Becoming an English teacher

How ready are you for your teacher preparation year?

Teacher of English: one of the most important jobs known to humanity.

You will help children become adults; you will help them become successful learners; you will help them lead the life they want to lead. By allowing children the chance to take control over the language they use to think and communicate with, you allow them the chance to take some control over their lives.

This is huge!

To do this well you need to think about what language means to you. How do you use it? How did you learn it? How consciously do you control your use of language?

The chances are that you use language with intuitive skill and confidence. You are able to read, write, speak and listen with sufficient skill to pass the exams and tests required to become a teacher. You use multiple genres of spoken English, intuitively shifting between formal and informal uses of language. You can also be read and write across different genres, including fiction and non-fiction. You might be published, and you may write for pleasure.

Yet you may also have some worries: Is your spelling good enough? Is your grammar good enough? Have you read enough novels? Do you know the major poets? Do you ‘get’ Shakespeare?

Such concerns are common and it is important that you do not let them hold you back. The best way to really get to know something is to teach it, and you are becoming an English teacher. So, guess what, you will quickly conquer your concerns by teaching them!

How, then, can you get ready for your teacher preparation year?

First, some practicalities

  • Have you sorted accommodation?
  • Have you organised your skills tests?
  • Have you sorted funding?
  • Have you sorted clothes (you will need to be dressed appropriately to be in a school, think ‘business-like’), including shoes (I know this sounds silly, but when you are in schools you will spend a lot of time on your feet!)?
  • Have you got doctors and other necessities sorted? (you don’t want to wait until you are poorly to register!)
  • Have you got food sorted for your first week?
  • Have you got IT, pens, folders, notebooks etc?

Some of these sound trivial, but by sorting these things first you will focus more effectively on the major things, like how to become a teacher.

More abstract things to consider

You will spend some time over the summer thinking about what you have let yourself in for. To help guide this process, try to spend some time considering:

  • Why do you want to teach English now?
  • What kind of teacher do you want to be?
  • What values are most important to you?

Don’t spend the whole summer thinking about these things, you will need to get some rest, but do spend some time thinking such things through for yourself. Talk with your friends and family about their experiences of English at school and since school; start making a mental note of all the times you encounter or use written English. You will probably be surprised how often the written word features in your daily life. It is helpful to have an understanding of this so that you begin to understand the crucial part which the written word plays in contemporary life.

How, then, would you cope without your personal confidence and skill? How would you cope if you hated English and did everything possible to avoid using written language? These are challenges which many people face daily and it will become part of your job to help them gain more control over their lives by giving them greater control over language. This is not easy, but it is life-changing and brilliant!

As this blog develops we will introduce more ideas about teaching English and we hope that you will contribute.

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Alternative Education and Alternative English

Alternative Education

Our students have spent the last couple of weeks on their Alternative Professional Experience (APE), which has led me to think about alternative forms of education and what they can mean for children.

To begin with, though, I thought about the word ‘alternative’ and how it is interpreted. If something is an ‘alternative’, then it has to be an alternative to something else, usually something which is accepted as relatively mainstream. I will then look at some aspects of what this means for the school system in England, before finishing with some suggestions about what this could mean for teaching English as a school subject.

I was wrong about The Smiths (but probably right about Morrisey)

The Smiths

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and ‘alternative’ was big news. I particularly loved alternative comedy, and alternative music. In fact, I was so alternative, that most ‘alternative music’ was too mainstream for me. Hence, I decided that The Smiths were far too popular for me to even think about liking. Of course this was ridiculous, adolescent stupidity (although perhaps my instincts about Morrisey weren’t far off the mark), and I have since learnt the error of my ways: this is part of growing up.

Since then, the boundaries between alternative and mainstream have become increasingly blurred and less binary. Alternative comics are now permanent fixtures on the mainstream circuit, and it is now difficult to identify a mainstream music scene for there to be an alternative to.

Alternative Education – Alternative to what?

