Success Against the Odds, Brett Wigdortz

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I’ve known about Teach First for a long time, and I’ve always known that when I did eventually do my teachers training, it would be with Teach First. There’s just something about it. Simon Sinek’s ‘The Golden Circle’ basically sums it up for me… ‘People don’t buy what you do, but why you do it’. Teach First has a clear vision and passion – that no child’s educational success would be defined by their socio-economic background. This is something I can get on board with, something that I have always felt passionately about. So, her I am in April, starting the Teach First summer institute in just 3 months, and I decided that reading Brett’s book about how he came to found Teach First, why it looks like it does and what, exactly, his vision is, would be a great stepping stone into the training. This is especially poignant as I am aware that I am a part of the last cohort to go through Teach First with Brett as CEO, as he has decided to step down to follow another venture. What he has created, though, will stand firm even in his absence, because people didn’t so much buy into Brett himself as the concept he had – he is no longer the only one passionate enough to hold Teach First together, and I’m really excited to start my journey with them at this time of transition.

Starting Teach First

Brett is a great example of the idea that you can have no idea about something, but if you feel passionate enough, you are able to make a difference. Whilst his family were educators, Brett himself worked in marketing, had the majority of his experiences in business in South East Asia, and is an American. How he came to run the leading teacher’s training in England, then, seems a little improbable. But Brett saw a problem, developed, as part of his role, a way to begin to address it, and because he was the one with the vision and the drive for his project, remained in the UK to see it through. 15 years later, I am about to commence on the training that he developed! This isn’t just a book for teachers, educational professionals or those with a special interest in Teach First. It’s an inspirational tale of a man who decided to make a difference, and did.

The layout

I actually really enjoyed the layout of the novel. I am not an entrepreneur. I have no desire to start my own business or charity, and I am in this to be the best teacher that I can possibly be. But Brett’s book isn’t as exclusive as that. There are helpful parts throughout in which he takes his practical experiences of Teach First and morphs them into a guide which can be applied to anyone starting anywhere, in any sector. Whilst for me, the tales of teachers and pupils were the highlight, I would recommend that anyone who has a vision for a charity take a look at the book as it contains some really handy entrepreneurial tips.

The motivation

The tagline of Success Against the Odds is ‘five lessons in how to achieve the impossible’. It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago, the vision that Brett had was laughed at, or dismissed out of hand, by so many, when now it is a force to be reckoned with throughout the UK, and places thousands of participants in schools every single year.

In some ways, I feel like Wigdortz wrote this to be studied by Teach First members. Each chapter very clearly relates to an aspect of the 5 key elements of leadership: Commitment; Integrity; Excellence; Leadership; Collaboration. He writes it almost like an A Level essay, trying to hit the correct number of times in relating the story or point back to the original question, or in this context, element. It was, in many ways, really helpful as an incoming participant to see how Brett had to both learn about and learn how to apply these skills in his development of Teach First, and also to come to understand the high expectations of leadership that Teach First has. They can preach at us as much as they want, but seeing their expectations in practice by the man who developed their model, is a far more effective way of helping them to sink in. I wonder whether this will become compulsory reading once I begin my course, as I do feel it offers insights that they simply won’t have time to give us in the 5 weeks of training before we begin our careers as teachers.

Conclusion

I was doubtful as to how much use Success Against the Odds would be for me, having already been accepted on the course and knowing that I want to be a teacher, but actually, I have come away feeling that I know far more about Teach First than I did initially, and with a far greater understanding of the fight they had to make the route in teacher’s training as successful as it is today.

However, the wider reach of the book ensures that it is useful not only for those of us embarking on Teach First, but for anyone who is starting a business or charity, and needs to learn the value of positive and effective leadership. I strongly recommend this book, as it is quite light and easy to read, but certainly provides interesting perspectives.

Stone Cold, Robert Swindells

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There is nothing I like better than going into a book with absolutely no preconceptions or idea what I’m getting myself into and this was one such example. Whereas with the previous curriculum texts I’ve been reading (Lord of the Flies, Skellig) I have read them with the singular purpose of learning to teach them, I had no idea what this book was about and so decided to keep it that way, as with reading for fun. I’m really glad I did, and actually I think I’ve finally found a book that I would be genuinely excited to teach for its content as much as for its literary value and societal implications. It’s hard trying to prepare to teach when I don’t even know what local authority I’ll be in, let alone what school I’ll be in, and as a result no matter how much reading I do I still might miss the text that my school will teach. So it’s hard to control the excitement regarding the novel when there is a distinct possibility that I might not even end up teaching it! That said, I am excited to blog about this as a book I have enjoyed, and not just one I have had to make myself read.

The Premise and the Golden Circle

Throughout the training days with Teach First that I’ve had so far, and the wider reading and research I’ve done, I have come across ‘the golden circle’ several times, the concept that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Robert Swindells is very clear in his final appeal that this book was written as the result of many personal interactions with homeless young people in London, and a desire to help them. The support the novel has received from the charity Crisis supports this, and gives the novel a much deeper meaning and purpose than simply telling a crime story, expanding its reach to tryiing to make a change for the few young people that it can. As a result, the story telling feels more poignant and I can absolutely see how the fact that this could be a real person the age or only slightly older than the pupils I would be teaching, would make a personal response to this novel much more viable.

Link, our protagonist, leaves home after his abusive stepfather and oblivious mother become too much for him to handle. At first he stays in Bradford, but shame and necessity cause him to relocate to London where he thinks that pickings will be a little bit easier to gain. After his first two weeks staying in a dirty, expensive bedsit, Link ends up on the street.

