Trying to be a better English teacher

A few weeks ago I wrote about becoming better teachers of our subjects and concluded with: “I have become a better teacher in recent years by trying to become a better English teacher”. I thought it was worth trying to give examples of general approaches I have taken to improving my teaching. Here are some ideas that work for me, many of which could be transposed into different subject areas.

Collecting models

Whenever I read something interesting, I keep it. If I see an interesting sentence, I write it down. If a print advert makes me smile, I rip it out. If I see a colon used effectively, I save it for a lesson in the future. For students to become better writers, they need to be surrounded by high quality models. Everything we teach should be exemplified. I have a few posts on this, including Working With Mentor Texts, and I think this approach has improved my practice more than anything else.

When it can’t be found, I make it myself. I have found this particularly useful when it comes to essay writing. Students need to read essays and see what a good analytical paragraph might look like. If you don’t then you get the old ‘makes it more interesting’ or as I read the other day, ‘Shakespeare is trying his best for the play.’ The thing is, it’s really hard to comment on the effect of language. More examples=better responses.

Reading around the subject

There are lots of books with ideas on how to teach English, but they often tend to just give a few ideas for activities. Rather than reading books on teaching English, I would definitely recommend delving deeper into the subject, reading books which are not necessarily designed for teachers but will build subject knowledge and provide inspiration for lessons. I have started listening to audiobook lectures on the way to work now that my commute is longer, and already they have improved my teaching.

The great thing about English, is that anything you read can be useful. You can read a YA novel to recommend to students, you can read a history book to help learn about context. Every novel is a source of models and mentor sentences. Here is my list of books I recommend to start with.

Not making excuses and not dumbing down- the subject is exciting enough

It’s easy to apologise when teaching Shakespeare or poetry, subjects which students seem to approach with dislike, and say things like “well, we have to do it” or “I’ll try to make it fun”. Then whole lessons are spent trying to avoid contact with them. So instead of studying poetry, we study song lyrics and instead of writing essays on Macbeth, we design costumes for the witches. I used to do it so often, scouring the internet for ways to make my subject fun and doing lots of misguided things that I thought were necessary to make it all interesting. Obviously this came at the expense of learning. It’s okay to use things like Pop Sonnets as a way in, but students will always rise to the challenge if you teach the difficult stuff and support them to get there. For me, a love of the subject is cultivated by teaching the subject in all its glory and not trying to apologise for it.

Learning from other English teachers

There are so many great English teachers out there and lots of them blog. I love reading blogs because they are immediate, are personal, are often unfiltered, and are written by teachers based on their day to day experience. There are many blogs I enjoy by non English teachers of course, but the English teacher blogs have had the most direct impact on my teaching. Andy Tharby has a great list here to start from. Many tweeting teachers don’t blog but are generous in sharing what they do. A photograph of a classroom display might trigger some ideas, an interesting article might be shared which inspires a sequence of lessons, a throwaway comment might transform your approach to a text. I don’t spend as much time on Twitter as I once did, but it’s an invaluable source of inspiration. Not because it’s Twitter, but because it gives me easy access to these ideas. (Albeit we shouldn’t get too carried away with new ideas)

There is also this other thing called ‘real life’ which has quite a few more teachers! Chatting to colleagues in my department and in other schools is always useful. Seeing other teachers covering familiar topics in their own ways is wonderful and helps me to avoid becoming set in my ways. Our subject based school CPD this week consisted of our English department talking about a couple of poems and how we could teach them. The discussions helped everyone improve and I am sure our teaching of English Literature will be better as a result.

Developing efficient marking strategies

Man, the marking. I don’t think it can be avoided that English teachers mark a great deal. Because of this, English teachers need to develop strategies to make marking simple and effective. I honestly don’t hate marking any more because I have efficient methods and I continue to work on them. Every English teacher should prioritise making marking more efficient.

5 seems like a nice number to stop on. I’d love to see some other suggestions in the comments.

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