Tom Coles recently wrote about his experiences as an NQT for Teaching English, NATE’s classroom practice magazine. You can read Teaching English by joining NATE, which gives full access to the magazine and its companion research journal, English in Education, as well as a huge array of other resources. Find out more at https://www.nate.org.uk/ .
Blue Skye Thinking
It’s a joke in staffrooms that no-one complains about workload more than an English teacher. After four months in the job, the joke has already worn thin. Like all black humour, it operates as the nervous recognition of something truly horrific. Alongside the normal day- to-day workload of any staff member, my year as a probationer has the added challenge of naivety. For a few weeks I would ask if I could take on any more planning tasks, if I could run a club at lunchtime and after school, if I could get a look at some more marking… I was told by incredulous colleagues that I should probably get some sleep, while there was still time.
I’m having fun and I haven’t a minute to spare. Four months on, and I’ve settled into this community on the edge of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean – sheltered a little by the Outer Hebrides across the Minch. Portree isn’t quite as far west as education in Scotland reaches, but this week, as the snow fell on the astroturf and the Cullin, as the wind birled sleet over the sea cliffs of Skye, it began to feel isolated. The Total Heating – Total Control system has turned on my radiators via a radio signal from Perth. I have had my first absences due to snow and ice, my first absences due to power cuts, my first absences due to ferry cancellation. The students who wait for buses on cold mornings are beginning to envy the school boarders – with family homes too far away to travel from every day – in the hostel.
As in many things, when it comes to education Scotland is different, whether you live on a rural island or the ‘central belt’ between Edinburgh and Glasgow where most of the population lives. There is no Teach First, no School Direct, no academies or free schools, and no National Curriculum. Half as many students attend private school as in England. Most students are educated in schools controlled by a local authority – and mine, Highland Council (Comhairle na Gaidhealtachd), is almost as large as Belgium. My school, Portree High School, has a catchment area larger than Greater London. It has a little over 500 pupils.
A Scottish curriculum
The curriculum we teach, such as it is, is a policy landscape collated as the Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. It does not prescribe any content – instead focusing on what ‘experiences and outcomes’ students have. For instance, a typical outcome might be that a student should be able to say:
To help me develop an informed view, I can identify some of the techniques used to influence or persuade and can assess the value of my sources. (LIT 4-08a)
To many teachers, this is an admirable liberation; to many others, it is frustratingly vague. In practice, it seems teachers do what they have always done – they talk to each other, they interpret their task, and then do what seems right. Even if input from government to classrooms is pretty loose, there is a bright side: input from government into classrooms is pretty loose. In fact, my lessons have been improving because of the support of colleagues around me who know what they’re doing, and at times make it seem impossibly effortless.
I’m learning to understand the people in the room with me – the students. In my first lessons, I wanted to find out something about them, and let them know something about me. Our learning intentions were ‘ to be able write questions, appropriate to the audience and information we wish to discover’. In groups they questioned each other, and then were allowed to choose one query for their new teacher. The questions were a mixture of curiosity and self-protection.
- Why are you here?
- Do you know how wet it gets?
- Do you know how cold it gets?
- Where in Glasgow were you born?
- Tennant or Capaldi?
- Can you use a passing place?
- Can you speak Gaelic? Mostly easy enough: but the last two were difficult.
Never mind passing places, I couldn’t drive at all at the time. And as for Gaelic – it was outwith my experience. Had I heard of Sorley MacLean (the Gaelic modernist whose birthplace, the island of Raasay, I could see from my classroom window)? No, I knew nothing beyond the name. He went to this school? He taught locally? I’ve lived in Scotland, studying literature, for 10 years and the name is as far as I got.
NATE Conference in Newcastle
The summer before I arrived on Skye, I was back at ‘home’ for the NATE conference in Newcastle. Some students on Skye thought I was a species of Glaswegian – I’m actually a Geordie. Ten years ago, I left Newcastle for the West of Scotland. Sorley MacLean wasn’t my first encounter with submerged histories: it took a move to Glasgow before I’d ever heard the name of the Newcastle (Scotswood) -born modernist poet, Basil Bunting:
Dung will not soil the slowworm’s
mosaic. Breathless lark
drops to nest in sodden trash;
Rawthey truculent, dingy.
