"Sir, what are there more of, Police or Ambulances for serious things?" I tried to decode this question. It turns out what he meant was which emergency service turns up with the greatest frequency. This was a deliberate riddle designed to baffle me. The answer, according to Mervin, was that for serious crimes both are called out exactly the same number of times because for "serious things - like murder killins and that" they both turn up. His next question, "what are there more of, small stairs or big stairs?", was even more cryptic.
Not all my experiences as a teacher have been as strange and confusing. A few have just been strange and terrifying. A young student once threw a log into my room. On another occasion I was slapped on the back of the head whilst attempting to prevent a belligerent group of year nines from forcibly leaving my room. How did I end up in this classroom? And why?
Around Christmas 2002, having managed to stretch my academic life out for half a decade, I was experiencing the crushing weight of expectation regarding my future. I had to start applying for jobs. My fear of the "Real World" was growing as were my debts. I needed a direction.
Like many people I was torn between the desire to swiftly alleviate my overdraft and an inclination to do something vaguely "worthy". I'd spent the last two years doing a sexing up job on my CV with half an eye on the future. I volunteered for a mental health charity; took an unpaid publicity position setting up a website for the fledgling university sports union and spent a couple of weeks with the Big Issue magazine in Glasgow. All of which meant despite being directionless, I didn't feel totally unemployable.
It was around then that a friend of mine mentioned Teach First; a program aimed at transforming graduates into teachers and future leaders. It's changed a lot since I applied three years ago but it remains an excellent middle way for those who wish to make money in the future but not be forced immediately into financial or legal work. This year it was ranked eighth by the Times High Fliers Top 100 Graduate recruiters and won Training Charity of the Year 2009.
Essentially a graduate teacher-recruitment program, with an intensive leadership development course, Teach First offers a range of training opportunities. The "Leadership Development" component of the experience is now (annoyingly for me, who didn't have the chance two years ago) Masters accredited and has three strands: "Leading Learning", "Leading People" and "Leading Organisations". An MA can be gained by completing some extra modules at one of several partner academic institutions. All MAs are fully funded if completed within three years. All participants are expected to complete a summer project, often with one of Teach First's many partner organisations.
Participants will go through a rigorous application process to determine whether they meet the stringent set of competencies Teach First requires. As it expands, the organisation is concerned with maintaining the quality of the graduates it recruits. They talk to all the participants about how to improve the quality of the program.
When I went to represent Teach First at the Graduate Recruitment fair in Glasgow we were swamped. Admittedly the adjacent tables were Lidl and one of those gap year "pay-to-volunteer-building-bridges-someplace-hot" type organisations but we were definitely one of the busiest tables there. I was amazed at the number of students who thought they might actually have to pay to do the program. When told they would be paid a Newly Qualified Teacher salary they asked, what's the catch? The catch is the kids, I should have said.
The first year of teaching was the hardest of my life. When I arrived ashen faced and knackered to a Teach First event held during the first term, the number of "my school-is-tougher-than-your-school" anecdote-offs was depressing but did provide some pretty amusing pub chat when not surrounded by a load of ultra-keen participants. Nobody has actually been killed doing Teach First as far as I know. In fact I am sure the number of fatalities is currently zero. But still, it can feel like crowd control in the early stages. Eventually I stopped taking things personally, began to relax and get to know the kids. There are very few other jobs in which the variety of experience could have been so great. I've directed a Shakespeare play with students who'd never acted before, taken students up to Cambridge for a creative writing course and been made to laugh on a daily basis by the sublimely ridiculous assertions that thirteen-year-olds are able to quite brazenly make.
One student arrived at my school at fourteen with very poor English. His father was a lorry driver in Kurdistan but they had to relocate to the UK. He joined the debating society I ran and became an extremely convincing public speaker. He later applied, with some other students from the school, for the 'J8', a national competition to find UK school age students to meet the members of the G8 and discuss the issues they felt most affected by. They won and went to Italy to meet Gordon, Sarkozy etc. He then captained our school's debating team in a London wide competition and we nearly got to the final round. He left school with an A in English Literature and a B in Language. Everyone who does Teach First has a similar story of great success against the odds. There is no doubt that the skills of leadership I've developed through contact with such students will be transferable to any number of careers.
Teach first and then... Deferred Entry Schemes
Teach First is sponsored by a number of different employers. Graduates go on to work in a range of sectors. However it has particularly strong links with four organizations. Each runs a deferred entry scheme, which you can apply for. If you are accepted you can go and work for them after two years teaching. During those two years they offer support, networking opportunities and summer projects. They may even help you with some of your debt.
Accenture is a global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company with headquarters in Dublin. It is said to be the largest consulting firm in the world. Last year it made a profit of US$ 23.39 billion. Its clients include more than three quarters of the Fortune 500.
The Civil Service Fast Stream is the graduate recruitment arm of the public sector. It is divided into five main sections: Central Departments, Diplomatic Service, European Fast Stream, Houses of Parliament and Science. Ranked in the top five of The Times "Top 100 Graduate Employers".
Barclays Capital is the investment banking division of Barclays Bank PLC with headquarters in London. It provides finance and risk management services to large public and private organisations. It has a balance sheet of over £1.2 trillion. It employs 20,000 people and has a presence in 29 countries.
Procter and Gamble is an American multinational corporation that manufactures a wide range of consumer goods. Its many brands include Duracell, Gillette and Pringles. It employs 138,000 people in over 80 countries worldwide.
PricewaterhouseCoopers provides industry focused assurance, tax and advisory services to clients in the public and private sectors. The UK firm, with revenues of over £2.2bn, belongs to the global network of PwC firms in 153 coutnries, and 155,000 people.