The Joys of English Teaching

15 Aug 2016


Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.
—Jacques Barzun

dead-poets-society-on-deskThe space of a few weeks of sunshine does some wonderful things to your vision of what you do. In this frame of mind, wholeheartedly idealistic (and perhaps cleansed from some of the less perfect realities of the classroom!) this post will unashamedly celebrate the unique beauty and value of being an English teacher. I may well send any prospective readers running at this stage with nauseating hyperbole and self-aggrandising, but please allow me my ‘Dead Poets Society’ moment:


We get to be remarkably passionate and excited about literature on a daily basis. Not in surreptitious private moments, or in dark and manic mumbles: we have an audience for our enthusiasm. How many other people have the privilege of spending their days talking about something they love? We get to spend time reading to students, reading with students, talking about reading. We get to valiantly endeavour to inspire a life long love of reading that can have the potential to enrich lives. We might teach a young person a text that resonates with them for the rest of their lives; we might ask them to memorise a line from a poem that will always return to them and provide solace. Whatever we do – we certainly open up new worlds through literature.


On a purist level we do two things: we teach how to read and we teach how to write. Can anyone in society really function without these two things? What a gift: two things that are of ultimate value. We teach young people how to discover a voice with a pen. We help them to voice their feelings, their emotions, their individual experiences. This can provide a map for them to navigate what we sometimes forget is a particularly challenging section of their life: adolescence. We teach them not only how to reflect on their experiences, but how to present it in an articulate and moving fashion. The future J.K Rowling might well be watching us intently from the back of our rooms…


English is the subject about life. Yes it is lofty, but it is true. It explores the human condition, it evaluates relationships, it informs young people in ways we probably never fully appreciate. By dissecting and debating the great works of past and present we provide young people with moral frameworks, modelling profound and important behaviours or revealing to them the dangers of behaving in particular ways.  We will hopefully influence a decision, an action and inspire some good.

We don’t have a right answer

We genuinely get to explore things with young people. We ask questions we don’t know the answer to (or perhaps this is just me?). By having the keys to a subject that is so gloriously open ended we make students think. Really think. And because we ask them to do this we also encourage real emotional commitment, an emotional commitment that can also make students feel. Not feel in an artificial or superficial level, but genuinely feel and think about the world they live in. Can any other subject open up the plethora of emotion that might be present in a wonderful learning experience in an English lesson?


One of the genuine pleasures of teaching English is the act of thinking through how to make something accessible for young people. How can I turn this poem into something meaningful and engaging for young people? How can I make sure it resonates, applies to them, connects with them? While engagement plays a crucial role in this, it is not about diluting things to make them ‘fun’. The text always has to be central – but it is up to us how to make it interesting, creative, challenging, powerful. This is a challenge that can often perplex, but one that is exciting, new and thought provoking on a daily basis. How many professions can offer that?

Young people

Our breadth of reading and connection with the world means we are inevitably interpersonally gifted (and humble with it). We are people people. Every day we communicate with a diverse range of young people, each who bring their own unique vision of the word. Sometimes it is important to remind ourselves what a genuine privilege this is, something we should feel immensely grateful (ding, ding) for. Young people are inevitably frustrating, capricious and exhausting, but they also wonderful – in their many guises, in their fascinating views, in their diverse humour, in their idealistic desire to make a difference in the world. It is a cliche but true: young people make sure that no day in teaching is exactly the same.

Perhaps we all need a bit of hyperbole and shameless self-promotion every so often. Perhaps we shouldn’t feel embarrassed about setting out exactly what makes us get up ridiculously early; what makes us fixate on the best way to approach something; what makes us give up chunks of our evenings and weekends. Perhaps we do what is, in reality, a pretty amazing job.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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