Behaviour and Tough Young Teachers – the other way of looking at it

Part 2 of the new BBC Three documentary series ‘Tough Young Teachers’ was shown last week, its production supported by Teach First. Their mission is to ‘end inequality in schools’, the aim of the series ‘to show the sometimes gruelling, often life-changing journey of a new teacher on screen for the very first time.’

Part 2 was all about behaviour.

Is ‘Tough Young Teachers’ a documentary, or a Docu/Drama? The subject of behaviour in schools always makes for a good bit of dramatic tension after all. The Docu part might be giving us a deep insight into the reality of Education in the 2000s. But in my mind’s eye I keep glimpsing the camera crew in the classroom, together with thirty students and a teacher or two. Does the presence of the observer affect the observation? Probably. No matter, this is also a Drama, with a caste of characters.

So how should it be reviewed, as Docu or Drama? Schools are such mysterious places to most of us once we go out through the school gates for the last time. Mind you they were pretty mysterious when we were there as students too, when clearly the most important reason to us for going to school was to Grow Up and Find a Few Friends. The teachers had their own agenda, but it didn’t really get in the way of what we knew we were there for.  We just had to comply enough. Getting a glimpse of what goes on, on your flat panel, from the comfort of your own chair, is one way to get to Know About Education. And the best way to get to know what the series really means is to read the reviews.

The TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett, as ascerbic as usual, let us know in no uncertain terms where his sympathies lay: 

He was taking evidence on the teacher Meryl.

“There was indeed trouble in River City,” he wrote in his latest TV review, “Meryl’s GCSE class enjoyed using her as a piñata, especially, it appeared, when she was being observed, the little sods. Did I hear one of them shout “Morning Meryl!” at her? I nearly reached through the telly to end the little Jaspar.”

Sit up and pay attention! This passage from Bennett deserves some scrutiny. Just to make things clear a Piñata is a decorated figure of an animal containing sweets that is suspended from a height and broken open by blindfolded children as part of a celebration (Oxford Dictionary).

The term ‘Little sods’ means “little fools, idiots or bastards”.

And ‘Jaspar’ might be an obscure reference to the Bible.

So in translation this passage reads, “The young teacher was bashed around by the children for entertainment, the little bastards, and I would like to have been there to punish them.” This is interesting.

Then Bennett gives some advice in his role as the Behaviour Guru. Firstly, he tells us, it is a myth that when students are engaged in their learning they behave well; secondly, if the class is badly behaved, he reassures us this is not the teacher’s fault, it’s because some children are just bad. He says “There’s an odd dislocation between the way we treat students and the way we treat new teachers. The former are feted; the latter learn to love the lash.” Tom seems to be suggesting this is the wrong way round and even though we can’t use the lash on bad children these days,  we might be able to get him to come along and ‘end’ them for us.

Over at the Telegraph, Sarah Rainey having seen Episode 1 starts her series review, “If there’s a tenth circle of hell, being a new teacher in an inner city school might well be it. And if Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire has shown us how satisfying and rewarding the profession can be, Tough Young Teachers was a terrifying insight into the other end of the spectrum.” She ends: “Just as Educating Yorkshire has proved an unlikely success, this has the potential to portray the real problems of the education system – and how teachers like these are our best hope to address them.” Both Drama and Docu there, I think. And a bit of language that could have come from the TES.

Meanwhile, here at the Guardian, reviewer Laura McInerney saw the first programme and started her review with the Docu or Drama question. She thought the cast of six “were sitcom-like in manner. They were the ‘quirkies’”. “How realistic was the portrayal of their first day? Judging by the reaction on Twitter, even die-hard cynics praised its accuracy.” So it’s Docu then. She moved on to the serious part by asking: “So what did we learn from the first episode?” Her first three points were about the need for organisation and motivation. Her fourth was “Difficult students are difficult in detention too”  commenting “Every new (teacher) student thinks that detention is the answer, and then they discover that getting students to attend requires the cunning of a diamond thief, and that once they are in the class you are now facing the most difficult student – again!”.

Clearly this series is a Real Look at Real Education and how it ought to be done. The reliability of the evidence is confirmed by the Tweets.


Laura McInerney’s final thought was this: “Among all the focus on teachers and badly behaving children, it was easy to overlook the fleeting but extraordinary kindness of Honour, a young Asian girl desperately trying to  help a new pupil who spoke no English. In every challenging school there are students like Honour who are regularly forgotten, but who help their teachers and fellow students and make an enormous difference.” So taking her lead, here’s another perspective:

Part 2 of Tough Young Teachers was set in three schools with a total student population of  around 3000 or so. The programme focused on a very small number of students selected form this large group. Bad Behaviour makes for good TV; that’s the way to choose who should star in this programme. The head teacher of one school has criticised the programme makers for focusing on difficult pupils. After all the series is called Tough Young Teachers, not Tough Young Students. Whether or not his criticism is justified, the reviewers have focused on these few individuals and treated them as if they are only what they seem to be in school, ‘little sods’ as the TES puts it. The new teachers know the ‘Don’t smile till Christmas’ rule, they’re been told that they must be in control. The Ofsted Chief Inspector agrees, he says that good teachers ‘exude authority’. Caleb is given an ultimatum by a senior teacher “You join us or you leave.” He knows about this offer, he’s heard it before. He was in a pupil referral unit before he came to this school. He wouldn’t have been there unless he’d been struggling with school. He’d missed out on his time in his mainstream school when he could have been preparing himself for his GCSE years. He’s told he can get a good grade by his TY teacher, but as Tom Bennett puts it “Would Caleb realise that he only had the potential to get a B in his GCSE in the same way I can potentially run a marathon in flip-flops.”

Then the Guardian reviewer reminds us of something important. Schools are filled with children; studying, growing up, making friends, being the best they can be, making mistakes. At the end of Part 2, Caleb has tears in his eyes. He talks about his hopes, he says it in his own way. He’s dealing with rejection and still hoping for the best. He’s one of the 3000 again.

It’s better to be present in schools in some way, presenting at least some perspective rather than not being there at all.  We’re seeing people, young and older, with strengths and weaknesses dealing with very important issues. It’s up to all of us as viewers, the programme makers and the reviewers to maintain a sense of balance.

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