Sunday, 19 September 2010

How teaching went back to cool...

Hello. On Friday I had a piece in the Times about a remarkable woman called Kate Campion-Smith. She is a "Teach First" teacher (she came to the profession via the charity Teach First) so I also looked at that organisation.
You can see the piece (with a nice pic of Kate) on the Times website (subscription required).

Here is my original piece, which is a little longer.

By Sarah Ebner

Despite her modesty, charm and friendly manner, Kate Campion-Smith is clearly a winner. The 25-year-old science graduate, recently named best new teacher in London and the South East at the Teaching Awards, is now favourite to win the nationwide prize at the end of October. But she’s not just a poster girl for good teaching – Campion-Smith represents something new in the education world.
What’s particularly special about Campion-Smith is that she came to the profession via the education charity, Teach First. And she epitomises the organisation’s vision.
“I never intended to teach,” she says, “but I was looking for something I agreed with. The principles behind Teach First are fantastic. I wanted to be useful.”
Teach First was set up in 2002 by Brett Wigdortz, an American working in London for management consultant McKinsey’s. While looking at how business could help education, Wigdortz was struck by the idea that disadvantaged children might benefit by placing top graduates into their schools. He was told by that his plan would never work, but has proved the doubters wrong. Teach First had 5,000 applications for 560 positions this year and is now the biggest recruiter of Oxbridge graduates – around eight percent of final year students.
“I always thought it would be as successful as it is,” says Wigdortz nonchalantly. “People want to make an impact with their lives and we have a mission – to eradicate educational disadvantage.”
Campion-Smith is a typical recruit (although she balks a bit when it comes to talking about the very-American sounding “mission”). Unsure of what to do after university (a first in Natural Sciences from Cambridge), she was attracted by the charity’s uncompromising belief that graduates want to “make a difference.”
It’s not surprising that Campion-Smith was attracted by the idea of helping others. It may sound a little clich├ęd, but she comes across as a “good person. She is a regular Church-goer and even runs her own charity, Esuubi, which she set up after travelling to Uganda in her gap year. In fact, Campion-Smith even talks of emigrating to Uganda in the future.
“The girls I teach here aren’t starving” she says succinctly.
Campion-Smith grew up in Eastbourne and attended a local comprehensive where she was a star pupil. The school didn’t have a sixth form, so she joined the private Eastbourne College for her A levels. But her time at the college didn’t change her view that private education was “unfair”. Now Campion-Smith is determined that all children should have the same opportunities, and that educational achievements shouldn’t be dependent on parental income.
She joined Cator Park School in Bromley, Kent, three years ago. Meryl Davies, the head teacher of the 1200 strong comprehensive (all girls except for a mixed sixth form) is a big Teach First fan, but Campion-Smith made a particularly strong impression.
“Kate’s been outstanding since her first lesson,” says Davies enthusiastically. “Not all Teach First graduate have perfect classroom management skills when they arrive; that comes with experience. But Kate had it straight away. She’s gives the girls real self-belief.”
Campion-Smith would probably be embarrassed to hear her head teacher’s effusive endorsement, but seems to deserve it. She not only teaches science at the school (a petition was circulated by one GCSE group demanding that she should teach them), but runs the Gifted and Talented programme, Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, debating club as well as mentoring those looking to go to university.
“Kate’s enthusiasm led to the school’s largest ever uptake for triple science,” says Davies. “She even organised master-classes, involving exploding jelly babies, rocket launching and dissecting mice.”
But Campion-Smith arrived, as all Teach First graduates do, with little classroom experience. She had taken part in the organisation’s intensive six week summer scheme and was launched into the classroom soon afterwards.
“It was a baptism of fire,” she says with a smile. “A lot of people underestimate how hard teaching is, but you learn quickly and I was very fortunate in terms of the support I had.”
All Teach First graduates have mentors, both in school and outside, but it’s still a challenge.
“I knew I would have to find a way to teach the girls who don’t want to learn,” she says. “So I just thought about how I would want to be engaged. I tried to relate things to everyday life – to things they were interested in, such as make-up or fashion.”
Campion-Smith is the first Teach First “alumnus” to win a Teaching Award, but the organisation is hoping she’ll be the first of many. From just two staff in 2002, Brett Wigdortz’s organisation has grown to 140, and also become the darling of the Conservative party.
Michael Gove is a vocal supporter, and although there have been education cuts elsewhere, he recently announced a £4 million grant to expand Teach First recruitment to over 1,000 teachers across England.
It’s an interesting decision because it appears to show the government means business when it talks of addressing educational disadvantage and social mobility.
Wigdortz himself says that he wants to produce the “next generation of head teachers and leaders.”
But Teach First is not without its detractors, particularly from those who point out that academic excellence (around a quarter of this year’s intake graduated with firsts) doesn’t always result in outstanding teaching. Its training is also expensive, while many are unhappy that so many teachers leave after the initial two year programme finishes.
Anastasia de Waal, Head of Education at the think tank Civitas, is one sceptic.
“The very clear message is “teach first before getting a proper job’” she says. “It also assumes that any old graduate with a fairly good degree can teach and as importantly, no teaching practice or interaction with pupils is required before going into the classroom – never mind any pedagogical background. All of these things are terrible for the status of teaching as a profession, but even more importantly, misunderstand what makes a good teacher.”
Such concerns have long been heard across the Atlantic, where Teach For America is also a huge recruiter of top graduates. Teaching unions in the States are often less than complimentary about this scheme, while research seems to show that Teach for America teachers don’t achieve more impressive results than those trained conventionally.
However, Brett Wigdortz has heard these arguments before and is unimpressed. He’s keen to emphasise that Teach First isn’t connected with Teach for America, and convinced that his programme works – and works well.
He’s also not concerned that so many Teach First teachers – around 50 percent - leave the profession after two years.
“I never want anyone to leave our mission,” he says. “They are in education for the long-term, although they may not stay teachers. Our alumni may become businessmen, politicians or civil servants – that’s the way to create systemic change.”
However, Teach First’s biggest effect may not be in its graduates, but in altering the reputation of the profession. Might the charity be responsible for making the public think that teaching is a “good thing”?
“They’ve definitely made it a more glamorous option than it would have been otherwise,” says Campion-Smith, while Lily Eastwood, another Teach First teacher adds that it “does seem to have some kudos now.”
“I can’t think of a more exciting job to do,” adds Eastwood, “but it does make me a bit uncomfortable when people talk to me like I’m a saint.”
Eastwood also mentions the hit American television series, The Wire, which recently introduced a storyline involving an inner city teacher.
“I don’t think any teacher can watch that and not feel the pain,” she says with a laugh. “Maybe teaching is cool now, until you actually try it.”
Brett Wigdortz is not quite as sure about the “cool” tag.
“If people think teaching children from poorer backgrounds is cool – that’s not a bad thing,” he says after some thought. “But my long-term goal isn’t about that at all. What I want is for there to be no correlation between parental income and educational achievement. I’d like to see schools full of teachers with the Teach First ethos.”
Ends

The Teaching Awards national ceremony takes place on October 31st (http://www.teachingawards.com/)

For more on Teach First, http://www.teachfirst.org.uk/

For more information about Esuubi, visit http://www.esuubi.org.uk/ or contact Esuubi, 8 Overbrae, Beckenham, Kent BR3 1SX