On Tough Young Teachers this week, we witnessed a delightfully awkward Charles negotiate a fine line between tragedy and farce at parents’ evening when attempting to sternly inform a non-English speaking mother of her wayward son’s poor exam performance. Walid, the aforementioned naughty, made it quite clear that his mum did not have a good enough grasp of English to understand the gravity of his poor performance, a fact picked up on by Charles as he walked away at the end of the evening, with the kind of deflated skulk only experienced at the end of a long day – and evening – in January.
The show has struck a chord with teachers at all stages of their careers, because of the universality of the experience of training to be a teacher. When I started teaching, as a Teach First participant in an inner city borough, I brought my own naïveté with me. I grew up in a community where the standing joke about Asian parents was that if you went home with a B grade, they’d smack you with a sandal and demand to know why you didn’t get an A before threatening to ship you off to a boarding school in India. The truth was, when I first started teaching, I thought all parents were like that. But they’re not.
In eleven years of teaching, I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want their child to achieve. Even the most difficult parents show you eventually that they care desperately about the health, happiness and future of their children. Parents who do not speak very much English show, sometimes by their very presence, that they care about their child. It is very rarely indifference that makes it difficult for a teacher to enlist a parent’s support in disciplining their child, or helping them to revise. It is almost always a lack of understanding of how to help, the language barrier, the lack of space at home, a problematic personal experience of schools. Like one frustrated father says on the show: “I don’t know how to help him.”
How poignant, then, when Charles’ mum tells him that he might be the only adult in some of those children’s lives who can make the difference. In her words lie a truth about our society and education system. It is problematic that she is held up in contrast to parents on the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. But, she’s right; he can’t give up on the children because they need him to be, in some ways, a substitute parent for his wards – to fill in the gaps left by parents who cannot provide what he can.
It was interesting to see the differing approaches to relationships with students. Meryl, ever the warm hearted idealist, stated that a child’s whole life can be affected by a teacher. Charles’ view was less effusive. There needs to be a degree of separation, he said. “I’m not their father, or their brother.”
All of this brings me back to the phrase ‘in loco parentis’. In 1855, Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester adopted the phrase as its school motto because their student population was made up of orphans. The staff there were literally in the place of the absent parents. However, as teachers in mainstream schools, we are not responsible for orphans – they have parents and we cannot work in isolation from them.
So what do we do when experiencing that sinking feeling at parents’ evening, when you realise that the parent is no more capable of influencing their child’s behaviour than you are? Firstly, resist the urge to speak loudly and slowly if a parent doesn’t speak very much English. Check with children about the language abilities of their parents, speak to other staff and find out before the evening starts. Enlist an interpreter if you can – not the child, as we all know how that can go (“Of course, mum, she’s saying that I’m an excellent student and I don’t need to do homework ever again…!”) An older student who speaks the same language will do the job nicely. Even better if the school has invested in staff who reflect the ethnic make up of the student population and community – interpreting staff are an invaluable asset.
We spend a lot of time as teachers debating as to whether we can be substitute parents, ‘raising’ children in schools that are open all hours. What if we spent some time ‘raising’ parents? This week, I spent an hour helping to teach a group of parents how to speak English. It was a humbling experience as it showed me that I may have to discard some of my frustrations with parents who do not know how to support their children – as their frustration is worse. And it is not just about parents who don’t speak very much English.
Parental engagement and support is absolutely vital in schools for parents of every walk of life – and it is often seen as such a Herculean feat that many schools do not attempt it. When it is committed to, it can change the educational experience of students, staff and parents alike. It’s worth it because everybody wins and parents’ evenings are suddenly less painfully awkward. It’s worth it for that alone!
First published on the Communitas PR Tough Young Teachers blog here
Is it ever a good idea to write an article about your first year of teaching, especially if you have chosen to quit? Last week saw the online publication of ‘Why I quit Teach First’ in Management Today, written by an anonymous graduate who has chosen to leave the programme for a cavalcade of reasons, but mostly as a result of what she deems to be poor training and preparation.
