Bright lights and hard truths: this is Teach First

We take a peek inside its high-octane summer training camp

Stephen Exley

A buzz of excitement is in the air as smoke swirls around the First Direct Arena. Psychedelic blue lighting dances across the stage at Leeds' 13,000-capacity entertainment venue, eventually coming to rest on a leather sofa that looks as if it has been borrowed from the set of a daytime chat show.

The venue officially opened last year with a spectacular concert by Elton John. Today's event, however, is somewhat different. The 3,000 young people in the audience are dressed in smart shirts and ties and demure dresses. The thumping music fades away as the lights pan to the left, illuminating two words spelled out in giant blue letters: Teach First.

In the distance, a figure dressed in a casual shirt and beige chinos strolls on to the stage. Cheers and applause echo around the arena as members of the audience recognise the smiling face below them. For those in any doubt, his Twitter handle (@Wigdortz) is displayed on a giant screen behind him.

The speaker is Brett Wigdortz, who founded Teach First 12 years ago with the aim of enticing the brightest graduates to teach in the toughest schools. Since then, the charity has grown to become the biggest recruiter of university-leavers in the UK. Next month, it will place 1,550 new teachers at schools in England and Wales.

This is Teach First's residential Summer Institute, the focal point of the six-week training programme designed to prepare fresh recruits for the day, one month from now, when they will find themselves in front of a classroom full of students for the first time.

"Welcome to our 2013 participants! Where are you?" Mr Wigdortz calls, prompting half the audience to whoop and cheer. "It's great to see you guys. A year older, a year wiser and even better teachers. And where are our 2014s, who are about to start?" The other half obediently scream and shout.

The day's first speaker, Mr Wigdortz announces, is a man his six-year-old child calls "Mr Happy": positive psychology guru Tal Ben-Shahar, author of international best-selling books Happier and Being Happy. "He's here today with 3,000 of the best leaders in Britain, who are working with tens of thousands of children to help close the achievement gap, and he's in Leeds, so it's impossible for him not to be happy," Mr Wigdortz says.

The celebratory mood already seems firmly entrenched. "One outcome of Teach First holding Summer Institute in Leeds is that the Wetherspoons has run out of wine glasses," Teach First director Sam Freedman tweeted the previous evening. And Mr Ben-Shahar is keen to keep the positivity flowing. "Give yourselves a round of applause for being teachers," he shouts.

Crash course

Within the educational establishment, Teach First has proved divisive. Supporters laud its positive impact on thousands of students and resolute focus on closing the attainment gap; critics compare the movement to an evangelical cult promoting its own agenda for social change, based on a presumption that its high-flying recruits can do a better job than their experienced colleague in the classroom next door.

A scan through the timetable of classes on offer to the recruits during Summer Institute provides sufficient evidence to satisfy both camps. On the one hand, sessions entitled "Leading with Purpose", "Using Mindfulness Strategies" and "Building your Personal Brand" would probably provoke eye-rolling among Teach First's detractors. On the other, classes on dealing with forced marriages, female genital mutilation and the "stress and anxiety" of the job sound firmly grounded in the harsh realities of teaching.

TES behaviour guru Tom Bennett is leading a session on how to assert authority in the classroom. "Your room, your rules," he pronounces. "You're in charge. There are no two ways about it.

"Get your head around it: you're not a tall chum. Accept the fact you're an adult, even if you might not feel it. I bet some of you right now are feeling acute fraud syndrome."

The room fills with the sound of nervous laughter.

"When I started out," Mr Bennett continues, "my heart was brimming with love. Gushing with love. Overflowing. Notice the past tense there.

"Now it brims with something more powerful and enduring. It brims with optimism and a realistic sense of enthusiasm. You mustn't be frivolously optimistic and think, `It's going to be great and these children are going to love me.' They're going to break your heart unless you can manage to create a whisker of distance between you and them."

Sharp intakes of breath can be heard as Mr Bennett regales the recruits with a story about the time he spotted a male student pleasuring himself during a lesson. With deliciously awkward timing, Mr Freedman sidles in at the back of the classroom. A momentarily flustered Mr Bennett mumbles something about "throwing a jacket over it". "Not mine," he hastily points out before returning to more conventional behaviour management strategies.

Excited and nervous

Two weeks ago, Christopher Ruddy graduated from the University of Manchester. Next month, he starts work at Alfreton Grange Arts College, a school in special measures in a former mining town in Derbyshire. "I'd never heard of [Alfreton]," he admits, "but it's not too much of a drive for a geography student." He quickly corrects himself: "A geography teacher."

It was the Teach First mission that appealed to him, he says. "The whole challenge attracted me: being thrown straight in at the deep end; the very specific vision they work towards. I'm from a working-class background so it resonates with me, having benefited from a good state education myself."

Starting out at such a challenging school is a "daunting" prospect, Mr Ruddy says, but he's been impressed with what he's seen so far and can't wait to get started. "It is nerve-wracking, but it's exciting nerves. I'm more excited than nervous, I think.

"The biggest challenge is accepting you're not going to be the best teacher straight away; that constant reflection and knowing you'll be making mistakes, but trying to keep that positive mindset that you will get there."

This summer's event also marks a significant moment in Mr Wigdortz's own journey. The inaugural Teach First Summer Institute in 2002 had a cohort of just 186 graduates, but the programme has evolved rapidly since then.

Today, the trainees receive a week's training in a university setting before spending a total of four weeks in two separate schools, including the one where they will be working. After one more week in a university in the region where they will be based, they all come together for the fortnight-long Summer Institute.

This is a key part of the team-building process, Mr Wigdortz says. "There's a lot of vision setting, which sounds kind of out there, but one of the things we've found is that the most successful teachers in any school are the ones who are very clear where they want their kids to go, and can communicate their vision for the classroom.

"A lot of teachers often feel it's a lonely job, and that once they close the classroom door they are by themselves. One of the things we feel strongly is that the best teachers have a strong support system. It shouldn't be a lonely job, it should be a collaborative job."

Judging by the enthusiastic crowds and sense of shared mission at the First Direct Arena, loneliness is not the recruits' greatest concern.

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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