The Tough Young Teachers strike back: Review, episode four
Four episodes in, and the Young Teachers, perhaps Tough at first, are now showing signs of being tenderised by the loving mallet of experience. High hopes and ambition are fine things, but the December blizzards of term one tend to dessicate the more unrealistic of classroom ambitions.
One teacher in particular had been whacked over the head with that mallet more than most. Last week's episode of Wigdortz's Angels left us on a cliff edge like Flash Gordon in an old chapter play: would Meryl defeat the Mud Men of Year 11 and escape Principal Ming's unsatisfactory observation ray? The prospect of this cosmic injustice animated me so much that I was moved to double blog about it. But this week we were almost cheated of a third act, as Meryl endured her millionth observation, apparently on the day they returned from Christmas, to receive a nod so grudgingly given that it must have made a dusty squeak as it left, like a trapped fart, from her mentor. "Better," the suggestion went, "But we're watching you, greenhorn." The guillotine had been stayed, not stopped.
Even Nick, who so far has been terrifyingly competent and effective, has started to topple from his pedestal. His harder classes have begun to dig in their mulish hooves, and become resistant to even his fun games with sums on the floor. Fancy that. Observations are beginning to chime the same, sonorous peal of concern, and the halo has started to slide. Meryl, who has lived in this jungle all term, was the perfect guide for him: "Step into my world and my office," she said to the clearly frazzled Nick, bewildered by the possibility that things weren't perfect. She'd lived so long on the edge, she could nap there.
Meanwhile, over at Crown Woods School, Oliver was up to his inspirational tricks again. Not satisfied with setting fires under their asses with quotes from Marilyn Gandhi, he was going to dazzle his Year 12s with a motivational trip to a lecture about accountancy, like a junior Mr Banks. Which I'm sure would be inspirational to a good number of people; actuaries, for example. He made Rookie Error #382 by expecting them all to meet him at a specific time and place that was a) in the morning and b) more than five feet from their bedrooms. Experience and disappointment will teach him that the only way to herd those free spirits is by scooping them up in a minibus from base camp, luring them in with Skittles and cat Vines.
Oliver provided this episode's "Horrified face of the week" when his students informed him that their ambitions lay, not in the dazzling world of the Crimson Permanent Assurance, but to be the floor manager at Argos. It was like watching Brian Sewell eat a Pop Tart. And I salute any man who braves red trousers in public.
I was beginning to think that Chloe, the second-year veteran of the programne, had had all of her scenes left in a bunch of rushes on the cutting room floor. Twelve months makes a helluva difference to a teacher: the job will pinch and weather you into shape and if you're lucky, it'll be a good shape; if you're not, it'll be just good enough to get by. We got to spend more time with her this week, and it seemed like a year of school room sand blasting had polished her; her carriage and tone with the kids was a terrific blend of Mickey Goldmill and a cheerleader. Her arc involved the Greek Tragedy of trying to move a whole range of mountains before an imminent GCSE exam. She gave them a pep talk as old as time, five lessons prior to their gauntlet: "You're not ready," she said. I was howling at the telly for a wag to shout, "Miss, we were born ready!" – as one wit did to me years ago, before proving himself wrong in the crucible of assessment.
Finally, this week's heartwarming tale of virtue rewarded and lessons learned was brought to you by the letter W, for Wallendahl and Walid. Walid, this episode's student-of-the-week, is a boy who could be a Jungian archetype for classrooms across the world: smart enough, but a bit of a clown, and a capacity for self-restraint that resembled a mousetrap sitting on a Buckeroo playing Operation. When they made him, they kept the mould and filled entire schools with such avatars of thwarted possibility, p*ssed up against a lamp-post. Charles, his RE teacher, was determined to put a dent in his self-destruction by reading the riot tablets to his mum at parents' evening. The only problem – engineered by Walid – was that Mum didn't have enough English to comprehend Charles' solemn diagnosis of her son's ability. Charles would say, "He's seriously underperforming, and his behaviour is scandalous," and Walid would translate as, "He says I'm the finest student he's ever seen, and he wants to give us half his fortune". "If Walid doesn't pull his socks up, he'll fail this": "Would you like a nice hot chocolate?", etc.
Charles, in what appears to be a Tough Young Teachers emergent meme, decided that the best way to get the best out of Walid was to take him to a farm for a five day jolly. Presumably all the pheasant shooting was booked up for that week, so Walid and his comrades had to settle for lambing, marshmallows round camp fires and other things so alien to their urban comfort bathyspheres that I'm surprised they didn't get the Bends.
We then witnessed the extraordinary potential of residential trips to forge powerful experiences and sometimes – if you're lucky – relationships and bonds from those shared events. I've seen how spending some time with your kids away from the desk can transform the way you interact forever more. Of course, we don't have the time or resources to do this with every kid, but it's powerful voodoo if you can. And of course, there's something of deep magic about swapping exhaust fumes for camp smoke and earning every luxury rather than drowning in it, from a warm bed to a shower. A fire in the woods in the dark can do more to hypnotise and gather a body than a year in therapy.
The question is, was this a lasting breakthrough, as we saw Charles and Walid ponder the great World Dragon together, or would it be a holiday from reality, a mere intermission between episodes of lesson-dodging? Not even the man in the red trousers knew.