Inner cities: the land of opportunities...

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Working in a deprived neighbourhood may seem daunting. And it is. But, says Tim Brighouse, it's the most stimulating place for NQTs to launch their careers

Urban challenges are the best way to start your teaching career, provided you can satisfy two conditions. First, you need to be an energy creator - a "how we could" optimist rather than a "why we can't" pessimist; a glass half-full not half-empty; a silver lining not a cloud. Second, you need to have a nose for what works in teaching and learning, and a sense of humour to match.

If you then choose your school well - and that is vital for any beginning teacher - you will learn fast. In the outer-ring estates, and especially the inner cities, you can accelerate the voyage of your becoming a highly-skilled professional.

You learn "pace" and can soon extend your repertoire of classroom strategy to "unlock the mind and open the shut chambers of the heart", as a Victorian once described the baffling intricacies of the urban pupil.

In most urban areas, there are many learning opportunities for the new teacher. They can extend their knowledge of the various cultures and languages, and the rich diversity of their pupils. I came across a beginner teacher in a Birmingham school recently one morning as she took the class register. The class were eagerly correcting her pronunciation. "No Miss, it is 'Tarleem', not 'Taylem'," they were saying excitedly.

This talented teacher told me she had set herself the task of learning 100 words of Urdu in her first year. She claimed it made a huge difference to her teaching as the pupils' self-esteem was lifted by her evident interest and growing knowledge of their culture. Certainly, the children's delight was evident.

She had chosen her school well. The head and the staff were enthusiastic about their pupils' potential because, as they said, they are already "bilingual" and their parents have shown the "get up and go" to move half-way across the world to give their families a better future.

The children and their families represent huge potential for improved performance, especially when they encounter talented teachers, many of whom themselves come from a diversity of cultures. At least that is what we find in Birmingham.

What is more, as a new teacher in an urban environment, you are likely to find a rich menu of in-service courses available among the local education service's various contributors, whether it be the authority itself, colleges or universities.

You will not be alone because there will be lots of people learning with you and sharing the subtleties of early practice that make the difference between you struggling and enjoying success.

Of course, it is one of the ironies and attractions of the cosmopolitan city that there are extremes of wealth and poverty. The common wealth is there to help. Take Birmingham as an example. There is the International Convention Centre, Symphony Hall, the ballet, the National Indoor Arena, a major theatre and many professional arts groups, not to mention Aston Villa and Birmingham City football clubs, the Edgbaston cricket ground, Birchfield Harriers, the Birmingham Bullets and a host of other contemporary music and entertainment attractions. All have their ducational programmes for teachers.

But there is more. We have just persuaded the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra - and doubtless the rest will follow suit - to contribute two complimentary tickets to every newly-qualified teacher during their first year. In doing so, we intend to replenish our young teachers' energy levels by providing them with cultural experiences for their lives outside work.

And, in the large conurbations, there is usually a choice of universities with international reputations, as well as a range of specialist further education colleges: so opportunities for future qualifications and training are on your doorstep. That represents a huge advantage to the teacher who wants to add further strings to their bow, so that their range and choice at the next stage of their career is the greater.

It is in the larger cities, too, that there is a shared and, therefore, stronger agenda of practitioners from different disciplines who are committed to cracking the cycle of urban deprivation.

You will be certain to find colleagues who are at the leading edge of practice so that opportunities to extend skills and interests become extensive.

So what is the downside to the challenge of the inner city and outer-ring estates? First, as I implied at the start, you need to be confident that you will be good at what you do and have a deep sense of commitment. Second, it is important to avoid becoming isolated. For instance, a teacher in a deprived and challenging school - in an otherwise affluent area - faces difficulties that the beginning teacher would be wise to avoid.

But all the disadvantages in an urban area can be turned to opportunities. Many stay within the city for their whole career. Many more, having caught the bug of making the difference that contributes to a rise in standards, go on to more favourably positioned schools, only to be tempted back later.

Whatever you choose for your first year in teaching, you will learn a lot. You will learn whether it is your right career choice, of course. But, on the assumption it is, the inner city offers chances of accelerated learning.

Whatever you do, insist you have plenty of chances to observe others teach as well as be observers. Insist, too, that you work in a group that plans a lesson collaboratively and then compares notes as each takes it in turn to teach it. Remember, your pupils are special, but so are you.

In the end, I suppose it is down to mindset. You have a choice: if you expect disaster in the urban environment, you will certainly find it.

On the other hand, you can see yourself as part of a great enterprise - a chosen generation of teachers poised and destined to make the personal commitment that makes the difference and finally closes equality gaps and sets aside social disadvantage.

As a general inspector in London said: "The teacher who treats their groups as stars will have as many stars as they wish, and the teacher who believes that they are working on the front line because they are working in a multi-racial inner-city school will have as many battles as they could fear."

Come and join us: you will never be bored.

Professor Tim Brighouse is Birmingham's chief education officer


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