I remember the journey vividly; torrential rain splattering the window as my train cut through the east coast of England, passing grey and drab towns I previously had no need of knowing. Thanks to some well-targeted Facebook ads and a persuasive sociology lecturer, I found myself on this journey from Cambridge to Gateshead, ready to start my teacher training with Teach First.
It wasn’t the softest of landings. In a matter of months I’d gone from being a student at one of the world’s best universities to the most inexperienced maths teacher at one of the lowest performing secondary schools in the country. Students’ behaviour here was the making of a trainee teacher’s nightmare. From the flashpoints of chairs thrown, tables flipped and punches hit, to the persistent low level disruption of chatting and disengagement, teaching – never mind learning – was near impossible. Throw into the mix an overwhelmed management and a small minority of verbally abusive parents, looking back it could only be by God’s grace that I kept hope when everything else pointed to despair.
On countless cold and dark North Eastern winter mornings, dragging myself out of bed at 5.30am, there was one passage that kept coming back to me from my time with Just Love. I remember Isaiah 35 floated around at various ‘Vision Day’ discussions we’d held as the committee, but it never struck a chord with me – I would probably get distracted somewhere between the jackal and other ‘ravenous beasts’ that quaint Cambridge had few of. But now it was beginning to make sense.
Through the deprivation I saw in my students who come to school in winter without a coat, or who feel faint on a Monday morning after a weekend without free school meals, I saw that Gateshead may not be sun-scorched, but for wealth and opportunity it may as well be Isaiah’s description of a parched desert. Equally, that my top sets would learn to add negative numbers, or that my bottom sets would learn to sit still in their seats, seemed as likely as the passage’s blind seeing and lame leaping. As I learned that the parents of my most troublesome students were themselves victims of drug addiction, alcoholism and childhood abuse I even began to see the stalking jackals and ravenous beasts that consumed the community.
Isaiah 35 helped me to realise that our hope is resilient when all around us causes us to despair. Indeed our hope is worked out in the context of suffering that produces perseverance, perseverance that produces character; and character, hope (Romans 5 : 3-4). I soon began to see that what set me apart from other teachers I knew was not integrity, resilience or even sacrificial service – they all had plenty of the above. The difference was hope. I’m fortunate enough to be part of an exciting church plant, St George’s Gateshead, filled with people who hope against the odds that we will see transformation in the region; be it in education, youth work, healthcare or business. As the Vicar frequently reminds us – as Christians we’re called to be the most hopeful people in the world.
Through this hope I’ve seen amazing things happen. Throughout the school previously unteachable classes did become places of learning. Children for whom the school day would previously have been a chaotic, confrontational and failure ridden affair became one of stability, positivity and success. Students who dreaded my classes, and who I dreaded teaching, are now genuinely pleased to see me after a vacation. This summer I and some Teach First colleagues will be launching the region’s first summer school providing both academic support and meals for children whose families may struggle to do so.
We know that those who receive a better education are more likely to escape poverty, live for longer and have greater life satisfaction. Beyond exam results, teachers can also build intangibles such as self confidence and aspiration – scarce resources in the awkward teenage years. Yet too many areas like Gateshead struggle to keep good teachers, after just eight months I was already the longest serving teacher in my department. Teaching is a career worth considering for anyone serious about breaking the cycle of social exclusion.
There will still be setbacks along the way, there will still be moments when all around us causes us to despair. But whatever parched deserts or ravenous jackals that Just Love alumni go on to face, I pray that our hope would remain resilient. Isaiah encourages the fearful hearts to be strengthened, for our hope is in a God who saves, and:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
(Isaiah 35: 5 -7)
Andrew was a founding member of Just Love Cambridge. Since then he has been teaching in Gateshead as part of the Teach First Leadership Development Programme. His reflection is the latest in our series of alumni stories – spotlighting the journeys of Just Love alumni after graduating. To read more about our vision to see alumni pursuing Jesus and justice in every sphere of society, head here.