As Ananda Rabindranath walks through the Early Years section of Oasis Academy Hadley, a uniformed figure less than half his height charges up to him, yelling “Arnie!” and flinging her arms around his knees. He gently disentangles her and explains that he has a meeting now, amid cries of “I don’t want you to go”.
Ananda – Arnie to his pupils – is one of our Early Years participants, teaching children aged three to five. Early Years is one of our newest areas of work – Ananda is part of our very first cohort – so not many of the one million young people our teachers have taught so far are as young as his pupils. But we plan to make them a much bigger part of the next million, because even at their stage in life, inequality in education can have severe effects. We talked to Ananda about the challenges of the field, and how one goes from a PhD in marine biology to teaching Early Years.
What were you doing before you went into teaching?
I grew up in Sri Lanka and my family moved to South India, which is where I was for most of my schooling. While I was at boarding school there were many opportunities to volunteer, working with young people with many different needs, so I spent a lot of time working with children. I had always wanted to be a marine biologist so I came over to the UK to study at St. Andrews, and went on to do a PhD on the effects of climate change on zooplankton in the high Arctic.
Why did you decide to join Teach First?
During my final year at university, I felt it was expected that someone with a PhD would go into academia. But for me I had always been interested in working with children. As I was beginning to think about getting into teaching, lots of my friends were talking about Teach First. It was really easy to find out more about the process and I actually applied for the programme at the same time as my now wife, but she didn’t get through (laughs). For me, the draw wasn’t the fact I was getting paid, but that Teach First gave me the opportunity to work with the kinds of children I wanted to teach - children who may not have been lucky enough to have had the kind of upbringing I had.
Why did you decide to teach Early Years?
I personally believe that you can make the biggest impact on people when they are very young, especially in terms of their outlook on life. The time I spent working with children when in India gave me a particular interest in what I could achieve working with younger children. Originally I applied to teach primary through Teach First, but during the application process the opportunity to be part of the first Early Years cohort came up and that really interested me. I also knew that although there was a real shortage of men in primary this was even more the case in Early Years.
How have you found the school?
My school has had many Teach First participants and we have ambassadors in Senior Leadership positions, so they really understand the process and the support participants need. Inevitably my first year was really tough, as I was juggling my PGCE assignments with teaching.
What has been the biggest surprise for you?
About 75% of my class speak English as a second language, and around 5-6 of those speak very little English at all. Although this was a surprise and a big challenge, it’s really exciting for me to have so many different cultures, nationalities and families to work with.
What has been one of your personal highlights?
There was one child last year who joined my class with hardly any English. His father told me that he had struggled to integrate at his previous nursery and was very unhappy. He wanted his son to be happy and included; he was more concerned about that than his education. To start with the pupil was very quiet, kept to himself and wouldn’t interact much. But after a while he became happier in the class environment and found his confidence, picked up the language, talked to the other children. At the end of the year the same parent came back and told me how happy he was that his son had made such improvements. That was a really big moment for me.
Were there any particular challenges you’ve faced?
The responsibility for my children’s wellbeing has been a real challenge. For example, in the second half-term my class were sitting on the carpet and one of the children at the back collapsed in the middle of the classroom. Luckily my colleagues and I were able to deal with the situation quickly and the child was fine. But it really brought home to me that this job is not just about teaching them maths and English, it’s about looking out for their physical wellbeing. I will be just as concerned about whether they had lunch today as their educational needs - it’s our responsibility that we make sure they are healthy.
Why were you so interested to do this work in the UK?
I grew up in rural India, where you would expect there to be social and economic difficulties, and it’s acknowledged. Coming to the UK, I didn’t expect to find this. I was very surprised that inequality in education is so bad in the UK and that more hasn’t been done about it – in fact the system almost ensures that this gap never closes. So I decided to work with Teach First in the UK was because there is such a limit in understanding of how bad the problem is here. As an Early Years teacher I visit the children’s homes and get to know the families of everyone in my class. I have seen so much of what these families are going through and it really brought home to me how serious this is.
Do you have plans to stay in teaching in future?
I definitely want to stay in teaching and within this age group. It’s such a tough job that seeing the impact I’ve had on these children makes it even more rewarding. I would definitely want to continue working in schools in challenging circumstances, perhaps finding a school where the situation is even tougher that it is here.