My First Lesson

Today I saw the new batch of PGCE students on their first day in our school. It’s always great to see the latest generation of teachers taking their first steps to join our great profession – especially now, when so much of the public narrative is around the challenges and problems we are facing. It gives me hope! It also reminds me of my first steps into teaching, and drove me back to my old PGCE files to recall my first lesson.

This is what I looked like in 1996. There's no excuse, really, is there?

This is what I looked like in 1996. It’s hard to know where to start. The outfit? The hair? The unfocused gaze? There’s no excuse, really, is there?

My secondary English PGCE course began with a compulsory two-week primary experience. I still think this is a brilliant idea; the more we can do to establish cross-phase thinking the better, and where better to start than right at the beginning?

My Primary School Experience Journal

My Primary School Experience Journal

I was sent to a primary school on the outskirts of Nottingham with Vicky, another secondary English student, and attached to a mixed Year 5/6 class. I had all sorts of  tasks to do: observing a pupil, observing a task, investigating equal opportunities and so on, before I got started on some small group work. I remember helping the class teacher hand-crank the Banda machine to get my worksheets off to do some technical accuracy work with a group of six hand-picked students. Here’s my crib sheet…

Hand-cranked worksheet in Banda-purple with red pen annotations

Hand-cranked worksheet in Banda-purple with red pen annotations

And then, in the last days, time to take the whole class. I was going to get them to do some creative writing based on a piece of music. I cranked the Banda machine, I planned my lesson with the class teacher, I psyched myself up. Then, the class teacher stepped out. It was over to me.

Worksheet from my first ever full-class lesson

Worksheet from my first ever full-class lesson

I don’t remember much about the lesson, if I’m honest. What I do remember – what I’ll never forget – was the debrief with the teacher afterwards. “How do you think it went?” she asked, kindly. “It was okay…” I said, hesitantly. “And were you comfortable with the noise level?” she asked. A sure sign of a skilful teacher: giving me the opportunity to learn from failure and improve. Here’s what I wrote in my evaluation:

Evaluation of my first lesson

Evaluation of my first lesson

  • Lesson 1: experienced teachers make it look “deceptively easy.” The children listen, attentively, and do as instructed without question. This does not happen without a lot of ground work!
  • Lesson 2: don’t rush. Establish the ground rules. Explain the task carefully. Take your time!
  • Lesson 3: model the behaviour you want to see. The way you are is reflected back at you in the behaviour of the children. If you’re unsettled and anxious, they will be too.
  • Lesson 4: evaluate your practice. Go back and have another go, working on what didn’t go well the first time. It gets better.

My primary school experience journal ended with a series of reflection tasks. The final question was: “How do you now see yourself as a beginning teacher?” Here’s what I wrote:

The end of my primary experience journal, September 1996

The end of my primary experience journal, September 1996

Ahead of me now I see a lot of hard work; an almost infeasible amount. However, my work with LF has given me a set of goals, and another role model to emulate, and my enjoyment of the experience has proved that no matter how high the mountains of work, the reward of a child proud of his or her success or achievement makes it all worthwhile.

Although I looked ridiculous, I’m still quite proud of the 1996 version of me. He was right.


Why I think Teach First is a good thing

Last week I saw this video advert – “We Are Teach First”:

The generalisations were off-putting. The character of “Rachel” and her school are trite stereotypes, and the use of statistics slapdash. I know that some people are worried by Teach First, and watching this ad might not help. It’s easy to see it as patronising. But despite this broad brush-strokes advertising campaign, I think Teach First is a good thing. Here’s why.

Making teaching a competitive graduate career

When I graduated from Oxford, I was the only one going on to a PGCE with state school teaching in mind (you can read about my experiences here). Each year I return to my Oxford college for a careers forum, where alumni speak to undergraduates about where their degrees took them and offer advice to those just about to start their journeys. The first year I went to extol the virtues of teaching, I spoke to one undergraduate interesting in teaching. This year, I was told by the tutors that Teach First was the single biggest destination for graduates from my college in the past academic year. That means that high achieving, driven graduates with exceptional subject knowledge are pouring in to state schools as opposed to management consultancy firms, whereas previously they weren’t. This has got to be a good thing, for them and for the students they teach.

The sense of moral purpose


You don’t often get organisations working with genuine moral purpose, but Teach First is one. It’s setting out to make a difference and to correct an injustice. Whilst many may take issue with its methods, its heart is in the right place – on its sleeve.

They don’t just teach first

One of the major criticisms of Teach First is the name, which seems to imply that teaching is merely a stepping stone to a “proper” career, like some sort of extended gap year. Well, that’s just not the case.

As this from Laura McInerney shows, most of them stay in teaching. These are graduates who might not have been there in the first place, were it not for Teach First.

I’d rather have bankers that taught first


As case studies like this of Lena Khudeza show, some Teach Firsters do use the programme as a stepping stone to something else. And why not? For me, teaching a vocation – I can’t see myself doing anything else, and I don’t want to. But not everyone is like me. Why can’t teaching be something you do – and do well – for a few years before trying something else? We welcome teachers who have spent time outside of education into our schools, as they bring an enriched experience into the classroom. I’m sure the reverse is true.  I’d certainly rather have bankers and management consultants who understand the impact of poverty and deprivation having seen it first hand than those who have only ever breathed the rarefied air of privilege. Maybe, when they’re in their Canary Wharf offices, they’ll think of the students they taught and make different – better – decisions.

Teach Firsters enrich the debate

Much has been made of the precociousness of some Teach First graduates, particularly on Twitter, but those arguments seem to me to miss the point. People can say what they like on Twitter (and they frequently do) – but you don’t need to listen. You curate your own timeline. What I’ve found is that many of the Teach Firsters I follow and read have really interesting, thoughtful and perceptive things to say. Who says you need to have taught for twenty years before you’re entitled to an opinion? Okay – don’t answer that. But I value the perspective of those new to the profession just as much as those who have a wealth of experience. Coming into schools fresh, from a different angle, can uncover assumptions and myths, and help us all to move forward. Being challenged about what you believe can make you re-evaluate and either change, or defend, your position. This can only be healthy. And “Teach Firsters” are no more a homogeneous group than “PE Teachers” – they come in many varieties.

The analysis shows the benefit

Extract from IFS Report R100

Extract from IFS Report R100

Teach First is expensive, there’s no doubt about it. It costs £9k to train a PGCE student (a third of which is paid by the student themselves), and around £26k for a Teach First trainee. But, given that it costs £270k to train a doctor (source), maybe Teach First is investing the right amount in training teachers, and the PGCE has been doing it on a shoestring. After all, training professionals should be something our society invests heavily in…shouldn’t it? And the recent paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that, for the schools eligible for the programme, the benefits were considerable:

For most routes, the net benefit to schools is small in comparison with the costs for central government. The notable exception to this is Teach First, where the largest net benefit to schools is reported.

I wish it had been around years ago

My PGCE served me well. I have read some horror stories about inadequate support, dreadful training, and incompetent administration, but mine was pretty good. I was – and am – happy with the way I was trained. But, had Teach First been an option when I was an undergraduate, I would have leapt at it.

Please also read Kev Bartle’s excellent You’re my Teach First, my Teach Last, my Teach Everything which covers this topic much better than I can!