What I want from an education in English

I write to think. It has always been this way.

It’s coming to the end of what most teachers would say is the longest term; certainly any NQTs and Teach Firsters out there will find this term longer than any other. Students are tired. Staff are tired. Things that would leave you unruffled in September, and even November, now cause undue stress and anxiety. You can’t smooth over disagreements with cheeriness. There is no cheer left.

These are the dark days of teaching, both literally and metaphorically. We wake up in the dark, get into school in the dark, leave school when it is dark, walk down dark roads to dark homes. I have a tendency toward very painful headaches at this point in term, normally on Monday and Friday evenings, so there are several times when I sit in the dark. It’s a gloomy old time.

I’ve found myself this week feeling like I don’t have a vision. I don’t know where I’m going, or why. I am a product of Teach First and Teach for All’s sessions, which have shaped me, and I truly feel that without a vision I am purposeless; anchorless.

You can’t go into school every day just to pick up a paycheck. Teaching is too hard for that, too demanding, too exhausting. I’m finding I seem to know more and more people who are leaving the exhausting and frustrating world of state education for what seem to be Elysian fields of private schools: a curriculum they have control over, a trust concerning their professionalism, shorter school years and higher pay.

I’m writing to think today, and I’m trying to think out this “vision” business.

I can start with my students, because when all else fails they are my bright shiny beacon of hope. I’ll start with the students who miss a lesson and track me down to pick up the work. They brighten my day endlessly.

Because I want my students to be independent. I’ve loved Lucy Crehan’s post on Canadian schools here: our students should be encouraged and led towards this level of independence and motivation. At the moment, there are 35 students in Year 11 who are on a D or below in English. All of them could be on a C. What is missing is not intelligence, but motivation.

And then there are the students, and I usually find this out when I call home or meet parents at parents evening, who “are always talking about English.” They love it. They enjoy it.

I want my students to have joy in reading, and joy in exploring texts. Of course I want them to achieve high levels and high grades, but I definitely don’t want to drag them across the level 4 threshhold or D/C borderline kicking and screaming. I want them to drift there naturally, as the cumulative result of reading and enjoying their learning; wanting to do more and go further.

The students who bring a book to detention, and it is one I have recommended. The students I see reading while queuing outside their next lesson. Even the students who I catch reading when they should be doing their task.

If my students don’t love reading when they leave me, I will have failed. And I’ll admit that every year I fail many, many, all too many, students in this respect. It is something I need to work harder and smarter at, because too many students leave secondary school and never pick up a novel again.

What does that mean?

  • Students who are self-motivated and want to succeed.
  • A love of learning.
  • Education not as a means to an end, but a joyous end in itself.

There is another aspect of this vision business, which I alluded to earlier. It is contentious among my friends and colleagues. All children, they contend, deserve an amazing education. I have to agree.

But I also have to work with students who might not have the advantages that others grow up with. Because it is a cruel and unusual thing that students will go further the better off their parents are. It is undeniably wrong that the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots is refusing to close. I adored Stuart Lock’s post about why he wants to be a head; I would echo all his sentiments, which are too eloquently put to summarise here.

Education needs to become the equalizer. For all the talk about what a teacher is not, and the reasonable expectations of a human doing a job and having some kind of life, I accept that there are times when teachers have to play the social worker, the state, the parent even. We have to pick up the responsibility, even if it is not our responsibility, because it is the right thing to do.

There are children who will leave school without qualifications, who have despised their education, who will never fulfill their potential. And I will work every day to make sure that that doesn’t happen for one less child.

It’s definitely not a vision yet, what I have written above. I write to think, and I am grateful you have read.

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.

More Texts or More Depth?

I have been recently challenged to consider what the role of an English teacher is. This usually happens when I meet people whose views I disagree with, which is one of my favourite things to do. I love re-considering what I had initially assumed to be true. More often than not, I end up doing some serious mind-changing; partly because I have never had debating skills, or possibly I am deeply impressionable. I am hoping it is mostly because other people are right, and I am wrong, and I make the right choice.

So, I had always thought, inspired by the Teach for America chieftains and Rafe Esquith, the job of an English teacher was mostly to expose and lead students through as much literature as was humanly possible, preferably, inspired by Joe Kirby’s impressive curriculum here, also showing them the evolution of language, style and content through a beautifully arranged compendium of the whole of literature ever.

It began with library lessons, which I have always maintained are wonderful and valuable. An esteemed colleague put the argument that “students can read in their own time – and I am aware that some don’t” – but is that a problem that their English teacher in their English lesson should be solving? He argued that we have limited time to lead our students, and rather than that being a race through all the literature, we should be going for deep knowledge and embedded skills.

This alternative universe is a new one to me, but it’s one I am willing to explore. Though there are already some parallels: often, when taking out the Shakespeare play we will be studying in year 7, 8 or 9, a handful of children will exclaim: “but I already did that play! In primary school!” Yet those same children seem, at best, to have a shaky grasp on the plot of the play, let alone the nuances of theme and character I would like them to explore. Indeed, my year 11 revisited a play many of them had studied in year 8, and all had an undeniably different experience of reading the play anew and older.

Like all schools, we revisit Shakespeare every year, and I think most teachers would argue very strongly that the repetition of this particular author builds up our students’ understanding and enjoyment. But perhaps how long we spend on Shakespeare needs to be explored. Usually, I give over the entire two half terms after Easter for Shakespeare at KS3. With few exceptions, we study the whole play, minus the truly terrible scenes, and there is a lot of acting, creative re-interpretation and philosophy circles along the way – rest assured, it is not mere ploughing through the text.

Yet I wouldn’t spend a full term on, for example, poetry. I seem quite happy to teach poetry for five or six weeks a year and be done with it until the following year. Other than practicing their understanding, inference and analysis, how much do students really get out of such a short unit? If we are thinking about how we sequence and deliver content and skills, perhaps there needs to be more time spent on deep learning and multiple examples.

This race through the curriculum is especially exacerbated at KS4, when many English teachers feel they are “teaching to the test” with Controlled Assessment after Controlled Assessment, and little time for real, deep learning to occur. (There were times with my last year 11 when I thought in despair: “I haven’t actually taught them anything since year 9. They’ve just been practicing doing it.”)

That said, it may also be argued that familiarity breeds enthusiasm. In my last English department, we were hopeful that the students who end up in year 13 will not look with trepidation on the Wife of Bath’s Tale, but instead associate that text with familiarity and fun they had with Chaucer in year 7.

For a “depth not breadth” approach to truly work, I would argue that a school needs a robust policy of reading for pleasure, which is enforced. Students can read at home, but do they read at home? There is ample “down time” in many school timetables for reading for ten minutes or twenty, for example during form-time, but it needs to be enforced throughout the school.

At this point in time, I’m undecided: I genuinely don’t know what the best balance between quality and quantity is in the curriculum I would offer to students. But I’m going to explore a “depth” curriculum this year and find out.