Slow English Teaching: from superficial to skilled English Teaching

06 Apr 2018

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein.

With our first wee one on the way in the next two weeks, (my wife is not appreciating my attempts to cajole he/she to hold out and share a birthday with Shakespeare on the 23rd of April), it will be a very quiet couple of months on here. When I have managed to return to some blurred eye writing, I will be sharing the research and progress for a couple of new projects. I am writing a dissertation for a masters in educational leadership on the factors that influence teacher improvement and I am also very excited to be writing a follow up to ‘Slow Teaching’ for John Catt Educational.

The book will be entitled ‘Slow English Teaching: from superficial to skilled English teaching’. The aim is to follow a similar pattern to ‘Slow Teaching’, giving space to slow down to explore all of the aspects of English teaching in detail to try to share ways about how best to approach it in the classroom. It is a big task, so I aiming to do it slowly and have it finished by 2020.

I also want to make this a more collaborative project, with each chapter followed up with an interview from an English teacher about how they approach the particular aspect of English teaching in their own classroom. If you would be interested in contributing a particular area of expertise, please do get in touch (or if you have any much needed parenting wisdom!). This is an early draft of the introduction:

There was never any question about it: English teaching it was.  Graduation day, twenty-two and armed with a literature degree, the classroom was calling. Day-dreams were punctuated with vivid flashes of young people huddled in enraptured silence while I spontaneously quoted from my inspirational collection of quotations. ‘Dead Poets Society’ would be a pale imitation of my classroom, “carpe diem” indeed.

How hard could it be?

One year later something resembling shell shock had occurred: who would have thought that English teaching was so remarkably, bafflingly complicated? Already those dusty lecture halls appeared a distant memory, replaced with a room of expectant and impatient adolescents. The degree scroll was left abandoned in a corner, sneering coldly at my misplaced belief that I had conquered my subject. A year of training had taught a huge amount, but one thing resonated: my ignorance about the complexity of English as a subject, and how to best approach teaching it, was glaring.

There was much stumbling through confusion: those initial disastrous creative writing lessons; attempts to engage Year 8 in William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ by giving each student a daffodil badge (cue “bloody disasters”); the blind initial forges into helping Year 7 gain some sense of ‘Animal Farm’ (farm yard animal toys had very limited impact); the sea of completely blank faces when presented with the opening scenes of ‘The Tempest.’  Never mind the mysteries of teaching spelling; sorting out illegible handwriting; explaining punctuation and grammar or understanding what on earth to do with a red pen in an English book. How to have some sense of meaningful whole-class discussion in an English classroom? No chance.

Yet buried deep in the exhaustion there was also immense satisfaction: a feeling of profound excitement about the creative and varied possibilities of English teaching. One year in the classroom had already opened up more about the hidden depths and complexities of the subject of English than any amount of pontificating about Joyce or Burns.

There were also glimpses of the emotional connection that transformative English teaching can provide. There were moments when young people were responsive and begin to reciprocate with some enthusiasm; there were euphoric late night discoveries of a piece of writing that revealed real engagement; conversations that revealed that there was some sense of a new understanding about the human condition. Then there was that day when young Adam spelt disappointed correctly and beamed with pride.

Ten years on since that graduation day in the sunshine, in which the world of teaching beckoned so seductively, I am still firmly on that journey of understanding. It is one that is simple and exciting: how to move from superficial engagement with teaching English to a skilled English teacher.  It is a journey that is at the heart of what makes teaching such a valuable profession: there is never any complacency, never a sense of having grasped all the layers of English teaching. Not many of my fellow graduates in different professions are still nourished and driven by such possibilities.

There is no questioning the inherent commitment of English teachers: we live and breathe our subjects.  It is an emotional connection – we know that our lives would be profoundly less without the enrichment of reading, writing and the understanding of the world that English fuels in us. We also know that you cannot question the validity and importance of our subject: we are not only profoundly influential in developing essential literacy skills to function in adulthood; but we are assisting young people in building emotional connections with the world. This fuels our passion, this knowledge that we are ultimately making a real difference.

We are also however, remarkably busy, and as W.H Auden acknowledged, we certainly cannot “conquer time”.  We regularly supress the urge to break into manic rage when teachers in other subjects tell us how “overwhelming” their marking is. We are also faced with the powers that be making curriculum changes on what appear to be a whim: new texts, new specifications, new exam criteria. Any of us who have faced the prospect of teaching Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ for the first time are aware of hours of painstaking preparation required before we get anywhere near the classroom.

We are also very aware that wonderful English teaching doesn’t have a formula: a box of tricks or a simple criterion to follow.  Our subject itself teaches us this, there is no right answer, only a commitment to exploration and reflection. But we have seen the masters in work – they are often the reason we stepped into the profession in the first place. We know when we are in the hands of an expert teacher, whose subject knowledge and pedagogical repertoire is so widespread and comprehensive that it appears seamless. Their classrooms have that sense of reverence and respect – young people are very aware of that sense of confidence and control.

The reflective capacity in us that is honed from a desire to read, learn and grow is also applicable to the teaching of our subjects.  Very simply: as English teachers we cannot function as the proverbial hamster in the wheel – dispassionately going through the motions in the classroom. Without the fuel to explore how to grow as teachers in our subject area, frustration and stagnation begins to creep into our professional lives. It is in our nature to give time to exploration and serious thought.

This book aims to give us English teachers this space to slow down and carefully consider how to approach the bedrocks of successful English teaching. Instead of being weighed down by data miseries or hours of marking, it will allow us to become immersed in what we care deeply about: how to take the steps to help us move towards experts in all of the areas of English teaching. It will also try to make sense of this time battle: what will help us to control our workload and help us to gain some semblance of a work-life balance?

My own personal aim is simple: to hear and learn from as many English teachers and different approaches as possible, and to forge a path through the research to try and find some clarity. It is also deeply selfish: I want to continue to improve and fuel that youthful idealism that skilled English teaching can change the world for the better. Let the journey slowly begin…

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Jamie Thom

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