarely has a series been anticipated with more schadenfreude than this. "The whole thing deserves to fail on an epic scale," said Mark Watson of the London Metro, echoing a lot of people I heard on social networks, who seemed as angry about the whole premise of Teach First as anything else, and by GOD weren't going to let anything like watching the show get in the way of a decent angry diatribe.
Teach like a champion
The cast was a joy. Where did they find them? Every one was blog gold. I once had reservations about Teach First too, as I trained on a sort-of-predecessor program called Fast Track (motto: "Be in the inspiration" – sadly, I am NOT fussing with you) that attempted to parachute high-fliers and second careerers into war-zone school management; the presumed synergy between being an academic or business alpha and being a good teacher frequently failed to fly. I didn't feel very Fast Track. In fact, I felt just as useless, frustrated, helpless, and thwarted as...well, as Charles, an RE teacher (and therefore a double Sisyphus on his first day, with both a curricular and a pastoral mountain to navigate).
Charles brimmed, like most new teachers, with good intentions, but in a school that kind of crazy thinking will get you slotted. One thing that characterised him and his cohort was a fragile, earnest optimism married to faux-pragmatism: they knew they needed high expectations, positive thinking and barrels of boundless enthusiasm, and had the sense to know it would be tough. But nothing prepares you for the peculiar synthesis of authority and impotence, altruism and resentment that standing in front of a class can give you. You go in wanting to set their lives on fire with the heat of your hope, and some of them couldn't give a ****.
Caleb, one of Charles's disciples, made the point, almost like an initiation hazing. Charles asked him if good and evil were reflections of each other. Caleb was bare confused. Caleb basically told him to stick his lesson where even Ofsted couldn't find it. "I can't get them in trouble for just talking," said Charles, "It's not really misbehaving." I was shaking a fist at the screen like Coleridge's greybeard loon, shouting: "OH YES YOU CAN MATE, TELL HIM HE CAN DO ONE". Low-level disruption is Kryptonite to your lesson. It's dry rot, it's mould, it's rust, it's death by a thousand shrugs. It's very innocuousness makes it dangerous. It's a hand grenade that looks like a hamster. Running a class, the rookies were staring to find, was nothing like Coach Carter. Caleb, in detention afterwards, was as contrite as Carl Panzram: "Blow me, Fed," was the whole of his law.
Charles's good intentions, so devoutly affirmed that dawn, were close to shredding. He didn't quite say "Screw his ungrateful ass, and the horse upon which it rode", but his eyes told a story. A choice moment for me, and one that teachers would have spotted, was his lieutenant Joel, also in trouble, racing through a practiced apology to Charles because it was lunch and he knew what rituals to perform to get away. Ah, the children of the night, what sweet music they make.
Nicholas, the maths teacher, was as earnest and as affable as Charles, and patiently used metaphors that children could relate to in order to grasp negative numbers – snorkelling, something few of my kids do anything but. "She didn't feel ashamed to say I haven't tried," he said, apparently stunned that there existed human beings who didn't really give a monkeys for the shining light of their beautiful inner potential Goddess. The other teachers also ran into this often unspoken iceberg of the classroom: apathy. And I don't mean the listlessness of children who aren't given proper lessons, I mean the shallow nihilism of the child who, presented with exciting, challenging lessons, still wouldn't cross the road to pee on your lessons if they were on fire.
That apathy, that anti-life, is a marker of the classroom. There's a hopelessness in some people's lives, and it isn't just a litmus of financial poverty, but one of aspiration and expectations. No wonder the Duracell Teachers couldn't fathom it – their engines ran on nuclear levels of hope, ambition and drive. That dislocation between the rational self interest of effort, and the self-harm of apathy, is why motivating a class isn't just a matter of entertaining them, or bringing them lessons that are worthy and complex. You cannot make someone care. All you can do is demand good behaviour, bring the lesson, and like cheese, hope they take the bait.
The two stand-out stars of the evening were Meryl and Claudenia. The latter used the Dark Arts to get her lesson started with a bang of increasing levels of vigour: literally, exploding balloons. Which, to be fair, did get their attention, but by the time she was popping her last zeppelin the class was hysterical and, I would guess, impossible to teach. You might as well have unleashed a hive of bees in the room, and produced One Direction, for all the lesson that would ensue. Meryl's bitey-lip anxiety at calling a parent for the first time was touching, warm and human. It seems such a small thing, but she understood the delicacy of the matter. I've seen teachers call home like the Charge of the Light Brigade, and with as much success. Meryl, you superstar.
Then, of course, there was Oliver. If you didn't writhe with empathy to see him turn up for his first lesson only to find the IT had caved on him five minutes before kick-off, I suggest you are cold and dead. I hadn't felt that anxious for a fictional character since Jack Bauer. And our homeboy was being filmed; Christ, I was nearly passing a hat round for the collection.
And, of course, they were doing what every teacher does first day on the job: making mistakes, so that they didn't make them again, or at least made them again, but less. Most of the job is painting a fence; sprinkled through it, like fairy dust, is inspiration, magic and optimism. Teachers who treat the job only like a job will live flat and flatulent lives; those who enter the classroom with eyes brimming with high hopes and nothing else, will weep themselves to sleep, then leave. Making it in this game means you need both; the work ethic of a bricklayer and the soul of a poet. If these teachers seemed too starry-eyed for some, well, I'll take that from a greenhorn a million times more gladly than box-ticking and cynicism. I'd say they did just fine.