“the whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows” – Sydney J. Harris

This week I started my training with Teach First, a charity that aims to address educational disadvantage by transforming exceptional graduates into effective, inspirational teachers and leaders in all fields. In the UK, the factor that is most crucial in determining a child’s educational success is their parental income. The Teach First cohort (totalling 997 participants in 7 different regions this year) undergoes 6 intensive weeks of training before being placed in challenging schools for two years in order to start tackling this systematic inequality and give deprived kids the same chances as privileged ones.

No pressure, then.

I’m in total awe at Teach First’s mission, values, statements of intended impact and the quality and depth of the Leadership Development Programme which every participant is a part of. One week in, and we’ve already researched learning theories, talked about legislation, values and principles and vision. Acronyms such as B4L, SEN, EAL, HAPs and AFL fall from our lips easily as fruit. We’ve learned how to plan lessons and what the role of a teacher is, why our subject is important. We’ve started working on the three strands of the Leadership Development Programme. We know about Bloom’s taxonomy and Kolb’s learning cycle. We’ve planned, taught and reflected on microteaching sessions, and so much more. In short, we are well on the way to becoming teachers. We’re all scared, but we’re all confident and excited. We know what we need to work on and what to expect.

To be honest, I could outline all the values and so on here and talk about them, but I actually wanted to talk about the things that stand above that, the things I’ve learned this week that are fast becoming my personal driving force. We’ve been told from day one that the next two years are going to be phenomenally difficult. We’re going into very challenging classrooms with very little teaching and often huge amounts of pressure from Ofsted to improve. Most of us will be moving to a brand new place. We are going from 0 to 100 in a very short space of time. Scared? I’m absolutely terrified. So I need to remember why I’m here, so that when all my energy has been sapped and I’m miserable and tired and alone, I’ll still be able to get up in the morning and teach my kids.

Why do I want to be a teacher?

In 2008, I saw a programme called “Can’t Read, Can’t Write”. It followed a group of adults who were illiterate – as in, they didn’t even know their alphabet. As far as I remember they were all white working class people of different ages and genders. Phil Beadle, an excellent if somewhat obnoxious teacher, was tasked with getting these adults to learn basic literacy in a very short space of time. One adult stuck out particularly to me; her name was Linda and she really struggled with learning the alphabet, moreso than the other participants. Eventually Phil took a different tack: he got her to mould the letters out of plastecine. After literally two or three goes, Linda suddenly knew her alphabet by heart. I thought she would be happy. Instead she was furious. Furious at the education system that had told her that she was thick, stupid, dumb, good for nothing. Furious because it turned out she was pretty damn smart – within a few weeks she was reading Shakespeare. Furious because she had been cast aside at a young age because her mind worked differently.

My one certain joy has always been reading, and so when I saw how upset and angry Linda was, I knew I wanted to do my best to ensure that no one I taught would ever leave school unable to read and write. From then I was pretty much set on being a teacher one day.

What keeps me going?

A girl called Rosie, who I met when she was about 8 or 9 on an outreach programme. Unbelievably smart and cheeky, with a passion for performing arts. Her mother told her she would never get further than working the checkout at Sainsbury’s. That was in 2007. I have every hope that Rosie is now preparing to take her GCSEs, and then go on to A levels and college or University. But I don’t know this for sure. This uncertainty, paradoxically, keeps me going. Rosie is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to smart, brave kids who are knocked down by systematic inequality, hopelessness and a lack of social opportunity.

That, and poetry, above all.

What’s shocked me this week?

– Hearing from a Teach First member of staff and ambassador, who, when he was teaching, encountered a family with two boys at the same school. The boys had a terrible attendance record – they would come into school on alternate days. Eventually the parents were called in to tell the school what was going on. It turned out they were so poor that they could only afford one uniform. The boys had to take turns to come in to school.
– Learning that a lot of the schools that Teach First work with don’t have a library, and that more often than not, core texts that are studied at GCSE can’t be taken out of the school because there are simply not enough to go around. This means that kids will often go into their GCSE exams having never read a core text – or indeed any text – all the way through.
– The levels of differentiation, even in sets that are formed according to ability. Even in set one you get kids who are much, much less able than their peers. It’s worse in lower sets.
– The extent of poverty and deprivation in one of the world’s richest countries.

What have I learned?
– That education as it stands actually perpetuates inequality. I mean, I knew the education system was unequal but for some reason I didn’t make the connection. We watched a really excellent video that isn’t perfect, but it is very slick and goes some way to explaining why this is. It’s worrying that we are going into a system which actually reproduces inequality at the same time as working to give equal chances to all kids. It’s reassuring that Teach First also produces research, policy and recommendations that aim, step by step, to address this problem.
– That I can’t change the world in a day and I shouldn’t try to.
– That I’m going to fail not once, but many, many times over the next two years. This is scary as I’ve never properly crashed and burned at anything, coming from the background that I do.
– That my two degrees (1st class honours BA English & American Lit, and MA English Lit) have absolutely no relevance in the classroom.
– That not everyone cares about or even knows about Educational Disadvantage, and even amongst the people that do (within the TF cohort) there is a lot of disagreement and debate about what it looks like and how it could/should be tackled.
– That loving English and wanting kids to love English is just as good a reason to teach English as any.
– That clinging to the idea of education as important because it gives kids “a stake in society” is utterly pointless given that the kids I’ll be teaching have absolutely no clue what it is like to have a stake in society.
– That I am really, really bad at English grammar.
– That kids are amazing, capable, brilliant, and come out with the most hilarious stuff that will literally have you spilling over with laughter.
– That one-on-one work with kids, even for 20 minutes, has a massive effect.
– That wine and/or gin are going to become my very close friends. Luckily we are already well acquainted.
– That it’s okay to be angry and frustrated and hold onto this “WHAT THE FUCK” mentality when thinking about how horribly unfair the education system is and how much work needs to be done to change it.
– That it was stupid to think I could take a designer handbag into a deprived school and not feel like a total hypocrite.
– That I am absolutely, completely, 100%, without a doubt in the right place, at the right time, doing the right training, for a career that despite making me cry, scream and despair on a regular basis, is absolutely what I was meant to do.

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5 responses to ““the whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows” – Sydney J. Harris

  1. This made for a fascinating read and I’m in the process of applying for Teach First myself – may I ask where you’re based?

    • Hi Charli, thank you 🙂 I’m going to be based in Stoke-on-Trent so currently I’m training in Birmingham as part of Regional Summer Institute, we get to visit several local schools as part of that as well. I highly recommend applying as it’s been a great experience so far – if you need any tips let me know. One thing I would say is apply early as it’s getting more competitive each year!

  2. Wow. You’ve learned a lot in a week! This was an inspiring read and it’s great to hear such a reasoned and open-eyed approach to starting TF. I’m coming into my 8th year with TF and didn’t have this level of insight when I started out. Good luck, I look forward to reading more.

  3. Insightful, well-written piece. It’s a shame that more people aren’t able to escape the Warwick mentality and look to make a positive impact on society in their choice of careers. Best of luck with Teach First, I’ll be following your blog with interest.

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