Drudge at the mallet, the may is down,
fog on fells. Guilty of spring
and spring’s ending
amputated years ache after
the bull is beef, love a convenience.
It is easier to die than to remember.
Name and date
split in soft slate
a few months obliterate.
(from ‘Briggflatts’, 1965)
Approaching the conference venue, I couldn’t help thinking that even reflexive civic pride couldn’t make the giant hotel on the Gateshead side of the Tyne inspiring. It sits on a historic site of my teenage meandering, imposed into the arms of my favourite of the gorge-spanning bridges, and as a prominent reminder of what was lost from further up the hill. The brutalist, evocative, ‘Get Carter’ car park which was loved by some for the same reasons the Angel of the North is now (brash, prominent front teeth, unapologetically ugly) – had now been knocked out of the horizon.
Conference-going can be deadening – a series of obligatory but uninspiring pitches designed to improve efficiencies, outputs, or allow us to collectively moan. But they can also be an inspiring opportunity to discuss, to share experiences, to set out a collective understanding, and to discuss next steps. I am living through a time in Scotland where collective projects pop up with disarming regularity: this is the long tail of the independence debate. It was, then, a very recognisable thing, the NATE conference, despite being my first, and despite being a new teacher.
It was invigorating: a group of people gathered to talk of taking charge of the future of their work-lives, to determine for themselves what they wished to do, to share stories and skills about a job they love. Despite that, there was also a sense of being under siege, of being backed into a corner. Speakers and delegates repeatedly talked of the idiocy of policy makers, the sinister ideas of ministers – and then got down to the business of better, more humanely, delivering the curriculum. Softening the blow.
From the front of a classroom, it’s easy to wonder if education has always been like this. I revisited my old high school. It had dropped the ‘Comp’ from the title, was re-graded as an ‘Academy’, and no longer ‘Roman’ but simply ‘Catholic’. I remember a lingering ‘technical boy’s school’ mentality, and I remember feeling trained for the shipyard offices which rotted down the hill. The Spice Girls were at the height of their powers. Going to university wasn’t expected – a newly-built panoptic social security office was next door, and ending up behind or in front of its desks was likely. My graphics teacher insisted on giving some of us skills in something called ‘technical drawing’, and we learned the Hail Mary in Spanish.
I was there last year to see if anyone could remind me which exam board my Maths GCSE (modular) was awarded by – and whether it still existed. The board does, the school doesn’t, completely rebuilt a few years ago in one of the last PFI schemes. The old filing cabinets with my records had made the move; the ‘demountable’ classrooms (huts) which I’d taken every English lesson in hadn’t. It was there I first read Viz, and Shakespeare. It was there I got into my first real fight. It was there I slipped out of the school gates to march against a war.
NATE and the new teacher
What does any of this have to do with being an English teacher at the start of a working life? A few points from a position of naivety:
- We have an obligation to affirm the voices, languages and histories of our students.
- We should be duly suspicious of the ideas that are handed to us.
- We should be open to the idea that what we teach by accident will be more important than what we teach by design.
- What we leave out matters.
- It’s okay to be angry.
It is this attitude that I recognise and value in NATE. It is not simply a trading floor for coping mechanisms and interpretations of policy. It is a place of real professional, political, and cultural commitment. An attempt to remain autonomous from all the strains and demands of a job, and to serve students, not systems; to pick your head up and look to the horizon. I’m having fun, and I’m learning a lot.
Greed and social pride
left Screapadal without people,
and the iron band of laws
that put a vice-like grip on the people,
threatening to raise above them
the black Carn-Mors of hunger
and the Meircil rocks of famine
on which grow the poisonous bracken
from which come the deadly rocket,
hydrogen and neutron bombs.
(from ‘Screapadal’ by Sorley MacLean, translated from the Gaelic by Sorley MacLean.)
Tom Coles is a Local Authority Co-ordinator for NATE in Scotland, as a member of the Scottish Association for the Teaching of English (SATE). He teaches in a high school on the Isle of Skye. These views are his own.