I have been watching the Tough Young Teachers with mixed feelings. This week in particular I felt compelled to write about it. The episode focused around two pupils and their relationship with their teachers, Charles and Claudenia. Both starkly different in their approach and both failing miserably to engage ‘challenging students’. I do realise there is careful and clever editing involved and we, the viewers are not privy to the whole story.
Charles, the RE teacher whose contempt for his students is obvious, he barely hides it under the guise of aloofness. I can’t help wonder where the support for Caleb is/was. A student like Caleb is a hard nut to crack, he is suffering from low self-esteem which he angrily exposes in his words and actions. He gets ranted at from the moment he steps into the classroom (he is cocky but it is all an act) and I do think Charles missed a trick when Caleb first acted up. He could have harnessed the confident Caleb by a simple and manly chat, not the belittling and demeaning talks and detentions. I would have played to Caleb’s ego, told him that he was a strong character and the class needed his views. Caleb is street wise so Charles would have need to back up his words with actions like calling Caleb’s mum for something positive. There is always something positive that can be relayed home, that would have curried favour for Charles.
Caleb’s confidence is soon shown to be nothing more that a cover up for low self esteem. After his chat with the SLT member, Caleb is clearly upset and angry. He doesn’t ‘give a f**k about teachers, family, friends’. Without knowing too much about Caleb apart from what is shown. He is from a single-parent family ( and mum does well in her parenting) but that doesn’t in itself produce angry young teens who are excluded from school. He clearly mistrusts adults, especially those in authority. We only know he is from the PRU but not why he was placed there. My guess is Caleb’s experience also clouds his and Charles’ view. There is suspicion on both sides and quite frankly Charles does nothing to appease, change or challenge Caleb’s views. In fact, I would be so bold to say that Charles actually exacerbates the situation. He made an audible comment about some students caring more about their exams than others, which students who are as life-savvy as Caleb will pick up on. This further alienates Caleb.
Here’s my issue with Teach First, just because you are a bright graduate with a first, it doesn’t not automatically convert or equate to being a good teacher. Empathy, sympathy and kindness are key to unlocking students like Caleb. They relish in words of support and praise. Good teaching isn’t just about subject knowledge, there is no magic formula, what works one day might not work the next. But a lot of it is rapport and people skills which can’t be taught. It is a skill to command a classroom, and everyone who teaches for the first time will testify it is a scary experience especially when there are strong characters in there.
I do wonder where the pastoral support was for Caleb and Charles. Caleb quite obviously needs help with anger management. I don’t doubt the subsequent fight and permanent exclusion could have been prevented, Caleb comes with a long history that teachers like Charles can’t just step into. There were several poignant moments in Charles and Caleb’s relationship that could have made a difference. The point where Caleb says he is dumb and questions why he was even given one mark out of the four available. I never once heard Charles using positive language towards Caleb. A child can be perceived as overly confident and combative but really deep down he is feeling miserable about himself and his low self esteem is rock bottom. The behaviour then resorts to anger and the fight is the end cause of Caleb’s frustration with authority. Charles could have been humble but his defence of his own actions are indefensible. “I would have cared, if he [Caleb] had”.
No sorry, you get paid to care. Teaching in a school like Caleb’s is never just about the learning objective and exams. It is about guiding young people to become adjusted citizens too. Every one of those children will have a backstory and barriers to learning that [un] fortunately Charles has never had and yes, I am judging that purely by the family silver.
In Caleb’s case, his school failed him. But it won’t be just Caleb who doesn’t complete the course, I very much predict Charles will end up as one of the statistical casualties of the ‘Teach First graduates who are 5 times more likely to leave the profession’.
The other side of the flip coin is Claudenia. She went down the road of being ‘bredrins’ with the girls from 10D3. And the girls make some valid points about how she spoke to them. Slang and colloquialism can be used with great effect but only once the relationship has been established. It certainly should not be used in chastisement. We didn’t see the part that led to Claudenia to thinking that the girls were treating her as they knew her ‘from road’ but the girl felt humiliated and uncomfortable by it. Girls are much trickier to get onboard than boys but who tried to engage their point of view except the camera person?
When the ‘girls’ favourite teacher’ and Claudenia met, there was no mention of the real and under lying issues. Neither teacher tried to get underneath the problem. The girls are clearly articulate, they seemed able to offer plausible, if not mature, reasons why they exhibited the behaviours even if they couldn’t link it. The lesson observation highlighted the weakness in teaching and learning and things will quickly unravel if a child doesn’t understand or see the relevance to their learning but this is a small part of building relationships with pupils. It is a smile, positive praise and an apology that would build bridges here. Claudenia would only have to listen to the girls, make an agreement and stick to it for her situation to be instantly better.
Claudenia’s tiredness also plays a crucial part, she is so tired she falls asleep in her room and in front of her class. She is at breaking point and actually needs someone other than her friend to tell her to go home and rest. Teaching is not a job that you can do on empty, it drains and tires you. I do feel sorry for her and her tiredness must be affecting her ability to stay neutral and calm. Where are the Teach First mentors? Where is her in school guidance?
I had an amazing mentor in my NQT year, she really cared about me and the pupils. We had a resonant relationship where I felt able to expose my weaknesses and concerns. She always pointed out the merits but this was over a year and after a 18 months of training. Again, I don’t know what happens beyond and away from the edited film but the Teach First graduates need a robust mentoring system (and not just when they are in trouble like Meryl) The Tough Young Teachers rely heavily upon their network of teacher graduates which is fine for off loading the day and providing drinking buddies but for real development, they require formal mentoring. Mentoring which unpicks the nitty gritty of the day, the week or term. It’s those difficult conversations that lead to effective practice.
I have to agree with Caleb that ‘respect is earned’ and both Charles and Claudenia need to take heed if they want to be successful teachers. Because in both cases, pupil knows best.