Education Reform
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Education Reform

Was Teach First worth it?

I’ve just finished the last week of my job as a computer science teacher on the Teach First leadership development programme. I won’t be returning to the classroom next year, instead I’ve accepted a position in the software industry. The past two years have undoubtedly been the most difficult of my life. When I tell people about my current lifestyle, they always ask the same question: “Is it worth it?”

Teach First is a charity that aims to bring about an education system in the UK that doesn’t allow people’s socio-economic background to limit their success. The main way by which it tries to achieve this is by acting as a recruiter for state schools, creating an elite graduate scheme that gives you teacher training, postgraduate university education, professional training, and career opportunities in return for two years of your labour in a state school in challenging circumstances. If you saw the BBC 3 series “Tough Young Teachers”, you’ll know a little about how that works.

Teach First goes to great lengths to avoid being seen or described as an avenue for graduates to swoop into and fix the broken education system on their way to a more lucrative job in the city, and to that end it tries to recruit people who possess some measure of humility. That’s important: There is a lot that works well in the education system, and it is the dedicated professionals with years of experience that do the lion’s share of the work in schools.

Despite this, there’s something obviously appealing about the idea of making a difference. Teach First is the biggest graduate recruiter in the country, and it certainly isn’t the money that draws those graduates in. Participants start on the unqualified teachers’ pay scale. Teachers usually get a pay rise once per year, as long as they meet their performance targets, so achieving a good salary is mostly a waiting game. You can get extra pay if you are awarded extra responsibilities (such as an academic or pastoral leadership position), but these too start off small, and whether or not you are likely to be given one depends on the internal politics of the school you have been (almost randomly) dropped into.

Neither is the lifestyle much of a draw. If anyone starts Teach First under the impression that they would be able to leave work at 3pm and enjoy their evenings, they probably don’t stick around for very long. I have seen the inside of the school building after midnight, worked more weekends than I’ve taken off, taught extra classes during school holidays, and spent every hour that I am not working feeling guilty about the work that I should be doing.

I should stress that I don’t think I’ve really gone above and beyond. I’ve run a few small projects on the side and dabbled in some extra curricular things, but the hard work is mostly a function of trying to complete my core tasks on time. That is to say the tasks that, should they go uncompleted, will leave people annoyed and questioning my competence.

The gist of it is this: Each day you need to teach 3–5 hour long lessons to a room full of between 10 and 30 children. These lessons are expected to be something like a performance, and as such require a lot more energy than a university lecture or a business presentation. I walk around the room, construct elaborate demonstrations, spin metaphors, try to model my thought process as I solve problems, ask questions, and answer questions.

On top of that, the audience is sometimes semi-hostile. Your job is also to persuade the baying mob to transform into five rows of neatly organised, smartly presented and productive young people. This involves winning them over with interesting insights, taking time out to share your (partially genuine and partially pragmatic) thoughts on morality and character development, altering the seating arrangements, calling parents, and occasionally being more confrontational than my British sensibilities should allow.

In addition to delivering the lessons, you need to plan for them, create resources, mark the students’ work, issue and follow up on sanctions and praise, and be in constant communication with parents. There is also a stream of tasks turning up in your email inbox that are sometimes bizarre (creating a song about healthy eating), sometimes tedious (sending a letter to 20 parents), and often totally outside of my skill set (redecorating a classroom).

I don’t mean to put too much emphasis on the high demands of the profession, that’s true of most professions and the whole thing was quite fun, just to put to bed the idea that one would take up teaching for the easy life.

Teaching didn’t furnish me with a good salary or a relaxed lifestyle. In fact it is, by some distance, the most significant investment of energy and emotion that I have ever made. So what did I get out of it?

I think I might have made a difference in some small way, albeit in the trivial and non-ambitious sense of the word.

It’s true that I can point to particular students and see progress. My first class of 15 boys had never heard of a compiler, and are now mostly competent software developers. I invested significant time, thought and care into a student who was constantly failing to meet expectations, and saw him turn into someone who only occasionally fails to meet expectations.

These things feel good emotionally, they are stories about real people who I think will go on to do good work and who I hope will remember me from time to time. Yet a rational observer would have to keep in mind that any educator should have achieved these things if they were semi-competent. If a computer science teacher can’t teach children how to program, they are a failure. The emotional return on this investment is high because I am working with children instead of a production line or at the code face, and I’m content with that, but it’s not amazing or unique.

The more ambitious sense of making a difference, of making systemic changes that go beyond the effects caused by your direct manipulation, is much more difficult to achieve. There are definitely ample opportunities for you to do this in education, and I’ve spent the past two years inspired by people like Daisy Christodoulou and Katharine Birbalsingh who are doing just that.

If you intend to make that sort of a difference, you need to be prepared to stick at this thing for much longer than I have. With that said, those avenues aren’t totally closed off to me now, I’d gladly consider working with or for one of the many charitable and voluntary sector organisations that are doing excellent educational reform work.

The main return on my investment, and the thing which I think means I can say it was worth it, has been the opportunity to learn.

Teach First is an intense experience which requires you to muster a lot of perseverance and emotional intelligence in ways that most university students won’t have come across before. Two years ago I could never have kept calm and composed while a 13 year old discloses harrowing information about his personal life; turned around 20 students who are too demotivated to work; reassured a a colleague going through a hard time; expressed my disappointment and disapproval, or appreciation and praise, to a room full of people; broken up a fight; or helped somebody to work through their confidence issues. These are all things that I don’t think many other jobs would drop you in to, but I can safely say that I’m now alright at them. You awkwardly fumble your way through it at first, but it gets easier.

I also know a lot more about myself. I know my limits, I know my coping strategies, and I know which parts of my life are non-negotiable.

I know a little bit about teenagers now too. Before Teach First, they were angry and unpredictable misanthropes who can’t communicate and smell awful. They still smell bad, but you get to see them flourish and show off their strengths, and help them with their issues — which, contra awful stereotypes, are real issues — as they turn into better people. That sounds rosy, and of course lots of them make poor moral choices. Many of them won’t succeed, but some will, and I’ve got a better idea about what that path to success looks like.

I also know more about the world around me. The education system is strange and in many ways messed up. We entrust the vast majority of the children in the country to this system — and not just for their academic progress — schools have become institutions entrusted with keeping children safe, managing their relationships, building their expectations and aspirations, and developing their character. They are immeasurably important. It works for lots of children, but not for all, and especially not for the most vulnerable.

My final answer to this question has changed as we have gone through the highs and lows of the school year, but reflectively it is yes. It is absolutely worth it.

If you’ve made it through university and are in a position to apply for Teach First, or to access the education system through some other route, you are in the minority. The education system probably served you very well, or at least didn’t totally destroy your future. Go and see how it treats everybody else, and do some good work on the way.

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Tito Sarrionandia

Tito Sarrionandia

Head of frontend engineering at Babylon Health. Formerly ThoughtWorks, Made Tech, school teacher.