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How to kill an English teacher

Teacher Mr Chips played by Robert Donat in the 1939 film 'Goodbye, Mr Chips'

By Jack Shippey

Jack Shippey was Head of English and Drama at a boys’ school in England. He taught his subjects for nearly forty years. In this article, he laments how well-intentioned changes in British education have led to micromanagement, the death of spontaneity in teaching, and the stifling of independent thinking in students. He is writing under a pseudonym.

I have been retired for a while now and I still look back on my years in schools with great pleasure. Teaching proved to be a very rewarding profession to belong to, but like all professions it changed significantly during my career and has continued to do so since. Some changes seemed to me to be very much for the better, but I would need a great deal of convincing that others and the ethos behind them were of professional benefit. Indeed I would go so far as to say that in latter years the intention has been to undermine the professional status of the teacher by sowing an essential suspicion of those styles of working that have long characterised the output of, say, doctors or lawyers. The fundamental assumption that university educated, professionally trained and increasingly experienced adults should be capable of discerning independently, and often very thoughtfully or creatively, the most effective ways of carrying out their duties has almost disappeared, to be replaced by an approach that seems based on a principle of mistrust and dogmatic prescription.

An energising favourite: getting boys to stand on their tables. Image from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.

When I changed schools in my early days, the induction was often a tour of cupboards of sets of novels for the whole class to study, a rota for their use and, if you were lucky, a couple of sides of A4, on which were outlined the general focuses for the twelve months ahead for the first five year groups. The immediate feeling was one of a slightly daunting freedom, but that these people had absolute confidence in me and my skills. With that freedom came the responsibility to devise my own lessons to build on the learning and capacities of my students. It was a challenge I relished, and I enjoyed devising new ways to capture the interest and stimulate the imagination of my charges. Sometimes they might not produce the result expected and a new idea would strike me which I would run with – my upended classroom tables once became two opposing trenches in the Great War. One energising favourite was ‘ping-pong’: the class divided into two teams and stood on their tables. The idea was for them to ask quick-fire questions of each other on a chapter we’d just read, or develop a particular aspect of vocabulary and get everybody sitting down again in a faster time than the last time we played. Or we’d spend five minutes together – me included – on a QWT (quick writing task) committing our ideas on a topic to paper, or developing a description, sharing and refining them. I never knew exactly when these things would happen in a lesson, but my instincts guided me and were part of a toolkit for keeping a session alive.

‘Vincent in Brixton’ - a 2002 play about the painter Vincent van Gogh by Nicholas Wright (Broadway poster, 2003)

Perhaps the high-water mark of trust was the 100% coursework combined English and Literature GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), which enabled some exciting and sophisticated delivery and some interesting choices – any Shakespeare text, any 20th Century Drama. For me these often depended on the excellent programme at the local theatre, so one year it was ‘Much Ado’ and ‘Vincent in Brixton’ which in their turn led to interesting byways in creative writing and oral work (which could include elements of dramatic improvisation in those days) as well as the more analytical essays. My students and I never worked harder or with more enjoyment. Lessons were carefully planned, but it would have been impossible to deliver had I been required to write down what happened in every minute of each lesson over the two years.

As the years went on, as departments we shared and shaped our work more clearly into half-term units with weekly focuses, but we always allowed colleagues freedom to plan their own methods of delivering the ‘learning objectives’ as they came to be called, because they knew their students and because they had been doing it for years. Regular changes in set texts would offer refreshing stimulation. But over time a number of forces were exerted which were in some ways unhelpful. Teachers and their departments have always been accountable for their results at crucial stages of their students’ careers, but microscopic examination of individual colleagues’ performance inevitably meant that they were less willing to take risks, so that the same texts were taught again and again, as they remained on the syllabus, because of restricted funding in some cases, and the same units were repeatedly relied on, for reasons that follow.

There was a very worthy idea at one stage, which evolved under the ‘raising standards’ umbrella. It’s obvious that some schools have to rely on non-specialists to deliver their subjects, and also that some teachers are not as effective or perhaps as confident as others. To address this it was thought useful to add even more detail to the schemes of work: every single lesson was mapped out so that the standard of teaching could therefore not drop below a solid and supportive level (although no amount of planning can remedy poor relationships in the classroom, other types of training and systems may do). This was helpful, but as time went on, what was meant as generous underpinning for those that needed it became required practice for every teacher, to the extent that some heads would boast that they could walk into any classroom at any time in their establishment and know what was being delivered. I don’t know who would have been more envious, Stalin or Mr Gradgrind – the notorious school board superintendent in Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times.

I had, gratefully, left the profession before that happened in my former schools, and we did resist it for as long as we could because we all believed strongly in the power of the individual teacher’s creativity to engage and enthuse students. However, we began to encounter trainee teachers who baulked at having to prepare their own lessons rather than finding them ready-made on the shelf, although they were good in communal writing of work, and full of ideas that they could have flown with if they had been given the confidence. Even the best sometimes froze under the tabulated structures of ‘objectives’ and ‘outcomes’ (which in former times you had in your bloodstream after a few weeks of teaching anyway). I sharply recall being reprimanded by a university tutor for telling a trainee in such a situation simply to think of a text, a poem or a short story that they really loved and passionately thought was worthwhile, and then ‘retro-fit’ the ‘learning objectives’. I knew that the trainee’s enthusiasm would create a very good lesson or two, and that their appreciation was based on exactly the things that were valuable for the pupils to learn. But no, this was ‘highly inappropriate – we always start with the learning objectives'. Even if it stops you getting beyond them was my rather sardonic thought.

I think I would probably have continued teaching until I was sixty-five had it not been for the final change of syllabuses at GCSE, which were a reactionary and petty-nationalist piece of unworthy interference. We belong to a broad English-speaking world, but all of a sudden American literature and some of the greatest drama of the last century became inadmissible. We live in a modern world in which understanding of the persuasive power of images alongside text in contemporary advertising and newswriting is an essential tool self-preserving insight. However, this was considered trivial and replaced in exam papers by nineteenth century journalism, white middle-class writing over a hundred years old about a world as far removed from today’s young as you could possibly imagine. Invariably, it required the examiners to define six to ten archaic words every time. It set the subject against the lives lived by the young, rather than alongside them.

One final observation: over the years we had various Chinese educators in to observe how we went about things, and on asking them about the main difference they perceived they invariably answered ‘You teach your students to think.’ Shortly before I retired a fellow departmental head who supported the local training network was visiting a school which was part of an ‘academy chain’ to share a poetry lesson by a young teacher with their own ‘line manager’. At the end of it they commended the work, but said that the one thing it lacked was giving the opportunity for the students to share their own thoughts and feelings about the text and the way the poem worked for them. ‘Ah, ‘said the line manager, ‘we believe the teacher is the voice of authority in the classroom. This is not a methodology we encourage.’ I wondered if those who embraced this outlook considered to what forces they made their charges vulnerable. I don’t know who would have been more envious, Mr Gradgrind or …

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