English teaching is hard - so we must work together

English teachers can't navigate the curriculum on instinct alone - they need to help each other out, says Alan Gillespie

Alan Gillespie

'English teaching is hard - so we must work together'

When I first emerged from probation as a fully qualified English teacher, I felt a lot of pressure.

English seemed like a big deal to pupils and parents and universities. Was I ready for the responsibility of this core subject? Could I handle Shakespeare? Would I actually know what to teach? Take a look at the English curriculum in Scotland and you’ll see lots of skills, but very little content.

It’s not until the national qualifications in the latter part of secondary school that set texts are imposed by the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority). Up until then teachers navigate using their instincts, personal taste, and whatever happens to be in the book cupboard. In short, we need support from one another.

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In England, the National Association for Teachers of English (NATE) is a well-established organisation providing networking, professional development and annual conferences. We’re crying out for something similar in Scotland. Thankfully, NATE (Scotland) has arrived.

Finding useful and affordable professional development opportunities is not always easy, especially away from the Central Belt. Commercial companies offer plenty of courses and services, masquerading as professional development, but who do they expect to pay for these? You only have to look at the cattle market that is the Scottish Learning Festival, with its rows of stalls hosting companies looking to profit from the education sector.

NATE (Scotland) is a free, grassroots endeavour that aims to start a national dialogue on this demanding and complex subject. A programme of free events is being curated, with after-school seminars and blogging opportunities, using the successful TeachMeet-style template with informal, supportive workshops led by English teachers, for English teachers.

I just so happened to be invited to lead one of these seminars last month at Bearsden Academy, with a focus on creative writing. 

There were insecurities to deal with beforehand. I have experience as a writer, and a publishing deal for a novel, but wasn’t entirely sure how this could translate into an engaging hour and a half of material for a group of battle-weary, caffeine-dependent teachers.

Despite my anxieties about public speaking, the event went well. I covered a range of creative writing strategies that I use in class: making up Broons cartoons, writing timewaster letters, technical things like narrative distance and dual structures. I asked my audience to work on some little writing exercises for me, and they did. Not a single complaint or exaggerated sigh. They made notes and smiled at my jokes, which is all you can really ask.

I am grateful to that small crowd who came to listen to my ideas on a cold Monday evening. Without the willingness of colleagues across the country, initiatives such as NATE (Scotland) will never take root as part of the educational landscape.

It’s always a joy to spend time with other English teachers, to see what’s going on in other departments, and who’s teaching what novel, and who knows who that used to work with such and such. These interactions are nourishing and give us a shared identity – like driving past someone with the exact same colour and model of car, and giving them a wee nod as you pass.

Alan Gillespie is principal teacher of English at Fernhill School in Glasgow

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