Harry Fletcher-Wood

What underpins an outlier’s success?

What does it take to thrive in a challenging school environment? We asked 25 Teach First trainees for their opinions.

What does it take for a teacher to survive in a school which they themselves describe as ‘chaotic’, which may have seen numerous changes in leadership and direction, or might have suffered years of perceived failure?  This year, our team interviewed twenty-five Teach First trainees (as well as their mentors and tutors), who had thrived in environments like this.

All our interviewees’ schools had been deemed either Requires Improvement or Inadequate; many had seen numerous head teachers; some had struggled to support their staff fully.  We sought to understand what these trainees had done, and what support they had received, that had enabled them to do so well; this blog is the first of a series sharing some of our findings. We began our research without preconceived ideas, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, it rapidly became clear that trainees had demonstrated resilience. Rereading what they had said however, we gradually recognised what had fed and underpinned this resilience.

'Relentlessly hard'

Warner’s school consistently had the lowest GCSE results in his city; poor behaviour and a “bleak” environment made teachers’ lives “relentlessly hard”, in his tutor’s words.  Warner showed many qualities, including commitment, professionalism and perseverance, but underneath them all lay one “really strong driver”, a personal belief that “social inequality is really unjust”.  His tutor described how this ‘permeated’ his day-to-day actions.  Warner was not alone; in all, seventeen of our twenty-five interviewees expressed a determination to act in pursuit of fairer outcomes for their students.  Liza saw a new leadership team introduced early in her first year teaching, but things remained unstable and behaviour challenging.  She reminded herself however, that “this is what I signed up for”.  While Warner spoke of social justice in more general terms, Liza was motivated by a desire to work with young people who “don’t see the point in education… and have really bad odds against them”.  This core purpose kept our interviewees going, despite the challenges they faced.

'Doing the right thing'

Josh looked at school differently: for him, his own education had represented a sanctuary, where the support and success he had enjoyed combined to create an environment he loved.  As a teacher, he saw rapid change after academisation, and a high staff turnover; he spoke of his wish to provide what he had benefited from to the children he now taught: “I'd like them to be able to feel that sense of something, value, worth, achievement, attainment, whatever, within this environment in the school if they're not getting it elsewhere.”  Josh provides an example of another kind of core motivation shown by thirteen of our interviewees: a belief in the importance of the teacher’s role and the importance of serving their students’ needs.  When Madeline struggled, she reminded herself that she was “doing the right thing”, the “best job in the world”.  A similar feeling helped Katie, who felt that she couldn’t let her students down – so her struggles and her effort became “about them, rather than about us”.

'A strong sense of what we thought we should be achieving'

Amanda’s school had recently been taken over by an academy chain, and in her first year teaching she had five different head teachers.  Her colleague described her clear sense of the teacher that she wanted to be, and her ability to keep sight of that, describing her ability to remain “true to herself” and to what she wants to achieve.  Seven of our interviewees had, like Amanda, a clear vision of the kind of teacher they wished to become and how to work towards it.  In a different, but equally challenging context, Cathy and her fellow trainees “built a really strong sense of what we thought we should be achieving and what we wanted the school to achieve.”Their beliefs came from a range of sources.  Marcy felt personally familiar with social injustice and driven to change it.  Josh had been in care and felt that he could empathise with some of the challenges facing his students.  Cathy found that entering teaching had made her “far more passionate about social change and society that I never had even considered before.”

Identifying and focusing on meaningful goals

While their origins ranged, by the end of our study we felt confident that our interviewees’ visions – their core, underlying purposes – marked them out and was critical to their success.  Their ability to identify worthwhile and meaningful goals, and to remain focused upon them, underpinned the attributes and actions which helped them to succeed.  For example, their resilience in challenging circumstances was rooted in a conviction that what they sought to achieve was intrinsically important – that they were doing something worth being resilient for.  Conversely, their perseverance in the face of difficulties reinforced their purpose – their sense that what they were doing was worthwhile grew as they did it.

While Teach First has always spoken of its vision and its mission, our findings highlight the importance of helping our incoming trainees explore their underlying reasons for joining the programme.  They suggest that, when a new teacher faces setbacks, reminding them of their reasons for entering teaching initially may help reinforce their determination.  Finally, it implies that new teachers opting to work in challenging schools will benefit from having a clear sense of why they have made this choice.  A close understanding of what they are hoping to achieve may provide the motivation which helps teachers keep going when the going gets tough.

All names have been changed.

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