Dr Byrne and what makes great English teachers

Last July I came to the end of my time in my first school, working as a full-time English teacher. The school was, in a word, amazing; my contribution to that amazing-ness was undeniably minimal. Yet I was blown away by the beautiful cards my kids and colleagues wrote. This highly emotional transition made me think about teaching English, and why we do it, and who we remember, and I wrote this post in the immediate aftermath of that high emotion.

In my own education, I had a few great English teachers. I was blessed to work in a school with exceptionally minimal staff turnover, meaning I had three English teachers in my time.

First, Mr. Hopper. He was my form tutor as well as teaching me History and English for two years. I had never had a teacher as brilliant: he seemed to know everything, and commanded his class with the discipline of a seasoned professional. I remember in my first week going home to my Mum and telling her: “I want to be an English and History teacher.” To this day I remember individual lessons he taught – he defied expectations of the “experienced teacher” by being incredibly energetic and having fantastically engaging and student-led lessons. He definitely made learning fun, but also set incredibly high standards: I moved to that school from a less “high expectations” environment and remember Mr. Hopper killing me with my first graded piece of work – a C. He made me work harder than I had believed possible.

When I moved on to upper school, I had Mrs. Grinham. The main things we loved about Mrs. Grinham, in no particular order, were: her amazing dress sense, her perfectly cut bob, her stories about her children and grandchildren, her stories about knitting, her stories about baking, her stories about the Jane Austen society, her stories about university. Myself and my female peer group all aspired to be Mrs. Grinham. She sat behind her desk and talked to us about great literature, like the authors and characters were her friends. She also seemed to know everything about everything, and I’m delighted that she taught me at A-level as well as in year 9.

In year 10 to year 13, I was taught by a master teacher. His name, as pretty much all of my current students (and friends) could tell you, is Dr. Byrne. Dr. Byrne, not only seemed to know everything about everything, but actually did. His vocabulary was astonishing. He conducted all his lessons socratically, and never had I been challenged to think and work as hard as I did in those lessons. His questioning was simply incredible. I returned to my old school about five years ago, when I first thought about being a full-time teacher, and when I “observed” Dr. Byrne again I forgot to write any notes about classroom management or pedagogy – I simply took notes on Chaucer, which is what he happened to be teaching at that time.

Dr. Byrne not only taught me in lessons, he also opened up the wide world of literature for me. I am embarrassed to say that I wasn’t a big reader before he taught me. Dr. Byrne told me to keep a log of every book I read, perhaps sensing my competitive edge; I wanted badly for that log-book to be full quickly. (I still keep that list to this day, now fully digitised via googledocs.) That was only the beginning, however. Dr. Byrne used to physically give books to me – the best way of engaging a reluctant reader. I simply hadn’t heard of these authors before, and became transformed into a “reader” almost immediately. When it came to me applying to University, Dr. Byrne gave up a lunch break every week (maybe even more) to tutor me one-to-one in literature, pushing me when looking at poetry to come to conclusions and interpretations under pressure.

I know I’m not the only one deeply affected by Dr. Byrne. All of my school friends still talk about him and what he taught them.

I remember one of my fellow students, however, mentioning that: “for set one, we didn’t get very many A*s”, which was interesting – I hadn’t really explored beyond my own GCSE grade at the time. Perhaps she was right. But even if she was…

This conversation prompted me to think about what teaching English really means. Are we desperately looking for data? School league tables and Ofsted are certainly pushing departments in that direction. One of my colleagues summarized this data-drive nicely: “if they can’t measure it, they don’t see it.” This rings depressingly true.

What Dr. Byrne taught me was definitively not how to achieve an A* in English. Nor did Mrs. Grinham, nor did Mr. Hopper. I was taught how to think, how to analyse, how to interpret, how to challenge, and most of all how to read and love reading. English was always the high-point of my day, and I am grateful now that all I do all day is English, just on the other side.

When I spend lesson time talking to students about books I am reading, or they are reading, that are not on the syllabus, should I feel guilty? Have I wasted a precious moment of their time when they could have perfected their sentence boundaries? I will admit, I frequently bang on about grades with my students – I do talk to them about As and A*s (though I try to not talk about C grades, even with lower sets, as experience has taught me they are almost always capable of more). I sort of wish I did that less. What I am aiming for is for my students to love English, not to love success.

