“Teach First has jarred with who you are”

These words said by my housemate at the end of my two years with TeachFirst, although maybe true, has caused me to reflect on what it is that has caused the experience to be so challenging and stressful. Having listened to his words, clearly it has not only an impact on me, but also damaged my friendships with those whom I am most close to.

When something jars, it has an unpleasant or disturbing effect (I googled it!). Although this sounds extreme, it does help to make sense of my relationship with education and my teaching career thus far.

I entered TeachFirst with a strong desire to seek creative teaching and learning; to gain knowledge of the education system, aspiring to bring creativity and value to the arts; to impact young people positively. As an English teacher though, especially in a challenging school, this proved to be more difficult than I thought. Entering with naïve ideals and inexperience, I suppose my aspirations and desire for change in the system did experience a jarring effect.

Disturbed by regular assessment, the ultimate focus on attaining the magic C grade and little time to pursue creativity because of a rigid structure, I often experienced a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Trapped within the system, it felt as if there was a limit to what I could do. This is of course quite unpleasant and did, on reflection, disturb my hopes for how I wished to educate and impact my young people. I am conscious of sounding awfully extreme, but hopefully it communicates how stressful and shocking the system was for a young teacher (I am not alone in this) who has valid and legitimate ideas for how things might be different.

In a casual lunch time conversation, an older and experienced colleague commented on how “all the 25-year olds want to come and change the system.” There might be some truth in his sarcasm and cynicism, but in our rapidly changing world, the young enthusiasts must work alongside the experienced. Innovation and ideas need to inspire those who are working to an old system that does not work anymore for all young people. Instead of being left with no mentor, like many of my TeachFirst peers were, we need to be supported and strengthened so that our naïve ideals can be developed, flourished and realistically applied.

I recognise that TeachFirst, or rather, the education system, and I say that because my school and TeachFirst have both been brilliant in supporting me. Being part of the TeachFirst network is overwhelmingly exciting and I am privileged to be part of it. So it is not them who I have “jarred” with, but the system we all have to be working under. I recognise that the education system has caused a deeper stir in me. The word “jarring” implies a completely negative experience, one that has been unhelpful and a waste of time. It certainly has not been. I am grateful and proud that I have completed TeachFirst. I am pleased that I took this route into teaching for it provided a practical and raw learning process. It has deepened my desire to see all young people engage with education and has shown me how much the system is not suited for all. I have had to adopt the pressure of gaining the C grade for students for whom it is just not possible. Yet there is no alternative I can offer them in my power. They are left to feel like failures: inadequate and useless.

Teaching has not jarred with who I am. Yes it has been sacrificial: for my values; desires for accessible education; my friendships. Jarring it is not. Sacrificial and enriching yes. The knowledge I now have about the education system, although still incomplete I’m sure (for I cannot compare my experience to a teacher of two decades), has prepared me for a life long career in education.

With this sacrificial learning, I am now deep in my conviction that our industrial education system is not suitable, productive or helpful for every young person. An alternative must exist, and indeed does, for the young people who do not fit. The young people who are failed by their home life. The young people who are excellent communicators but for whatever reason cannot articulate with pen and paper. The young people who have incredible creativity and perception but are forced to take a rigidly designed exam to prove their intelligence. Their intelligence is immeasurable, yet measured as incapable by narrow assessment criteria. Alternative education must be valued as equal as mainstream for all young people to flourish and find their potential.

Although I am leaving my TeachFirst school, I remain in education to fight for the students whose voices are underdeveloped and forgotten because they haven’t been a priority to their schools. I thank God that such centres exist to equip these young people for working life. I am excited to continue my knowledge of education; to develop my creativity, my pastoral heart; my vision for how all young people can be better developed, equipped and valued by our society.

To find out more about the work I am moving into, or to be a volunteer mentor for a young person, visit the website of the educational charity: http://twentytwenty.org.uk.

If you feel motivated to help and support young people who struggle in the UK’s education system, consider being a mentor or volunteering for the young people’s charity in your local area. If you don’t know what that is or if there isn’t onw, Barnardos is great place to start looking: http://www.barnardos.org.uk/get_involved/volunteering/volunteering_with_children_and_young_people.htm