Tough Young Teachers, episode 2: Blonde ambition

17th January 2014 at 00:17





There is an odd dislocation between the way we treat students and the way we treat new teachers. The former are feted; the latter learn to love the lash. I have marvelled at the chutzpah of teacher trainers who advocate group work and discovery learning, while preaching to an amphitheatre of silent, recipient sponges sitting in rows and columns, dissolving in irony. We see something similar in this week's tent-pole teacher TV: Tough Young Teachers, episode 2.


The honeymoon for our magnificent six Teach First greenhorns, we are told solemnly by the voice over, is over. Now, the behaviour wave has started to swell, and Team Wigdortz have their own idea of what they'll have to do to avoid wiping out. "Making lessons engaging and exciting," said Oliver, as earnest as a child. I can forgive a rookie anything, because the whole point of training is to get better, but I wished that someone had put him straight on this beforehand: your lesson can bristle with magic and novelty, planned to the second, brimming with depth, mystery and detail, and if the pupils don't want to work, can't be bothered, or simply haven't taken to you, then all your ambition will be dashed against the cliff face of their indifference.


More, the expectation that all lessons should engage and excite entirely misses one axiom of learning: sometimes, it simply isn't fun. Anything worth achieving, anything valuable, takes graft, hours of practice and noses pressed to grindstones. What will you do then, when the fun melts? And what if your idea of engagement – inspirational quotes from Marilyn Monroe, for example – isn't their idea of engagement? No, Oliver had been poorly advised: "engagement = good behaviour" is teacher myth #773.


Nick and Claudenia both had a touching faith in what they imagine was their thousand-mile stares, although all I got through the screen was Paddington Bear. What was more convincing, was their trepidation. "I look like a 13-year-old", confessed Meryl, who bleeds sincerity and humility. She's the most outwardly invested in the role: teaching chose her, rather than the reverse, even defying her parents to do so. There's probably something still very wrong with the image of teaching, when parents clutch their bosoms in sorrow to imagine their offspring falling into the speakeasy world of sin that is jazz, liquor and teaching.


And there was indeed trouble in River City: Meryl's GCSE class enjoyed using her as a piñata, especially, it appeared, when she was being observed, the little sods. Did I hear one of them shout "Morning Meryl!" at her? I nearly reached through the telly to end the little Jasper. Depressingly, some kids interviewed even knew that they were being out of order, suggesting that she "needed to get more strict" with them, which is a bit like pushing someone down the stairs and saying sorry.


Nick fell into myth number two: "If the class is bad, it's never the class – it's always the teacher." Like I say, I can forgive any amount of naïveté when it's served up with as much conviction and altruism as these Alpha teachers convey. But this is madness: kids aren't helpless vessels of our invention, proxy indicators of our vice and virtue. A good teacher makes all the difference, but lazy cops don't cause burglaries. Why is it the teacher's fault? Why not the agent of the behaviour? If we invest in their emergent autonomy, doesn't that also indicate responsibility, duty, and a commitment to free will? Of course, carrying your own water is the mark of ambitious, independent people everywhere, but when it becomes self-immolation, then stubbornness has outlived its usefulness. 


This is an important debate: teachers are harrowed by some line management for lessons like Meryl's, with kids doing the American Smooth across the table tops while in the background a clipboard dances to the pen of an observer, who is frowning. The lie many schools give is that such measures are "support". The truth is often the double standard I mentioned at the start of this piece: children are given a revolving door of chances to improve, infinite lives, a snooze alarm that lasts all the way into the real world, but new teachers are often treated like they've broken parole as soon as things go wrong. And quickly, the support is revealed to be not support, but an ejector seat. A lucky timetable or a few bottom sets of Expendables can be all the difference it takes to make or murder a certification.


Over at Archbishop Lanfranc School, Charles Wallendahl was preaching to crows in his religious studies class. Caleb and Joel, last week's nemeses, had clung to their apostasy, and there would be no Damascan conversions from them. Their determination to tell Charles just how hard his lesson simultaneously blew and sucked was the common narrative of every teacher with tough classes. Sent outside, Caleb played his harp as piously as he could, blaming his laziness on the crap teacher, the crap teaching, on everything but himself. In a moment of clarity he admitted he thought that he would somehow get the grades and succeed, but that this was probably not the Greatest Plan in the World.


Claudenia ran into what will undoubtedly not be her last rudey picture, an imaginatively egg- like nude with the legend "Sir Cheese" in bold font next to it. One teacher advised her to shrug it off; others – perhaps tellingly, also women – counselled war, rightly so in my opinion. If a boy feels confident enough to draw fannies in class and leave them for his teacher to find, he's odd enough to warrant the cold shower of a sincere bollocking to stay his poet's soul in future. If anyone can tell me what the hell Sir Cheese was, I would be in your debt.


Oliver was still wriggling in his own personal BTEC hell: apathy, the universal solvent of education. The students wanted every morsel on their plate cut up and chewed for them, and Oliver was gamely trying to teach them independent research skills. But, as one astute student pointed out to camera, they needed the basics before they could do independent work. Unlike toddlers and swimming, throwing students in at the deep end is rarely a good way to get them learning. Start with the alphabet and work up to Shakespeare. Or maybe even a poem.


We ended on a cliffhanger: would Meryl be canned like a pineapple for having the misfortune to teach a class of yahoos? Would Caleb realise that he only had the potential to get a B in his GCSE in the same way I can potentially run a marathon in flip flops? Would Nick realise that confidence, optimism and nuclear levels of positivity, though indisputably necessary conditions for great relationships, weren't sufficient? The joy of this series is that it feels like riding on the shoulder of any new teacher, like Jiminy Cricket. Their struggles are the struggles every teacher encounters. In many ways, they are all of us, and I have nothing but admiration and respect for them. Thursday nights have a new reason to stay in.


  • Other highlights: Charles getting a student name wrong and trying to style it out. "I teach lots of Tatrons", he stammered. No you don't, mate. Incidentally, getting a student name wrong is a short cut to their disdain – rather, it is better to admit your ignorance and politely ask for a reminder, than to make a mistake.
  • Caleb, moved next to the best student in the class in an attempt to achieve some kind of cognitive osmosis. My own teachers always put me next to the mentalists, because I was calm and studious. I remember all I ended up with was a lot of gob on my jumper and a sore face. There are better strategies.
  • Chess as a detention strategy. That won't last long.
  • Meryl (again. She's telly gold) goading her detainee with Justin Bieber as a prompt to catalyse lurid critical writing. She should get them to read the education news pages in the broadsheets, like I do – that usually squeezes a few drops of angry prose out of me.