Education is slightly different, although even here the boundaries between ‘alternative’ and ‘mainstream’ are becoming increasingly fuzzy as the English school system frays at the edges. Whereas there were relatively few types of schools, the system-level reform of the last few years has seen an increase in type of schools. In theory, the growth of the different types of schools (academies, free schools, UTCs etc.) is meant to increase choice for parents, which in turn is meant to drive a neo-liberal competitive edge to school performance. In practice, parents face few alternatives to their nearest schools unless they have the economic means to send their children further afield, or to independent schools.

However, there are other ‘alternative’ provisions for some children. SEN schools make particular provision for some children with SEND issues; Pupil Referral Units make particular provision for some children with behavioural issues, who may have been permanently excluded from mainstream education. What is the impact of such alternative on children?

For some SEND children a specialist provision is absolutely the best thing. Highly trained staff, often with specialist resources can be the most inspirational and moving places. Children can access education in ways which are impossible in mainstream education settings, and they can often flourish.

It is also true that some PRUs can act as life-lines for some children. Too often, however, PRUs can become really challenging environments where education takes second place to acute behaviour management. This is not meant as a criticism of the PRUs, the children; it is the reality in many settings. It is also the case that this ‘alternative’ can often become the ‘norm’ for many children, sometimes from very young ages.

This is a good example of blurring the lines between ‘alternative’ and ‘mainstream’. If you are a child in a PRU, then a setting which is intended to be alternative is your normal experience of education.

This has implications for life chances as children who attend PRUs rarely achieve academic success for a variety of reasons; it will also have applications for the ways in which these children see the world and feel about education when they become adults, and perhaps parents.

It seems that the system would do well to devise an alternative to this alternative.

Alternative Literacy

What, then, does this all mean for English teachers?

Our professional life is dominated by the curriculum, and particularly assessment systems. This is a generalisation, but teachers are increasingly teaching to the test.

So, how could an alternative English curriculum look like?

Well, a good place to start might be with the work of Sue Ellis and Vivienne Smith. They have recently conceptualised the teaching of literacy into three, interlinked domains: Cognitive Knowledge and Skills; Cultural and Social Capital; Personal-Social Identity (Ellis, S. & Smith, V. 2017. Assessment, teacher education and the emergence of professional expertise. Literacy, 51, 84-93). 

However, the growing concern is that teachers are increasingly focusing on the Cognitive Knowledge and Skills domain at the expense of the other two domains. This is perfectly understandable in the performative system in which we work, but is it the best thing for children (that is an example of a rhetorical question)?

Perhaps an alternative English curriculum could seek to redress this balance, and re-place Cultural Capital and Personal/Social Identity into the heart of children’s experiences of English.

In fact, this has long been the aim of English teachers and has often been the aim of policy makers (e.g. The Cox Report), but it is not the aim of the current system. How this would look in different schools is open for debate, but it is a debate worth having. I believe an alternative English curriculum could well see an increased interest in English as a school subject, and could well help to engage children with language, literature and literacy as vital parts of their everyday lives and their futures.

That is an alternative I could really get behind.

 

Becoming an English Teacher

Student teachers all over the country are now well into job hunting mode. They are creeping stealthily through the jungle of jobs in online; they are lurking in staffrooms on the off chance of over-hearing rumours of yet-to-be-advertised jobs in their ideal school; they are being politely encouraging to their peers who are applying for the same jobs they are.

All of this significantly adds to the pressure and stress of becoming a teacher, particularly at this time of year when the students are often getting to grips with a new placement schools, while simultaneously fighting off flu. 

So, how can you cope?

elon musk car

Firstly, DON’T PANIC!

It is still very early to be planning for September, although clearly schools want to have their staffing organised as early as possible. Remember that staffing a school is a very fluid situation which makes the football transfer deadlines look positively progressive.

Secondly, DON’T PANIC!

Just because your mate has secured a permanent position in a brand new school with a whopping great R&R incentive, this does not mean that the ideal job for you isn’t around the corner. Before you apply for any job, be clear about what you want from the job. How important is location, or job security, or opportunities for progression?

Thirdly, DON’T PANIC!