In my last ever lesson in July with my beloved year 9 set 5, I indulged in some non-teaching. We chatted a lot. Some students didn’t choose to chat, but I adored that they took out their personal reading books and read. I love that they enjoyed reading for the sake of reading. I really hope that in the future the bright stars I have left will remember me for more than just getting them high levels, or convincing them they could achieve high grades.

So where is this rambling post going? I’m thinking about the teachers who have formed me, both past and present. My mentor of three years, Ms Moran, now an insanely amazing director of English in a new school too, has definitely made me the teacher I am today. Dr. Byrne has probably done more than anyone to make me the person I am today.

One of those (many) amazing leaving moments came when one of my year 12s told me “you know you always talk about Dr. Byrne? You’re our Dr. Byrne.” I know I’m a long way from that, but it killed me (in a Salinger-positive way) to be told that. Dr. Byrne, I am still inspired by you and I hope one day I can make the above statement a more profound truth.

Loving Shakespeare

I am going to confess to something which I am not proud of: at age 15, I proclaimed to my English teacher (the famed Dr Byrne, of whom more later) that Oscar Wilde was a better playwright than William Shakespeare. And I wasn’t being deliberately argumentative, like I usually was.

I just didn’t like Shakespeare at all.

I didn’t understand it, I didn’t relate to it, and I certainly didn’t know why I had to study it.

Then something changed my view of Shakespeare forever: the 1996 RSC version of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was learning a Shakespeare speech for a LAMDA acting exam, something I am incredibly glad I was forced to do, and for the “discussion” part of the exam we had to be able to discuss the play in its entirety. I picked the DVD up from the library, only because there was no video, and settled down one afternoon in the kitchen. I distrustingly loaded the disc into the PC (a new experience) and shuffled onto a hard kitchen chair to watch it.

The set was incredible: from the man-made lake to the stand-alone doors leading to nowhere to the suspended light bulbs illuminating the forest. It was utterly beautiful. I watched this in 2001, with all my teenage disregard for the bard, at our enormous and unwieldy computer, and I was entirely gripped. The beauty of the staging drew me in, but the relevance of the words was delivered, it seemed, directly to me and directly to my own context. It spoke to me, in a way I hadn’t been spoken to by a play before. I laughed, I cried, and at last I understood.

I’m re-watching this version now to use to teach my year 7 and I am brought back again to the start of my love affair with the bard. Indeed, my single favourite thing about living in London is that I can see live Shakespeare for only £5 a show at the Globe Theatre.

Incidentally, another gem worth a watch is the Globe on screen version of Much Ado About Nothing. I remember watching this production in the theatre itself at the tail end of one of my most stressful teaching terms, and despite not even knowing the story (although my helpful teacher theatre companion did her best to enlighten me en route to the playhouse) found myself laughing uncontrollably.

But how to make my students feel this?

I really believe that the key is a great version; reading words on the page, even as an English teacher, is nowhere near the same as an accomplished actor conveying the lines. So much about plays, anyway, is in the staging, the direction and the delivery of the lines; a novel’s intended audience is only ever an individual, its intended reader’s setting irrelevant, its intended backdrop a blank page. A play clearly has very many more complex layers than this.

The brilliance of a Globe production filmed is not only in the superb acting, but in the nearness of the visible audience, all (in the Much Ado Globe on Screen, and in my own experience) cloaked in rain-macs and huddled to each other and the stage; all interacting with the performance. I am certain the responses of these very familiar-looking modern humans will help my students to appreciate that yes, real people right now laugh at this stuff.

I believe that Shakespeare must be seen first, and acted; not read and analysed to death (although that can come later). On showing my year 9 set 5 Baz Luhrmann’s Act 1 Scene 1 of Romeo and Juliet, my students were bewitched. They really loved it. As one commented: “I didn’t think it would be about people like me!” She might have found the language a turn-off when presented with the page, but seeing the live action challenged that initial distaste for Shakespeare.

I, and I am sure all English teachers, am begging directors and producers everywhere: please, please keep giving us game-changing, earth moving and relevant Shakespeare that we and our students can love.

After all this, I’m still not entirely sure I love reading the stuff. But watching – that’s an entirely different story.