This article examines what both in-service and pre-service trainee teachers learn from their early experience of teaching in further education (FE) colleges in England. Despite differences between in-service and pre-service trainees, that early experience is often characterised by isolation and lack of control over practice for both groups. Although trainee teachers may develop as a result of this experience of working in FE, a discourse that emphasises their growing confidence obscures how these trainees may not be enhancing their professional practice, but rather learning to cope with difficult circumstances. This article draws on data gathered between 2005 and 2009 from two separate projects, one that focused on pre-service, the other on in-service teacher education in FE colleges. It problematises the effect of this early experience and applies the Marxist concept of alienation to analyse the development of trainee teachers in relation to coping rather than learning to teach. As a partial counterbalance to the paucity of the early experience of many trainee teachers, the article concludes by arguing that teacher education for the FE sector should be directed towards increasing the autonomy of teachers and be constructed around a body of professional knowledge rather than the long list of statutory professional standards that shapes current provision in England.