Make sure that you are prepared to apply for a job. By this, I mean that you should have your paperwork in order; be clear about the information you will need on an application form; have a very rough draft of a statement ready to adapt for each job. Be clear about your philosophy – what do you stand for? Having all of this ready makes applying for jobs much less stressful.

Fourthly, DON’T PANIC!

So you have an interview, you do well, but the job goes to someone else. Do not take this personally. Schools have an enormous number of competing priorities when it comes to appointing new staff at any level of the organisation, and it may well be that you were simply not the best fit for that school at that time. This doesn’t mean that you will not be the best fit for the next interview!

So, what do you do: DON’T PANIC!

Job hunting is not an exact science, and it is often about being in the right place at the right time. The challenge is to make sure that you are ready to spot the right place, at the right time, and then be in a position to put yourself forward in the best ways possible.

hitchikers guide

Ursula Le Guin – A Great Writer

 

ursula le guinUrsula Le Guin made me a reader. Or, rather, Mrs Hunt at my junior school gave me ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ when I was 10 years old, telling me that I would enjoy it even though it was meant for 11 year-olds. The thrill of reading a novel for older children (silly concept, as Mrs Hunt well understood), pushed me over the edge of reading into a fully realized, new world. I was a keen reader at that stage, but all I remember reading were books located in a recognisable world: Swallows and Amazons, The Famous Five etc.; all a little removed from my world, my still clearly of my world. Earthsea was different, and Ged was a different kind of hero. I quickly finished the first novel, and then finished The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore (it was still a trilogy at that time). That was the first time I felt sad at finishing a book, because I wanted more, and it wasn’t there!

 

So, I moved on to The Lord of the Rings, finishing my mum’s copies before reading The Hobbit. I can now see that while Tolkein could write a good yarn, Le Guin wrote literature. She used words which spoke of strange worlds, wizards and dragons; she used words which described the strangest planets and characters, whilst also, of course, writing about our world and revealing it in all its own strangeness. Crucially, she used words which were full of real fear and, more importantly for me, real hope. She was the first writer to show me how someone can face fear and deal with it. This remains a powerful message, and is certainly as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. The fact that Le Guin used non-white characters largely passed me by at the time, but now is clearly ground-breaking and, also, still pertinent.

 

I also see now how so much of my reading was bound up with emotions, with family. The thrill and excitement of Earthsea remains for me, and although I now struggle with Tolkein, the physical books themselves are so precious because they were my mum’s; she held them, she read them, she allowed me to share them with her. I’m not sure I’d feel the same about a download!

 

So it is with genuine sadness that I learnt of Le Guin’s death. By pure coincidence I spent some time looking at her catalogue last week, and was taken aback by how much she has written. I’m particularly intrigued by a volume of poetry she wrote about Cornwall, which I will investigate in the next few weeks. I strongly believe that she should not be bound by genres; she should not be simply remembered as a great fantasy or sci-fi writer. She should be thought of as a great writer.

earthsea

 

I learnt a lot from Le Guin, but it is also right to recognise that I owe all of this to two great women: firstly, Mrs Hunt, my teacher who had the skill to recognise what would be exactly the right book for me at exactly the right time. Secondly, my mum.

Becoming an English Teacher

Half Term!

9

We know that you have felt it to be some mythical, far-away land offering rest and relaxation to tired, weary students. Now, however, you have arrived at that land, perhaps only to realise that it is the place where teachers catch up on those things they meant to do over the last few weeks. They may well catch up on these things in their pyjamas, usually frowned upon in actual classrooms, but it is rare for teachers to not work at all during a holiday. This might be unpopular, but it is the case.

 

It’s a secret that few teachers make anything of, but holidays are often used to catch up on marking, planning and all the other things which can’t be completed during term time. Marking, in particular, can often be time consuming for English teachers. Children can put in considerable time and effort to their writing and you want to give it all the attention it deserves. This means not only crediting the originality of their writing, but also addressing children’s technical issues at a level which moves them forward without being overwhelming. This is a skill which takes experience and time. You cannot do proper justice to a child’s writing in a couple of minutes.

