Steady as you go

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Young talent is leaking from the profession because newcomers expect instant results, argues Tony Sewell

We need teachers who have the guts of Kelly Holmes, not those who will give up like Paula Radcliffe. I remember my first day teaching English in an inner-city London school. In those days, the philosophy was based on that deeply theoretical discourse known as "Throw them in at the deep end." I was given the worst class in the school to teach. The school saw me as a piece of fresh meat and they threw the carniverous classes my way.

I hate those To Sir with Love stories, where the young hero arrives with a special technique that suddenly makes the children love him. That wasn't my reality - I was hopeless in those early days but I stuck at it. I was like one of those old-time runners who crawled over the line, totally exhausted.

I was unsupported and certainly underpaid, but I loved teaching. The school I taught in would have failed every Ofsted test - but I knew that after that experience I could take on anything. I still remember rolling on the floor with two boys who had burst into my room fighting - it was like something out of the Wild West. They shattered the glass door over a girl who was sitting down. That was, by the way, a relatively good day.

I have no doubt, though, having been a pupil and a teacher, that schools were more violent in the past - by a long chalk. Our tolerance level for violence and abuse has changed, and rightly so, but children are no worse today than they were when I set out.

So when I read the new report from the London School of Economics that talks of teachers quitting the profession, with many newly qualified teachers falling at the first hurdle, it makes my blood boil. Like Paula Radcliffe in the Olympics, they are giving up because they are not having an easy victory. According to the LSE report, the profession is recruiting more teachers; it just has trouble keeping them.

There are two problems here: one is about self-belief and having the guts to stick with a difficult programme; the other is that too many young teachers think they can be "social engineers" and fix all the problems of inner-city youth, merely by doing their best in the classroom. It's a rude awakening to find that children are the products of their parents, their peer group and way too much cola. My advice to new teachers? Don't do your first job in a failing school, as I did. You need to have a positive experience of teaching in these early days, or there's a good chance you'll end up bitter and cynical for the rest of your life. Don't try and be some kind of working-class hero who is trying to save the wretched of the earth.

It's simple: find a school that works, where you will get the support you're going to need, and begin to learn your craft. When you're seasoned, then start think about taking on some tough challenges.

And if today's fall-out rate is to be believed, then there is still a large group of newly qualified teachers who simply need to get a grip. Stay away from cynical, burnt-out staffroom lags who really should have retired a long time ago. Sometimes I think young teachers look at these cynics and think that they're looking at themselves in ten years time, so they do a runner. Remember: teaching is a long- distance race, not a sprint.

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