Tantric Teaching

Next week marks the start of a new reality TV programme about teaching, focusing on the lives of some Teach First graduates as they embark on their new career, which is now being recognised in the wider media as a tough job. Perhaps this perception is one of the biggest triumphs of Teach First – as the largest recruiter of graduates from Oxbridge, there seems to have been a slight shift in perception away from ‘teachers as dossers’ to a ‘warriors on the frontline’ mentality in the middle class population as a whole. Maybe when your baby leaves university to become a teacher you start to reframe your view of the profession.

When I graduated and became a teacher, I found that a great many of my fellow teachers were also the first in their families to have ever attended university. For us, teachers were the only graduates we had ever met and so to become one was aspirational. Among my wider friendship groups, kids whose parents or whose parents’ friends had been graduates and had become among other things, lawyers, doctors or writers, were less likely to become teachers. I think Teach First may be changing that view slightly and that can be no bad thing.

But there are some significant problems with Teach First, not least of all with the name. First before what? Before something better? Something more lucrative? While the retention rate for Teach First is not much worse than other routes, TF is an expensive training route. And what worries me more is that unlike the people who leave from other routes, some TF graduates seem to deem themselves experts in education after this short experience and move into positions of consultancy or commentary on the basis of a very limited view of teaching. We see Teach First graduates writing books on teaching and learning for Civitas, advising academy chains, advising on the setting up of free schools, writing books on all that is wrong with education, all that is right with Teach First and so on….and none of them are still teaching. None of these bright, brilliant young things are affecting the lives of children any more. And if they’re that damned good, they should be – isn’t that what Teach First was for?

If I was in government it might suit me to encourage and support a young, temporary workforce. To put them in areas of teacher shortage, keep them mobile, use their energy before they have families and become fixed and then replace them before they get expensive and build up pension pots. It might suit me to replace the profession with short term rapid response units who won’t feel the need to be unionised because they won’t be in it for long enough. It would suit me to encourage them to support current government policy in return for a nice little advisory job at the end and to feed these voices to the media as ‘authentic’ teachers. It would suit me very much.

But I’m not in government, I’m in teaching. And it doesn’t suit children to be taught by teachers who have one eye on the next job. I want to have both eyes on this job. To be tantric is to be ‘woven together’. This weaving is complex. It involves the threading together of knowledge of children, knowledge of subject, knowledge of self. It requires patience, waiting, watching, adapting, thinking. It requires love. It’s a long haul flight – not for the flighty. So while I recognise that Teach First has brought some benefits, I conclude that I’d rather Teach Forever.

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18 thoughts on “Tantric Teaching

  1. I so agree! We all do this to make a difference to the children we teach. But more than anything a quick fix to deliver a format lesson to children means that they, as trainee teachers, do not have the opportunity to build a philosophy and belief that underpins what goes on within the classroom. Do we please the structures that OFSTED expect or do we look specifically at what the children need . Not only that it belittles our beliefs and judgements as professionals.

  2. As a TeachFirst teacher happily teaching I have to say I nonetheless agree with you completely. It’s always best to be cautious not to tarnish the motives of all of us – from a grad perspective, this is simply another way into teaching which is popular and made enticing by targeted recruitment drives within university.- but I agree with your criticisms of the programme. There are many advantages and positives to the project but it rushes into making us think we have little to learn and have wisdom to give: the focus on leadership might be well-intentioned but it should at the very least be matched by a focus on, you know… how to be a great teacher. TF often say that being a good teacher is being a good leader, but there are specific qualities that are neglected in both camps: experience makes a more clued up teacher, and humility make a more well-rounded leader.

  3. ‘If I was in government it might suit me to encourage and support a young, temporary workforce.’ I couldn’t agree more. I would love it if Teach First was ‘the answer’, or even part of ‘the answer’ to trying to recruit quality, committed teachers to the challenging Birmingham schools I have worked in (and still do). Sadly, not one of the 8 English TFers I’ve worked with have stayed past their 2 years. Not one of the 20 or more I’ve worked in the same schools as have stayed past the second term of their third year. I don’t know if it’s better in London but here they seem to have been sent to Birmingham, which was never their first choice, and then they head for the bright lights of the capital as soon as they can.Children in challenging schools deserve better commitment and more experienced teachers.

  4. Thanks Debra. I agree with you in many respects. The ‘first’ is problematic. I’d prefer Teach Now or Teaching Matters or something else. I had/have major issues with the £3 per lesson ‘to tackle poverty’ campaign.

    That said, I do feel that many schools benefit hugely from TF recruits and they then have an opportunity and a duty of sorts to demonstrate that teaching is a great career. My mum cried when I told her I was doing a PGCE..1st in Physics? What a waste! That was her attitude. I started on a look-and-see basis and it took five years to get hooked and make a commitment – via a failed interview at the BBC. So I don’t think we can expect TF folk to commit longer from the outset; we need to hold onto them once they start.

    Also, I understand how irksome it is for people with relatively short experience to put their ideas about without humility. But I also admire their chutzpah..there’s something refreshing about it, compared to the many people who trudge along and never stick their necks out at all.

    1. Ha – yes, my Dad said it was a good job ‘for a woman’! And yes, the key is to hold on to people – not easy in the current climate at all. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect anyone to commit to teaching at the outset – both for the profession’s sake as well as individuals’ – sometimes teaching is just not the right choice. And in those cases, it’s wise to leave. It’s the stepping stone approach I find harder to take – especially stepping into positions in which advice is given to people who have stayed. Personally I’ll take reliable plodder over chutzpah any day 🙂

  5. Can I just throw in that I have taught a huge number of TAs on Foundation degree some of whom have gone on to do top up degrees and then either PGCE or other routes. They hit the ground with conviction and have the reliabe plodder but with some past knowledge you mention

  6. I think the drop-out rate on TF is actually much higher than from other routes, with less than 40% remaining after 2 years. Apart from that a great article, I totally agree with you. It is interesting that by and large TF is only used in working-class areas, since middle-class parents prefer career teachers, and would not be happy with the kind of fly-by-night TF-ers teaching their kids, they know the value of continuity.