A word of caution

Be careful about overmarking.

stressed-teacher

English teachers are particularly prone to this, when the teacher can end up writing more than the student. It can be more helpful for a child to have very brief comments on their writing, backed up by a detailed conversation in class with time for the child to address the issues which you raise. Clearly you need to build in time for this in your lessons, but such an approach can often really help develop children’s understanding of the issues you are trying to rectify.

Moral of the Story

As English teachers we like a moral to our stories, and there are at least two morals to finding the mythical land of holidays when you are an English teacher.

Firstly, holidays are used by teachers to catch their breath, but also to catch up and hopefully, prepare for the next few weeks.

Secondly, do not spend inordinate amounts of time and energy on marking. Clearly you must follow your school’s policies, but you should also be aware of initiatives by the government which recognise that teachers have been spending too much time and energy on practices which do not necessarily help children become more effective. The Department for Education have published some guidance on how marking could work in schools: Eliminating-unnecessary-workload-around-marking

The third moral, of course, is that by now you should understand that you have what it takes to become a successful English teacher. You have spent considerable time in classrooms; most of you have taught actual children in actual classes; you have learnt more and more about the skill, theory and art of being a teacher.

So, enjoy the break, use it wisely and remember that you cannot wear your pyjamas to work next week!

pjs-work

Becoming an English teacher

Focus on Reading

Once you learn to read, you will be forever free – Frederick Douglass

Anyone preparing to begin teacher training this year will be becoming excited, and a little anxious, as we move towards the end of the summer and the start of the new academic year. Just as secondary schools start to gear up during August, when the exam results are released, reported and analysed, so will you be gearing up for the next chapter in your life.

‘Chapter’ seems an apt word here, particularly as you prepare to become an English teacher. Over the next few months you will become completely enveloped in creating schemes of work about teaching novels, poems, plays and non-fiction. Many of these schemes of work will focus on writing, whether that is the pupils’ or the authors’, but all of these schemes of work will necessarily focus on reading as well.

Reading is one of the joys and challenges of teaching English. The chances are that you are a voracious reader. You will probably have books which are very precious to you; books which you return to time and time again; books which can make you sob. For me, these include, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ (the novel that made me feel like a reader); ‘Moby Dick’ (I’m often “grim about the mouth” to be honest); ‘The Road’ (just read it).

Each one, and the countless other novels, plays and poems which evince a deep emotional response, are located in very particular spaces and times which the text can come to represent. This is particularly, viscerally the case when you hold a specific copy in your hands; my mum’s cookery books are some of my most precious books, even though I rarely use them to help me cook.

However, I am also clear that I was brought up in a very ‘book-friendly’ environment. As a child we had books in the home, which I could physically reach and handle; I had brilliant teachers who encouraged me to read; I had a very good, local library; I had parents who read to me. It is not surprising, then, that I grew up valuing books and reading. Clearly, this is not always the case in every household, and one does not have to look to hard to understand that there are national issues concerning the extent to which people regularly read.

There are many challenges for young people learning to read, arguably particularly for boys (Gender Gap in Reading). They face multi-media alternatives, and the act of reading is rarely seen as the most exciting way to spend time. One of the key challenges for English teachers is to help every child develop the understanding that reading is deeply exciting; incredibly functionally important for everyday life (imagine not being able to read your social media!); and will help young people understand others. These are all vital for modern life, and although reading is not an ‘instant gratification’ fix, it is critical.

We are lucky to live during an era of great literature for children and young adults (Guardian Article), and it is important that we do not always fall into the trap of teaching the texts which we were taught at school ourselves. Our challenge is to teach reading in such a way that it either remains, or becomes, something which children love. This needs to be done in a way which meets, or exceeds, the demands of the various assessment criteria of the examination bodies, and this is perhaps the English teacher’s greatest challenge. How do you teach and assess something which you love?

But this is the challenge which you will meet. We will spend a lot of time talking about reading during the course, and there is an awful lot of writing about reading, including the challenges which young people face when learning to read. To help you become the inspirational teacher who you wan to become you should draw on your reading history (mine began with The Beano apparently), draw on your own reading habits and make sure that you are a reader yourself (I’ve just finished The Underground Railroad – go and read it!).Underground railroad