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Teaching is not what I expected

Now in my fourth year of teaching English (although this year, teaching English in France), I like to play a game where I take myself back to the first months of my PGCE and remember the things that struck me as odd about teaching and schools.

It is possible that my experience of British State secondary schools was even more befuddling than most PGCE trainees as my own schooling was in France.  Although I have Welsh parents, I attended a French International school from 5 to 18, and only came to the U.K. for my degree. I felt like I had an outsider’s perspective and I was fascinated to see how little British schools made sense to me. I may feel the same if I returned to my French school now twenty years later, although the other PGCE students didn’t seem to experience the same disconnect. Regardless, the experience seemed like an invaluable insight into how the students might be feeling in their lessons and those memories are important to me now because I use them to guide me when I’m not sure what and how I should be teaching.

Here are some of the things that stood out to me as befuddling as I observed more and more lessons: so much information was delivered by Powerpoint but no other tech was used, hardly any full books were read and taught in English lessons until GCSE, and no contextual literary history was ever given for authors (Shakespeare before Dickens, Steinbeck and the Great Depression). Lessons usually included a ‘learning objective’ but these never seemed to link to a real practical use outside of school for now or for the future, there were rarely any discussions or debates (too difficult to manage, no time in the curriculum) and literacy and reading was very little respected (or even understood) by teachers outside of the English department (mostly, again, because there was so little time).

Finally, marking seemed a completely nonsensical activity which, despite reams of research to improve its usefulness, continued to be bow to the desires of parents and inspectors. Barely acknowledged or understood by students, scrutinised hawkishly by Senior Management and ploughed through endlessly by teachers who lugged Ikea bags of books home each night like Sisyphus, it looked to me to like the sort of absurd system Beckett would write a play about. 

At the same time, as I progressed through my NQT year, I found that I better understood the reasons behind most of the practices that I saw as problems- they were largely the result of Ofsted guidelines, PGCE training and exam requirements. The educational system I was learning to navigate seemed incredibly detailed in its design, based on extensive (although often contested) research, manned by awe-inspiringly passionate caring individuals and yet completely destroyed what most teachers and students wanted school to be about. The structure felt too restrictive, the research outdated and narrow, the learning objectives murky and largely dictated by exams rather than contemporary culture, morality and society.

Before I entered teaching, I thought of English as a way to communicate a love for language, a love of books, and an opportunity to develop critical thinking and emotional intelligence through discussions and reading. I mistakenly believed that reading books would be at the core of the English curriculum and that most of what I did end up teaching- writing skills, comprehension skills, grammar- would be taught through the lens of reading novels. Instead I found that the pressure to prepare students for exams and exam skills left little room for anything else.

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss

The reason that I thought this would be an effective curriculum is because that is how I was taught English (and French) at the French International school I attended from 5 to 18.

When I think of the books that have had the most impact on me, many of them are ones that I studied at school. Even now they seem so incredibly real that I feel as if I can walk into them. I learnt about emotion and how to analyse emotion from discussing those books. What little confidence I have came from feeling like I could use those books to discover the world and express myself. I believed that the value of English lessons came from the opportunity and experience of reading. I believed that analysing literature and culture was one of the best methods to teach the ‘soft skills’ that weren’t taught explicitly elsewhere. English was supposed to teach emotional intelligence, empathy, divergent thinking, critical thinking, creativity, building connections and expression.

Of course, my teaching has not been completely devoid of those things nor of reading full novels. So far I have managed to cram in teaching Animal Farm to a top set Y9 and super switched on Y8 group, A Monster Calls to an energetic Y8 class, Wind Singer to several chatty Y7 groups (although we never to finished it). The reason that I have pushed hard to fit these novels into my planning is because I wanted to see if my instincts and my personal experience was correct- that reading and analysing novels could teach all of the soft AND hard skills that I was trying to teach through comprehension exercises.

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

George Orwell

Would my path exploring books eventually take my students to the same place as the skill based extract-centered curriculum and enable them to succeed in their exams? I know that my students enjoyed the novels we studied and I think they gained an understanding of language, fiction and real life in those lessons. My dream English curriculum would be a complete overhaul of what currently exists. We would study a series of multicultural and cross-genre books within their historical contexts from Y1 to A Level increasing the challenge and complexity as we go. Through those pages we could practice all the stages of Bloom’s taxonomy and on into writing skills, emotional intelligence, equality, conflict resolution and any number of important skills and values. We could as Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot said about teaching, learn ‘ideas as conveyed through relationships’.

All of this is purely based on my gut instinct and personal experience, I haven’t been able to test my ideas out and haven’t found a school that has anything like my dream curriculum. Without this book-based curriculum my English classes looked similar to the ones I reacted to four years ago. I’m sure my students often wonder, despite the learning objectives on the board, the Powerpoint differentiation, the comprehension worksheets with extracts from amazing writers (detached from story and history)…where exactly we are going, how this is useful and could it be taught a different way?

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.

Charles William Eliot

All photos from Pexels.

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