My hardest job: class 9B for an hour
Independent editor Chris Blackhurst has faced some tough assignments. But how would he fare when asked to teach modern history to 14-year-olds in a London comprehensive?
In a career of assignments, this felt like the most daunting of all. To teach modern history, specifically the origins of the Cold War, to class 9B at Rivers Academy in Feltham, West London. The form comprised 26 14-year-olds of mixed gender, ethnicity and ability. Some were very bright, some had particular learning difficulties, several did not possess English as a first language.
My mind went back to my own schooldays, to our third year secondary (which is what Year 9 is in old-fashioned language) and how we gave the teachers hell. Not all of them. But a sprinkling was made to endure a toxic brew of tricks and open cheek and defiance.
Fourteen was a difficult age. We weren't yet doing the exam courses but we were big enough to throw our weight around. And that was an all-boys grammar where we'd been streamed. At Rivers, I was going to be confronted by a bit of everything.
In a moment of madness, I'd agreed to take the lesson as part of Teach First Week. I'd come across Teach First when the son of a friend eschewed plunging into a City career in favour of tackling pupils at a comp in Deptford.
Teach First is a charity, now in its 10th year, that encourages high-calibre graduates to go into education in disadvantaged schools before following another job path. They commit to two years in the classroom, often with the support of their future employer. They gain invaluable experience, they get to "put something back", and schools that ordinarily might not expect to recruit such high-fliers benefit as well.
Today, Teach First has 2,050 graduates placed in schools across England. They include 900 who have indicated their intention to remain as teachers after their two-year stint is completed. With jobs scarce and the City no longer in vogue, no less than 8 per cent of last year's Oxbridge graduates applied to Teach First.
But even so, hearing about the organisation and the good it does from a friend is one thing – why do it, why subject yourself to the possible torture of 9B? Well, both my parents were schoolteachers – my father taught geography, PE and careers in a secondary mod then a comp, my mother worked in a special-needs school. I grew up hearing their tales of the classroom (and staff room) and have always wondered if I could do it. And I've got five children of my own and realise I never fully appreciate just what the teacher must endure.
So I joined yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur, Marks & Spencer chairman Robert Swannell, TV's Adrian Chiles, footballer Gary McAllister and ex-hostage Terry Waite, in taking part in this year's Teach First Week to help promote the body. According to the blurb, we would be stepping out of our "professional comfort zones and for a short time, experience the excitement, trepidation, thrill and also the rewards of teaching".
They can say that again – the trepidation part, that is. I've spoken many times in public; I've appeared on live TV and radio; I've been quizzed by Lord Leveson's Inquiry; and I've been a defendant in a contempt of court case (we won). But nothing compared with the prospect of Rivers and 9B. I had a vague notion of doing a Robin Williams and coming over all Dead Poets Society. However, that was Hollywood, this was Feltham on a Monday morning.
In fact, as you may have guessed, I had nothing to fear. What I found was a committed, disciplined (astonishingly so, compared to my memory of Barrow-in-Furness Grammar School for Boys) 1,200-strong school, led by a principal, Paula Kenning, bristling with purpose as well as displaying compassion. In her short stint in charge, Kenning has raised the game, insisting on high standards of dress (one of her first acts was to introduce a new uniform and order sixth-formers to look smart) and behaviour.
The school has a motto – "Aspiration Ambition Achievement". First results are encouraging: in 2011, 84 per cent of Rivers' Year 11 gained five or more GCSEs at A* to C, in English and maths 50 per cent achieved this standard. At A level, 66 per cent of all grades were A* to C and 21 per cent of all A levels were grades A* or A.
There's no denying, though, that Rivers is a challenging place. It's not over-blessed with resources; many of the school buildings clearly belong to an establishment that used to cater for pupils up to 15 (the old Longford Community School) rather than 18; and Feltham is not one of London's wealthier districts. But there's a spirit there, as exemplified by Kenning and her colleagues. And the pupils.
I managed it thanks to throwing caution to the wind and just being myself, and to Tom Stephens. He's a recent LSE graduate, now a Teach First history teacher at Rivers. Confronted with how to get across the growing tension between the USSR and USA more than six decades ago in a meaningful manner it was Tom who suggested playing to my post as editor of The Independent. People expect newspapers to take an angle, to have a view, he said. So why not adopt one here and get the children to think about it and see if they agree?
His suggestion was that I should lay the blame on Stalin, that it was the Soviet dictator's aggression and expansionism that provoked the Cold War. This I did. They filed in, ever so politely, and we did a quiz, recapping on what they had learned last time. Tom said it was a good method of settling them down and focussing them on the subject.
I explained that at The Independent we liked to form our own view – and ours accused Stalin (not our considerededitorial line, I hasten to add). I gave them the reasons why that was the case. They broke up in pairs to go round the classroom to find cards pinned up explaining how each country in Eastern Europe came to be inside the Iron Curtain and under his rule.
Tom proposed a "bonus" question for those who finished the task soonest – to ask them if they agreed with the notion that terror was the most important weapon at Stalin's disposal? Of course, the early finishers tended to be those who were most interested and in all likelihood, most able. This was a ruse to keep them engaged. Then they reassembled and we went through the answers. It was heart-warming – different hands shooting up, keen to describe the fates of Poland, Hungary and the eastern bloc members.
A new exercise, Tom's idea, to sort nine cards, each describing a cause of the Cold War, into different piles: one showing the USSR was responsible; the other the USA. They were animated and keen, discussing which card belonged to which group. My recollection of third form history, of a teacher reading verbatim from a textbook or writing on the blackboard while we took copious notes, seemed light years away.
Without warning, a siren sounded for the end of class. I handed them over to the next teacher and left. They were all smiling. It was an amazing experience. I've no idea if they really learned anything but for those 50 minutes they seemed to. For a teacher this was one form, one lesson. How they do it day after day is beyond me.
I realised that I could also do it. I loved every moment. I've always suspected, ever since childhood, that I'd liked to be a teacher. I still would. Perhaps Teach First should begin an offshoot for older would-be teachers and I would sign up: Teach Last.
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