Running parallel to this sad tale of a teenager with no support or love to see him through, is the story of an older man who has also been kicked out of his home. Shelter served in the army for many years, and, having been discharged on medical grounds, he has lost his purpose of taking the young trainees sent to him and turning them into effective and disciplined soldiers. He has taken it upon himself, therefore, to rid the streets of London of those young people he considers in need of training, killing them and creating his own army corpses.

Some Analysis

Gloomy, I know! But actually, very effective. It’s obvious from the start where the stories are going to collide, and as an adult reading the novel, it was predictable and basic. However, the heart of the story is Link, and I was genuinely very distressed reading about his treatment by other humans. The novel certainly achieved Swindell’s purpose of warming the heart towards those nameless figures we so often hurry past and ignore on our way to so much more important things.

Paralleling Links’s rejection with Shelter’s rejection from the army ensured that there was a modicum of sympathy for the antagonist, whose back story of service and war created a figure who was to be pitied rather than hated, a fact often missing from ‘villains’ in literature for young people.

Aside from the standard literary techniques that you would study with a class, this novel is especially effective because it gives a character that everyone can relate to. As an adult reading, you feel sympathy and sadness for the young person thrust into this situation. As a young person, whether it’s Y7 or Y11, Link is close to their age, and the situations that he experiences at home, or out on the street, are stark and realistic and totally accessible for the target audience. Perhaps if every class read this novel, there will in a decade or so be an adult generation in a position to help and with the motivation and desire to do so.

Conclusion

As I say, this is more a review than an analysis as I enjoyed the book sufficiently that it didn’t feel like work reading it! I would definitely recommend anyone with teenagers give them this novel to read in order to appreciate the struggles that come with homelessness and poverty. That said, I would also recommend it for reading as an adult, as I can guarantee I will think twice before walking past a homeless child again.

The Confident Teacher, Alex Quigley

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I suppose by writing and posting a review of this book, it makes it a little bit official. I have been offered, and have accepted, a place on Teach First 2017 cohort, where I will spend the next 2 years from July 2017 training in a school to become the very best Secondary School teacher that I can be. I am really excited to take on this adventure, but I have a lot of reading to do before I get started! So, reading for fun will probably just take a side seat for a little while now. But this blog is for things that I have read, and they don’t have to be popular, or fictional, for me to be able to enjoy them and share a bit about what I’ve learned. So here we are, the first book that I have read as a start to my new career.

Overview

This was  fantastic book, filled to brimming with great ideas and good advice, all mixed in with science and research to back up each point. Quigley is a competent and engaging writer. I believe that English is the subject that he teachers, which was really helpful for me as this is the subject I’ll be undertaking, but he takes a range of examples from a variety of subjects which means that this book is relevant and educational for teachers at all ends of the spectrum.

That said, I would say that this book would better serve a teacher with a minimum of a year or two of experience. Whilst it does sell itself as ‘an essential resource for all qualified and trainee teachers wanting to reach their full potential’, I can understand why ‘qualified’ is referred to first. The Confident Teacher requires an extent of experience that trainee (and future trainee) teachers might not yet hold, especially those on the younger end of the spectrum. I have thoroughly enjoyed and learned a lot from reading the book, but will return to it in a year and see how much more it will impact my work then.

Why I Bought It

I purchased this book because of its tagline: ‘Developing successful habits of mind, body and pedagogy’. I had very little understanding of the role of the teacher as pedagogue (which essentially boils down to not only understanding your subject, but being able to take that knowledge and package it up and hand it out as a teacher). I’m still not a hundred per cent confident that I have a full understanding of the role, and that is something that I’m going to continue exploring in my reading as I am well aware that its a deficit going forwards. But Quigley really does bring to life the importance of the role of a pedagogue, and offers some interesting perspectives on it.

I found interesting his take on the setting of a classroom. He is well aware of the difficulties for teachers in less well-funded schools, where sometimes the classroom isn’t as well equipped as might be preferred, but he is adamant that ‘no matter the setting, learning happens’. (p. 169)

His references to ‘Subject Pedagogical Knowledge’ (p. 172) helped me to better understand that it isn’t just the subject knowledge which is important. In fact, ‘once you reach a certain degree of subject knowledge expertise, beyond what the students are required to know, the returns in the classroom begin to diminish’. (p. 172) Subject Pedagogical Knowledge is ‘a combination of knowing the content matter, the students, and a wide range of teaching strategies’. In short, the same subject matter will require different techniques, explanations and examples to be taught depending on the students, and as ‘expert’ teachers, it is our job to know as many techniques as possible in order to be able to educate those we teach. It’s a daunting task.

Other things I liked

So, other things I liked about this book, aside from the descriptions and definitions of pedagogy which I very much needed to be broken down.

Quigley describes teaching as a series of steps. The task would be insurmountable if we took it as a whole, but he describes just making one small change, such as pausing longer between asking a question and giving the answer, which will have a huge impact. (pp. 107-198) His suggestions are small and manageable, and you can see how in the long term, they will bring a satisfying return.

There is a huge focus on school leadership. Not yet working as a teacher in a school, I can only hope I have the support and leadership that Quigley suggests throughout his book.

There were a lot of small, bullet pointed lists of suggestions for teaching, feedback exercises and many other areas. These were great as I’ve already been able to note down some of my favourites and plan how I might put them into action.

Overall

I really enjoyed reading and engaging with this book, and would definitely buy other books by Quigley to study in the run up to commencing my teacher’s training. I am hoping that he has other books which are aimed more at a student teacher audience, as I feel I would definitely benefit more from that in the first instant. But overall, this is a must read for any developing teacher, and a great introduction to some of the difficulties I may face in the coming years, and how to overcome them.