I started my journey with Teach First in 2003 as part of the first cohort. Prior to application, I had imagined I would work in publishing, or in journalism – my childish desires to be a teacher (influenced, I am reluctant to admit, by an unhealthy obsession with Anne of Green Gables) had been summarily nixed by my own teachers who told me to be better than that. I attended the six weeks training, provided solely then by Canterbury Christchurch University – and it was made up of visits to local schools, lectures, seminars on professional standards and subject studies. We had to read, research and become familiar with the key educational theories. We had what has been termed ‘inspiring talks’ but at no point did I feel that wasn’t necessary. I liked the fact that I was doing something that might make a difference. I liked the esprit de corps instilled in the group – and recognised years later that it was entirely fundamental to the Teach First movement. To build confidence, to create a lasting sense of collegiality, to encourage debate and discussion, to instil a lifelong desire to give something back as well as to learn to teach – those were the enduring impressions of the training I received.
Of course I didn’t feel prepared, but that wasn’t because I hadn’t been given essential training. Who does feel prepared to stand in front of children and teach on the first day? My first year is a hazy memory now, but yes, the children misbehaved, they didn’t always follow instructions. But I knew that wasn’t because I hadn’t had enough training. I knew it was because I hadn’t found the right strategies yet. Teaching is a constant battle to refine strategies. No one can tell you the theory and expect you go and do just those things; the best teachers I know (PGCE or Teach First) are the ones who stand in front of a difficult class and know that when they go home, they will need to examine the dozens of reasons why the lesson didn’t go as planned. I am reminded of my favourite quotation, one that I stuck to my classroom wall next to my desk in that first year.
“I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised.” Dr Haim Ginott.
A criticism that is often levelled at the Teach First training route is the one that starts with: “yes, but what about the children?” The implication is that having a Teach First teacher, learning on the job is somehow detrimental to the children’s learning. It is a criticism that could be levelled at a PGCE student on their school placements, or someone on the old GTP route. It is naive to declare that PGCE students aren’t left alone with classes during their placements. It does happen – scratch the surface and all sorts of odd things happen. My experience of having my own classes as a Teach First participant was not unusual. I felt that I needed to get better at teaching and fortunately, I had support from my in-school mentors and from the university that provided my training. I was subject to observations just like anyone else and the feedback was useful. I adapted, I learned and by the end of the year, even though I still didn’t feel like I was a proper teacher, I knew that I hadn’t let the students down. I had GCSE classes that performed well. I was ready for the new year, armed with professional experience that was invaluable to me.
I didn’t contemplate leaving. Drop out rates in the first year are minimal. My own experience as a Professional Mentor for Teach First over the past ten years has taught me that. Where people have chosen to leave, they have done so for personal reasons – something they may have done if they had completed a PGCE. My concern about articles such the one that I mentioned earlier, along with other critics of Teach First is that it s very rare to see a measured opinion, complete with comparative statistics for retention. This may be because those statistics are quite hard to find, simply because there are so many variables. Do we compare drop out rates between the initial PGCE year and the first Teach First year? Or the NQT year for PGCE students and the first year Teach Firsters? How do we know how many PGCE students are still teaching at the end of the second year? If not, what is their destination?
The fundamental fact is that teachers are being deployed in challenging schools – in 2003 who could have predicted that ten years from now a charity placing teachers in challenging schools would be the number one graduate employer? It says something about Teach First and the inspiring talks and the expansion currently taking place. Expansion is necessary and I welcome it. London is a city with an excellent track record of school improvement and this is sorely needed in other regions. Teach First have identified regions where socio-economic factors impede attainment – places that teachers do not see as desirable locations to work. Expansion will always be problematic at the start, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen.
What do I know about teacher training? I know that some of my most respected colleagues completed PGCEs and some of them came into teaching via Teach First. I don’t judge them on their training but on their ability to teach and to be consummate professionals in a job that requires strength and leadership.
Ten years ago, I understood that people may be sceptical at the commencement of a new training scheme and I experienced some intense negativity. No one likes change, no one likes the idea that the way they did something may have an alternative. But ten years on, with hard evidence that the programme works just as well as any other, with teaching now seen as a credible profession for the best graduates, maybe it is about time we gave Teach First a break.
