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There are a number of ways to train as a classroom teacher. Here, Dr Alex Southern introduces her own research in this field, and considers the impact of bespoke teacher training programmes on the profession itself…

Teaching in Wales is changing. It has always been a dynamic profession, but the launch of the Welsh Government’s ‘National Mission’ for education marks a significant and deliberate shift in what it means to be a ‘teacher’.

The mission outlines new professional standards for teachers; reform of Initial Teacher Education (ITE); and career-long professional learning, based on research and collaboration in the sector, among other initiatives that aim to raise standards in schools. These changes will impact upon individual teachers and on the profession as a whole.

Academic research has often explored how governments redefine the education system, in order to analyse the effects on schools. In 2010, Leaton-Gray and Whitty described how government control over schools, and over the teaching habitus, has increased in recent years.

By habitus, we mean the specific requirements and expectations of a teacher that influence and describe how s/he performs her/his role. ITE has shifted in response to the previous, UK Coalition Government call for ‘professionalisation’ in the sector.

There are now ITE programmes that focus on development of a generic, graduate career, rather than a long-term commitment to pedagogy. Teach First is one such programme which, researchers Stanfield and Cremin argue, is creating a transient education workforce of ‘Elite Graduates’ who are self-serving, and don’t contribute to developing the teaching profession as a whole, thereby disrupting the habitus.

The 2014 documentary TV series, Tough Young Teachers, followed the experiences of Teach First trainees in schools in London. The series establishes binary divisions between success, represented by the Teach First teachers, and failure, represented by the ‘struggling’ pupils in ‘disadvantaged’ schools, and ultimately between the middle class, ‘Elite Graduates’ and their working class pupils.

This dichotomy is borne out in some of the British popular press. Teach First ‘participants’ are repeatedly referred to as ‘high-flying’, ‘top graduates’ from ‘leading universities’ who are ‘making a difference’ by ‘giving something back’ in ‘challenging’ circumstances to pupils in ‘disadvantaged’ schools.

These representations are clearly unhelpful in establishing a workforce that nurtures and supports pupils, and does not reflect the collaborative, inclusive vision of reform articulated in the Welsh Government’s National Mission. But to what extent are the representations evident in practice?

In the 2014-15 school year, I carried out some research to explore exactly this question. I held focus groups and interviews with participants on Teach First Cymru (n=4) and the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP; n=6) at UWTSD to explore whether the language of Teach First in the media was particular to that specific programme, and the extent to which the public representations of Teach First matched the opinions and perceptions of a small selection of participants in Wales.

The way in which this group of Teach First participants describe their own experience of teaching does not simply reflect the outstanding/challenging dichotomy, evident in media representations of the programme. They did not, for example, see either the schools or pupils as challenging.

Challenge, for them, stemmed from their own development as teachers, such as wellbeing, confidence in the corridors, the emotional rollercoaster of teaching. The challenges that the GTP group described were more practical in nature, and external to the trainees, such as the workload, or ICT.

The Teach First group’s strategies for overcoming the challenges also differed from the GTP trainees. A Teach First participant advised his group that ‘self-leadership’ was the solution to overcoming challenge. The term derives from the Teach First Values, which were reflected in the strategies offered by the rest of the group.

For example, “reflection”, “honesty”, and “taking responsibility”. By contrast, the GTP group discussed the importance of experience in overcoming the challenges they faced, and the value of building good relationships with experienced colleagues, to learn the skills and techniques that would enable them to become effective teachers.

The responses demonstrate the difference between the self-reliance, and corporate identity, of the Teach First participants, and the more collaborative approach to the training process that the GTPs described in their focus group, and at subsequent interviews. While not by itself conclusive, this does point to variations in trainees’ understandings of the teaching profession, and in their practice.

Given the rise of Teach First programmes globally, and the strength of the circulating discourse, I would argue that further investigation into the impact of Teach First on the teaching habitus would be beneficial to the profession.

Furthermore, the current move to ‘professionalise’ teaching in Wales, as articulated in the National Mission, must take into consideration the experience of trainees in negotiating the new concept of professionalism, and the resultant impact on the teaching habitus, so that what it means to be a ‘teacher’ is a concept that is not further disrupted by conflicting articulations.

See Disrupting the habitus? Media representations and participant experience of Teach First: an exploratory case study in Wales, for the full article on this research.

  • Dr Alex Southern is a Research Associate at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David