Receiving an email from my ex-Leadership Development Office (Teach First speak for your mentor over the two year programme) is always a delight; however, during half term I received a message unlike any other. The email explained that Teach First and Teach for All (a partner organization which umbrellas all the “Teach for” set-ups globally) were running a joint event at the American Embassy in London, and they were looking for someone to come and talk about education from a teacher’s perspective.
Now, I talk about education so much that the lady who does my eyebrows spent our last session trying to convince me to come and set up a school in her home country with her. But the prospect of something so immensely scary as this made me pause.
Then I remembered: I’m Jo. I do scary things. This has to be my new tagline, as, admittedly easily scared, this year I have done more scary things than you could shake any stick at. I’m basically walking around, continually petrified.
I arrived at the Embassy in good time, and soon a group of attendees and I were waiting patiently to go through security. Nerves had taken me over, and I struggled through polite conversation with some extraordinarily fabulous people. I would like to apologise to all of those people.
While we watched on, the almighty Wendy Kopp (founder of Teach for America and a massive idol of mine) waltzed effortlessly in. The woman has power.
Eventually in, after the Ambassador had charmed us all with some informal quips (none of which I remember due to being a puddle on the floor), Wendy stood up and told the story of Teach for America and Teach for All. Shaheen Mistri, the CEO of Teach for India, spoke next. It is safe to say 1. I was in extraordinary company, and 2. I was in no way cognizant of what was going on. After an awkward pause, I realized that it was my turn to speak. I was meant to be representing the “teacher voice.” But would I have a voice? My only hope was to not entirely embarrass myself.
I began by exploring the critical difference in outlook embedded by the “Teach” organizations. Though this is not an attitude exclusive to teachers trained in this way, I am not sure other training routes prioritise and indeed dogmatise this value to the same extent; that is that all children, regardless of background, have the potential to achieve. And I began by recounting a conversation with a colleague which ended with them asserting of a student: “they’re just not smart.” I find this a dangerous comment with the capability of writing off potential, and argued that instead of focusing on targets, statistics and expected progress, we needed to change the conversation to explore what measures we could put into place to help children achieve; what more we could do.
Keen to not cover up the depths of my ineffective first few weeks (months? Terms?) of teaching, I reminisced on my first “tricky” class.
In my first year as a teacher in an inner city school in one of the most deprived areas of London, my year 10 set 5 class taught me a lot about resilience. Our first lesson together started well. I even had them packed up, standing behind their chairs, and dismissed in an orderly manner. It was the Teaching Assistant who let me know that I had sent them off 10 minutes too early. Once they had clambered back to me, trust in my capability to even tell the time shattered, the uphill struggle began.
In the two years I taught this class, I grew to love each student dearly; despite some difficult interludes, there is not a single student I don’t think of fondly. They were patient with me, they who should have been least patient because most in need of decent teaching.
After two years with them, I wasn’t sure I’d actually taught them anything. I wasn’t sure I’d done all I could. I certainly hadn’t done all they deserved of a teacher. Yes, I’d marked books and planned lessons and delivered intervention; but after a difficult exam (the one with the “radio script” – my poor confused children, and equally I, had no idea what to do with this) and results’ day morning’s news that English results across the country were down, I was not hopeful.
The class did themselves proud. In that year our English department achieved the phenomenal result of 94% of students achieving an A*-C in English. But what made me even more proud were the individuals in my set 5. One student, who begged me to sit the higher paper, had achieved a B grade despite being entered for foundation. And two students, Roselyn and Rosina, both on track for D grades according to their “expected progress”, left with an A grade each in English. Those students, with their hard work, their continual effort and their refusal to give up, I hope provided a valuable lesson for every other set 5 student in years to come: just because they are in set 5 doesn’t mean they can’t achieve.
For me, that moment was humbling. I had predicted Rosina an A; I knew she would achieve it (though perhaps not that doom-ridden morning). But Roselyn? I predicted her a B. I didn’t believe an A grade could be possible. Those two taught me I should never put a cap on the ambitions I have for my students.
When I was invited by Teach for All to their Chicago conference in 2012, not only was I made more aware of the multiple challenges facing teachers around the globe: of teachers in Pakistan operating without tables and chairs; of teachers in India pleading with parents to let 11 year old girls attend school after it had been decided that their place was in the home.
I was also taken to visit Charter Schools, each containing powerhouse teachers who were quietly changing lives. Every day my expectations of what was possible were shattered. At Gary Comer College Prep, with 94% of students on free or reduced lunches, an average incoming 9th grader on a 5th or 6th grade level, and a proportion being unable to read or write, by the time of their graduation from the school 100% had gained acceptance to a 4 year college course. 100%. Like Roselyn and Rosina, it was humbling; and like with Roselyn and Rosina sometimes you have to see it to believe it.
After three years in my Teach First placement school, I interviewed for a Head of Department role in a school serving a deprived community in North London, and I spoke of my belief in the possibility of all students achieving at least a C grade in English. 100%. I wondered if this would be seen as wide-eyed naivety. But there was a wonderful moment when the deputy head called me up to offer me the role, saying that he too was a Teach Firster, and he was excited that together we could try to achieve this.
As Head of English, I have been privy to much more information about the lives of the children we are responsible for, and some of that information is heart-breaking. Yet it cannot break us.
And this was my rallying cry: every barrier our students face must make us more tenacious for their success. I know that success against the odds is more than just words because I have seen it; I know that with hard work, resilience and that belief that every child can succeed, it is a reality.
Teach First is a contentious training route, and I don’t wish to debate its efficacy or ultimate value; I only speak from personal experience. I couldn’t have asked for more from them as an organization, as a trainer, as a supporter of teachers throughout their career. I have received countless opportunities through them, but more importantly that that, I fully believe that my experience has irreversibly changed me. I certainly did not expect to be teaching beyond two years when I signed up.
I know that there are many young people around the country about to embark on their Teach First “journeys”. It will be hard. Oh, so hard. I hope they know that change is possible, gruelingly hard, but possible. No – probable. These are children with a well of potential. We can never forget that.