How do you make a factual series about classrooms full of disinterested, sometimes disobedient students, and their optimistic teachers entertaining?
SBS’s Testing Teachers sometimes tests its audience while it tries to show us the reality of modern teaching in Australia 2017.
There are 6 young teachers at schools in Victoria, WA and Northern Territory profiled in this 3 part series. All of them are part of the Teach for Australia programme which fast-tracks first-time teachers into schools in disadvantaged areas.
They go in full of enthusiasm and nerves, plunged into classrooms of struggling, belligerent, anarchic students. It’s a baptism of fire for the six, despite having a mentor teacher to guide them down their rocky road. Some of these kids would give Jonah Takalua a run for his money.
Stephanie, 26, was a FIFO geologist but is placed at Southern River College, 20km south of Perth.
“I want to be somewhere where I can make a a difference and be an inspirational teacher for somebody, hopefully,” she reveals.
Her class of Year 8 students is in an area that has the highest number of children in protective care in Western Australia. Before long they are acting up for their newest guinea pig, possibly spurred on by the presence of TV cameras.
But Stephanie’s first class becomes “an absolute nightmare,” a theme that is oft-repeated across this first episode.
UK-born Fiona is happy to be teaching in the remote Tennant Creek High in the Northern Territory, where Indigenous students dominate class numbers and a 40% truancy rate exists. Fiona wanted to work in a community where she would have connection with her students beyond the hours of class time.
At Melton Secondary College in Victoria, Rwandan-born refugee Emmanuel faces his first Australian class, while exuberant Kitty will teach Science and Drama in a school where 1 in 4 live below the poverty line and 1/3 come from families with a non-English speaking background.
“The students that I am teaching are other people’s babies,” Kitty declares, as tears well up in her eyes.
The cameras follow the young teachers trying to make a good first impression whilst dealing with discipline, sometimes including student brawls, apathy or even sleep deprivation. Kitty’s enthusiasm for Drama would make Mr. G shrink, but you have to admire her persistence.
Last year ABC aired Revolution School in which a radical new teaching programme tried to transform a class trailing state performance levels, while TEN’s Class of 2012 also featured a single group of struggling students. Profiling individual students helped our sympathies as a viewer.
Here the focus is on the young teachers (some kids’ faces are necessarily pixellated) and while we connect with their aspirations it’s a bit of a chore enduring 6 disruptive or apathetic classrooms, especially when the episodes run for an hour, rather than 30 minutes.
Susie Porter is narrator for Screentime here and I trust subsequent episodes will move further from the initial conflict towards an outcome that would make Sidney Poitier & Lulu proud (look it up, if you’re confused).
If you’re mulling a teaching career then this should be a viewing priority, and while Education is constantly overlooked as primetime television, the test is also to make it entertaining beyond being a ‘worthy’ public service.
But Testing Teachers does a fine job in reminding us there are hundreds of Stephanies, Fionas, Emmanuels and Kittys facing young minds with fresh attitudes, in order to make a difference.
Testing Teachers airs 8:30pm Wednesday on SBS.