    Also worth adding is how the US equivalent, Teach For America is now recognised as resulting in fewer career opportunities for locally-based teachers, from working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds to teach in schools in their own communities.

    The central claim of TF; that it is raising the status of teaching, is also not supported by the evidence, since teaching seems to struggle to attract quality graduates in it for the long-haul at the moment, despite there being few other jobs available for graduates, this claim is effectively completely false.

  7. Hi Debra, thank you for writing such a balanced piece in the debate. I confess that as a teacher qualified through the TF route I don’t particularly look forward to the BBC3 programme for the simple reason that I fear it will stir up a lot of discussion about the perceived division between TF and other teaching routes instead of just focusing the discussion around what it’s like to start out as a teacher in a state school.

    I take issue with your criticism of TF “graduates” who become self-titled ‘experts in education’. You seem to imply that someone needs a certain amount of experience before they can comment on the education system. How much experience is sufficient and who decides? Does it depend on what they are commenting on? Surely it is better to engage with the ideas that someone is putting across by debating the ideas themselves, rather than dismissing them as coming from a relatively inexperienced professional?

    You then write that they “move into positions of consultancy or commentary on the basis of a very limited view of teaching.” Why mention ‘commentary’ here? Do you mean blogs and books about education? Some of the blogs and books written by these teachers provoke very interesting debate about education – from pedagogy and classroom practice to whole-school and national systems. I would argue that there are teachers reading this “comment” are inspired to work on their own classroom practice. This being the case the “lives of children” *are* being affected, and hopefully for the better. Education doesn’t exist in a bubble and schools and children are affected by other factors than their teachers.

    Finally, as Classroomtruths demonstrates with his comments above, let’s bear in mind that TF has been around for 11 years now and has placed thousands of teachers in schools around the country, many of whom are still teaching – as you yourself point out TF has not a dissimilar retention rate in the classroom compared with other training routes. Some TF teachers would have been the first in their family to go to university, many TF teachers differ on their interpretation of what makes excellent pedagogy, some choose to leave their school for another after 2 or 3 years, some teachers (and here I would include myself) leave teaching with the intention of coming back to it after having done something else. Some are died-in-the-wool Tories, some are staunch Labour, others don’t care about politics. Some are fresh graduates, others are career changers; some need the financial support that a paid training route provides, others only want to teach if they can be placed in a school serving a low-income community. Basically, TF is not any ‘one type’ of person or teacher. The more this is recognised, the better for everyone, as far as I’m concerned. That’s why I’m not particularly looking forward to the BBC3 programme – why oh why couldn’t they have chosen young teachers from a range of entry routes into the profession?

    Thanks again for the blog – really didn’t mean to rant 🙂

    1. Don’t apologise – it’s good to have the discussion. By commentary I was referring to sound bites in the media rather than books per se and I find myself particularly irked by the arrogance of Civitas so am probably overly focusing on a small minority as Laura McInerney pointed out. I would argue that in order to advise people on how to teach, you should be an expert teacher. Much in the same way one would expect coaches of sport or music to be experts. That is not to say that people cannot comment on education per se – God knows everyone has an opinion. But I think at the moment Teach First is too closely aligned to a particular political agenda. As I said to Joe K this morning, had I been graduating now with the routes that are available to me on offer, I would have leapt at Teach First. Its starting aims, ongoing support and collaborative ‘team’ feel are excellent – and this is what all teacher training should aim to be. And as such all teacher training should be funded at the same level. In the long term, I think/hope that TF will prove to be a stepping stone towards the development of a profession which is seen to be an aspirational destination for graduates and which leads to a very highly qualified quality of teachers. A series of routes which divide, classify and encourage short term thinking does not achieve this, and I’d like to see consistency across the system, led by Universities. The whole system needs reform on a number of levels. Having said that, I greatly admire the work that Sam Freedman has done in championing the voices of young teachers. I’d like to see this kind of public acclamation offered across the whole spectrum.

  8. Hi Debra
    I’m curious what you mean about TF being too closely aligned to a particular political agenda.
    If you mean the TF participants being used as cheap passionate willing wage-slaves, whose labour can be extracted easily until they are dried out and move on… I can see a truth in this interpretation.
    I would add that, certainly in my group of primary people (who are quite atypical, as many of us were transferred onto the primary stream after having applied for and interviewed for the secondary route) the way in which we might be being used to ‘fill in the cracks’ of a wanky Tory education system was quite clear for us. Nobody coming in amongst our ranks would see us as dreamy egotistic idealists – we were as critical of the BS as any other teacher.

    So yeah, I deviated there so I’ll rephrase: what do you mean about TF being too closely aligned to a particular political agenda, and do you think TF teachers themselves are culpable for their role in it?

    1. I mean what you said at the beginning and I do think keeping the teaching workforce moving on suits this government’s agenda. But no, I don’t think TF teachers are culpable in this – it’s an attractive programme, recruitment is rigorous, I really like the collaborative spirit of TF and I think most people who do it are well intentioned. Some are not. It’s those few who irritate me and unfortunately, they seem to go on to have roles of influence way beyond their experience which irks.

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