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An English lecturer's lot is not an 'appy one

Careers guidance pamphlet number 47: So you want to be an English teacher . . . All right, so you haven't heeded all those warnings about a lecturer's lot not being an 'appy one. This week you've arrived with boundless optimism and a sheaf of curious documents known as "lesson plans" to take your first class as a teaching practice trainee.

So listen now. Take it from one who knows. Here it is, your professional life laid out in front of you: your life as a college English teacher. What should you expect? The main thing to expect is that you will be blamed. Not all of society's ills will be laid at your door, but you should expect to be held to account for a good many of them.

First, expect to be blamed for not teaching Standard English. You will meet your accuser at a party. You will recognise him easily, for he will be bald and rodent-like, and the only person in the room wearing a tie. Of course he won't actually say Standard English; that's not a term much in use in Daily Express editorials. More likely he will say proper or correct English. But whatever he calls it the message will be the same: it is your fault that it doesn't exist any more.

In particular it will be your fault that no one under the age of 25 in his office can spell the word accommodation. (And it's no good saying, "I can't either mate," and turning away, because that will just encourage him.) The only way you can placate him is to mumble words like standards and grammar. Then serve him a helping of taramasalata and ask him if he can spell that!

You must also expect to be blamed for teaching Standard English. This will happen at the same party. Your antagonist in this case will be called Dave. You will recognise him by his check shirt and John Lennon glasses.

Dave will tell you that by teaching them to speak posh you are stealing away working-class children's heritage. Imposing a bourgeois veneer on the oak hearts of the proletariat. If you wish you can explain to Dave that they can learn to write Standard English and still keep their dialect, but it's unlikely he'll listen. He'll be too busy being sick in the garden and attempting to rouse anyone whose eye he can catch to sing The Internationale with him.

Expect to be blamed for teaching Shakespeare. In doing this you are perpetuating the myth that literature is all about dead white males. And don't bother pointing out that you are also teaching Alice Walker. This will be seen as trendy teaching, political correctness or feminist pornography.

Expect everyone to take delight in your mistakes. Remember there are people out there whose whole purpose in life is to point out to English teachers that they are using less for fewer or disinterested for uninterested. (If you are unsure of these distinctions yourself don't worry: so are 99 per cent of the population.)

And having said what you should expect, what should you not expect?

For a start, don't expect craft-level caterers to like you. They come to college to wield meat cleavers, not be taught the three uses of the comma. In fact don't expect anyone to like you. You are an English teacher now. Remember, you volunteered for this. No one forced you into it.

Don't expect to be good at ironing. English teachers never are. For confirmation of this go to a National Association for Teachers of English conference and count the wrinkles. Irony is another matter. English teachers are unerringly good at irony (which they are always careful to distinguish from sarcasm, the lowest form of wit!)

Don't expect to be able to teach anyone how to use the apostrophe. This is a good example of the law of diminishing returns. Your students' ignorance level will rise in direct proportion to the number of hours you spend instructing them. Anyway, why should you worry about the apostrophe? Nobody else does.

Don't expect to be paid. If I were writing this in 1976 or 1986 I might have appended the word much. But as for every one of the past 20 years the value of FE lecturers' salary has fallen, by the time you get qualified you'll probably have to pay your employers for the privilege. But don't let this get you down. You have your vocation.

If the above all seems a little negative, remember the life-enhancing effect that your own English teachers had upon you. Isn't that why you chose to come into the business in the first place? So, don't whinge. Nothing is worse than a whingeing teacher. In particular don't write it all down in a column for The TES. Someone might like it and give you my job!

Oh, and by the way, enjoy your career.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London further education college.

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