I had always wanted to be a teacher. Many a happy childhood hour was passed creating registers, devising rules and putting on productions at my imaginary school (yes, I know). It was my Mum who stopped me. She was a deputy head at a local primary school and she felt that I could do something ‘better’. So for twenty years I worked as a Barrister in Leeds, specialising in family law. My work was varied, challenging and interesting but in later years something seemed to be missing: it didn’t always seem very worthwhile. Dealing with the financial arrangements of divorce was often frustrating and sometimes it even felt damaging to the families involved. I began to dream of being a teacher again.
My husband told me about Teach First as a colleague of his had recently left the Bar to join. I went to a presentation evening in Leeds and, six months later, had been accepted and was waiting to hear where I had been posted. In September 2016 I started as an English teacher at a school in special measures in Bradford.
I chose the Teach First route because I wanted to make a difference where it is most needed. Although fully aware of the effects of educational disadvantage, I was still shocked by the statistics. Children from the poorest families are only half as likely as others to get five A*-C grades at GCSE and of these children, nearly 50% achieve no GCSEs above a D grade. The odds against a child eligible for free school meals at a state secondary school being admitted to Oxbridge are 2000-1. For a privately educated child it’s 20-1. Teach First say that the link between income and attainment at school is stronger in the UK than almost anywhere else in the world.
Although these statistics are motivation enough, there are practical aspects that make Teach First an attractive ITT option, especially if you are a career changer. You are paid a salary whilst you achieve your PGCE and QTS status and the leadership development aspect of the programme gives you the option of swift career progression, assuming you make it through the first year.
Critics are suspicious of the six week ‘Summer Institute’ training. Whilst it’s true that nothing can prepare you fully for being dropped full-time into the classroom in September, the support from Teach First amounts to far more than a six week training course. That’s partly what makes this route so demanding. In addition to getting to grips with classroom management, there are academic assignments, subject days, weekend conferences and half-termly leadership development workshops. Each participant is looked after by a dedicated team of mentors and tutors, some school based and some based at partner universities.
Teach First are quite clear that ‘nobody said changing lives was be easy’. It’s in big letters on their website. Despite this, I had not imagined it would be quite so difficult. Nor that it would be so challenging to change career mid-life. I had rather arrogantly assumed I would be instantly recognised as the saviour of teaching. I wasn’t. And for good reason. To go right back to the beginning, and accept that you are just, well, rubbish, is a tall order. The ‘Growth Mindset’ display in my classroom (that I proudly took a whole day of the summer holidays to make) has provided more help to me than it ever has to any of my pupils. Especially the bit that says: I can’t do it yet.
It seems ridiculous now but at the time I didn’t pay much attention to the ‘First’ part – just the ‘Teach’. Being older than everyone else has its drawbacks – 12 hour working days, all night essay crises, two-for-one cocktails: all so much harder to handle second time round. And I did not like student living, even though facilities have much improved since 1988.
Life at the Bar is very competitive and can be quite ruthless. One of the many things I love about teaching is the collaboration and openness amongst colleagues. If it weren’t for the support of my Teach First colleagues in school, and the @Team_English1 community on Twitter, I might not have stuck with the programme. Now that I’m starting to find my feet, I think that this is the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s too early to say whether my pupils feels the same.
I think my colleagues at the Bar think I have lost my mind and will soon be back in Chambers. My children tease me by pointing out that as they are growing older, I’m looking for other children for whom I can be a pushy Mum. Perhaps this is partly true: I want all children to have the same access to educational opportunity, not just those with wealthy or sharp-elbowed parents. But if I’m honest, the reason for the change is largely selfish. Yes, there’s lots of marking, inexplicable data collection and seemingly endless multi-coloured dialogic feedback. But a tough day at work now involves reading poetry, or Y8 dystopian fiction, or planning Y7 creative writing club. And for that, I cannot thank Teach First enough.
From court room to classroom: was Barrister, now Teacher. Teach First Yorks and Humber 16 cohort.