What do new English teachers need to know?

28 Apr 2022

I moved to a new role this week: one that doesn’t involve either a school bell, or a classroom full of teenagers. I am tasked instead with planning out the content for new English teacher training year at Napier University here in Edinburgh, which I will be running from August.

I hope to use this blog to crystallise some of the thinking I do in planning for the course. That statement would appear to imply confidence: what I really mean is that I have spent many unproductive hours this week perplexed about where to even begin. So, I’m hoping forcing myself to write a kind of vision statement will make me feel a bit less terrified!

Part of that fear (and, of course, excitement) stems from a real feeling of responsibility: what an amazing opportunity I have to play a small part in shaping a new teacher – who it turn will have a huge impact on young people in classrooms.

For the purposes of this post, I will set out a series of questions I have reflected on this week and the beginnings of some tentative answers. I am trying to read as much as I can and have as many conversations as possible to help inform this planning, so please do get in touch if you would be willing to have a chat about some of these questions.

What do great English teachers do? 

I’ve been lucky enough to work in a number of English departments across the UK: from London, to Newcastle to Edinburgh. I’ve been thinking carefully this week about what qualities the very best teachers I have seen in the classroom have and the impact they have had on their students.

It is, like all things in education, very hard to simplistically distill, but for me this is what I will be asking the trainees I am lucky enough to work with to reflect on. If I could transport them five years into the future and ask them to observe one of their lessons, what will they see?

One of the values I hope to bring into training teachers is a deep respect for diversity of approaches and personality in the classroom. My early career attempts at mentoring teachers didn’t give enough space for this – in my youthful arrogance I thought my approaches worked best, and attempted to mould teachers into certain ways of being. One of the things I am very excited about is seeing how trainee teachers discover their own unique teacher persona through the course of the year.

But there are, of course, universal traits of wonderful English teachers. They are are captured perfectly by Geoff Barton in his ‘Twelve Things that Great English Teachers Do.’ This piece of writing is, without doubt, going to be one of the first things I explore with the trainee English teachers. You cannot fail to be anything but inspired by nuggets like this:

“Great English teachers are more important than they realise. They teach the most important skills within the most important subject. They remind us of the power of language and the delights of literature. They help students to mediate a bewilderingly complex world, standing for certain values – for the confidence to ask questions, for the security of knowing there aren’t always simple answers, for being prepared to argue your case, and doing so in a style that is powerfully appropriate”

What are the classroom essentials new English teachers need to know? 

I’m sure we all remember the utter fear that takes hold when we have to stand up in front of a class for the first time. I also remember well the disparate nature of some of my own experience of my teacher training year. Much of the theory was lost in the maze of every-day survival and in lesson planning.

While the subject-specific content will be a major focus for the time I have with the students in seminars, I feel it would be a lost opportunity not to imbed it with the actualities of being in the classroom. For me it is basic pragmatism: the subject-specific content is useless if you can’t find a sense of clarity of being and communication in the classroom.

So without doubt a significant amount of time I have with trainees will be involved in the exploration of the nuances of classroom communication. I am working (very slowly) on a fourth book at the moment, ‘Is anyone listening?’: the art and craft of teacher communication’, which I am hoping to share parts from on here, and which I also hope will support the trainees I have from August.

That will means reflecting carefully on how you create presence in the classroom; how you use language to build positive relationships with young people; how you develop the ability to explain things clearly. While an element of that will be exploratory and discussion based, as all teachers know – public speaking is a skill that is developed through careful reflective practise. From day one I hope to have the trainees up on their feet and carefully thinking about how they use their communication to build interest, and how they can use their creativity to interest others. That, after all, is what makes English such a brilliant and varied subject to teach.

What are the subject-specific things new English teachers need to know? 

This is where I have spent the most time staring pensively into space this week. Thinking about the time I have with the student teachers and the scope of what needs to be covered, it feels like an almost impossible task. I talked to a wide range of teachers in the first few years of their career in preparation for the interview for the role, and the feedback on subject-specific content was very far from being glowing. Many felt is was disconnected from the realities of the classroom, or superficial in its exploration.

So, do I just give them all a copy Andy Tharby’s ‘Making Every English Lesson Count’ or Chris Curtis’ ‘How to Teach English?’ and run for the hills (to be fair, those two wonderful books should be on any English teacher’s shelf!). I’m sure that might signal an end to my fledging career change, so here in brief are some priorities in my planning:

  1. A curriculum self-audit. Early on I hope to encourage the trainee teachers to explore where they are in terms of their subject-knowledge. Where are the gaps in their knowledge they need to invest time in, and how are they going to do it? This is also about making it clear the vital importance early on of being crystal clear about the curriculum demands – which will no doubt have gone through alterations since the trainees were at school.
  2. Reading. I hope to split the weeks I have with the trainee teachers into reading units and writing units. I’m conscious all I can really do is provide a starting point here – but the student experience will be at the core of all the thinking. Novels, poetry, non-fiction texts – all will need to be investigated in terms of how you can get young people fired up and excited about unpicking texts. I hope to write more on this in the future, and to be pinching ideas from all the wonderful people who write about their practice online and in books.
  3. Writing. I’m very confident there will be so much I miss about being in the classroom, and the joys of teaching writing will be high up there (cue cheeky plug for the charity book ‘Generation Lockdown Writes’ from the competition I and a former student ran during lockdown). Giving trainee teachers practical and inspiring ideas to take into their classrooms I think will be key here, alongside reflecting on all the various styles of writing they will be expected to teach.
  4. Literacy. I remember this being one of my most frequent insecurities as a new teacher: how on earth do I improve their literacy skills I hope to have this as a theme that runs through all the work I do with the trainee teachers, looking at building vocabulary skills, spelling and all the various aspects of grammar.

What is the mindset that new English teachers need to have? 

In interviews I have had with prospective trainee teachers I have been very clear: teaching is tough job that will stretch you both emotionally and physically. The first few years in particular are challenging as you build up a repertoire of resources and skills.

Even writing that above paragraph now, however, makes me feel acutely the sense of responsibility those of us with more experience have in making that journey as easeful and enjoyable as possible. Keeping brilliant new teachers in the profession depends on how well we offer that support.

What does that mean in practice? For me, it means that conversations about trainee teacher wellbeing are imbedded into the course. Much of that will be practical: what are the time-saving tips that we need to be sharing and what is the reality of a work life balance for trainee teachers? That needs to be combined with clear guidance on how to build their skills in the classroom, and how to manage pressure points like behaviour. I’m looking forward to starting a new podcast from August: ‘Beyond Survival: The New Teacher Podcast’, which will hopefully be a useful resource in supporting teachers in the first few years on their careers.

For me it is also about compassion being at the heart of the training experience: recognising that everyone is unique in how they respond to stress, and the support they receive from me and their mentors in school will need to be sensitive of that. In my own training as an educational coach over the past couple of years, I have been really struck by the profound difference genuinely listening to someone, without judgement, can make to an individuals sense of self-efficacy and well-being.

Do I feel more confident about the creation of this course having written this post? No. Do I feel even more aware of the privilege it is to help teachers at the start of their careers? Absolutely.

Thank you for reading, please do get in touch if you would be keen to chat ITT curriculum or fancy coming to Edinburgh to run a session and inspire some enthusiastic new teachers!

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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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