Having just been at the national opening ceremony of the Teach First Summer Institute 2012, I have been considering the fate of all 997 of those smiling, fresh-faced new teachers. They are about to embark on one of the hardest journeys a young professional can experience; they are about to start teaching in tough, inner-city schools.
It is when I reflect on my own experience of starting to teach that I realise that I missed a fundamental aspect of my training as a teacher in my first year. In theory, I was supposed to have an in-department mentor and a professional mentor to ensure that was able to develop into a fully-fledged and functional member of the staff team. I had one mentor from my university provider, through Teach First, but the in school provision can only be summed up as a perfunctory attempt at ticking boxes on forms. It can’t even be described as half-hearted; it was more, for want of a better word, half-arsed.
When I looked at the new recruits at this opening ceremony, I knew that some of them would have excellent mentors and some would be stuck in schools where mentoring is a by-word for accountability and making sure someone does their job properly. Some would be in places that gave a peremptory nod towards the mentoring process by adding a timetabled hour to two individuals’ timetables and felt quite pleased with themselves. Anyone who has ever been passionate about the power of mentoring in fostering the latent talent in new teachers will know, as they read this, that mentoring is more than a timetabled hour. It is a commitment to the progress and welfare of another human being.
Firstly, the ambition of the mentor is vital. If you are a new teacher, there’s nothing more exciting than hearing someone tell you that the journey to being an outstanding teacher has begun. This mentor, the one that understands the need to motivate and enthuse, is responsible for that first moment of realisation: I can be excellent, with the right support. It is no different to being a teacher in a classroom – showing pupils that you care about their success. Our education system is fuelled by teachers who bring energy and ambition to their classrooms – can the same be said for the people who mentor beginner teachers? The perfunctory box-ticking mentor does not only destroy confidence and sap enthusiasm, they may inadvertently be setting or proliferating rot into a profession that has suffered more than a few blows recently. The future of education depends on talent in the classroom being nurtured – staff and students alike – but that can’t happen if those responsible for teacher development are totally unaware of the impact they may have on that future. One only has to look at retention rates for teachers in inner city schools to know that we have to be better at making sure they are able to stay in the profession for longer than five years – it is the only way to more stability and towards a new corps of experience in the profession.
Having been a mentor to new teachers in some way, shape or form for the past eight years, I am acutely aware now that meetings to manage the paperwork that comes with beginner teachers is the least productive way to use the time with them, and generates the least productive staff member. The true mentor is a combination, in varying parts, of ally, friend, crutch, critic, conscience and so much more more. The ability to move seamlessly between being partial and impartial, the ability to perceive the person beneath the role and experience – that’s what makes the mentor effective. Now that I train other mentors, I often ask them, three or four weeks in: have you asked your mentee whether they’re eating properly? Have you asked them what time they are going home and whether they have any evenings when they are just relaxing? The amount of times I have been met with blank faces and/or rolled eyes is baffling. The effective mentor nurtures, supports and challenges in equal measure.
Quite often, it is the responsibility of middle managers to conduct the mentoring process. In this, I can understand why mentoring is placed at the bottom of a list of a thousand other things to do – precisely because there are a thousand other things to do. If you run a department, chances are you are dealing with what the late Steven Covey, author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ calls ‘Quadrant 1’ thinking – the fire-fighting of every day in a busy school. This mentor may even be deceiving themselves into believing they do have time to support another teacher because they are engaged in ‘Quadrant 3’ activities – checking mail, dealing with interruptions and so on. The effective mentor is the one that sees their role as the embodiment of ‘Quadrant 2’ thinking – the time taken to invest in another member of staff will pay for itself in the long run. Time now, spent nurturing a relationship and the whole teacher, will mean a proliferation of time for more ‘Quadrant 2’ thinking in the future – and who doesn’t want that?
Mentoring is less of a social science than it is an art. Imagine your mentee as a block of clay – the absolute raw material you have to work with. They are very much a lump of clay at the start, with bumps and cracks you didn’t have anything to do with. A hands on, every day, working at details, making the time approach means that one day, your lump of clay will end up looking like Michaelangelo’s David.