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Giving up on gimmicks

In my first few years of teaching in a post-16 college, I fiercely believed that if I succeeded in holding students' rapt attention for 90 minutes of English then I had fought the good fight and won.

I went about this by stirring up heated discussions over divisive topics. Or I would move learning out of the classroom, to the theatre or a museum, where we would immerse ourselves in subjects that would later form the basis of literacy projects. Rolls of wallpaper, huge speakers and plastic swords poked out of my ratty hessian resource bag.

Students who had greeted me with a growl of "English is shit" stayed the year and produced some good work. Engaging them was central to my teaching mission.

Although I recognised that the exam was there to demonstrate to the outside world that the learners had reached a certain standard, I felt that teachers who ran their classes with one eye on the test were not the type of practitioners I respected.

I've been teaching long enough that I can no longer claim that skewed views and silly mistakes such as this are due to naivety. On reflection, my former focus on providing entertainment, perhaps above education, may have been a reaction to my own school experience.

I am from a working-class background, and through the UK government's assisted places scheme of the 1980s I went for free to an expensive private girls' school. We all want our children to have the best and, on paper, this was it. But I loathed the place and almost all the teachers. Although I'm still in contact with many lovely friends from that time, I hated feeling like the poor relation. Their lives of gymkhanas, multiple homes and skiing made me determined to embrace my differences and cast aside the opportunity of what I was repeatedly told was "the best education".

After I finally left - driven through the manicured school gardens in my mate's Land Rover, blowing raspberries and wafting two fingers at the headteacher - I didn't set foot in a classroom again for 20 years. When I became a teacher, it felt as though I'd found my home working in colleges with learners who were predominantly from backgrounds like my own. And unlike my teachers, I wasn't going to judge my students for their lack of interest or skill in academic endeavours. Hence my penchant for sessions that were perhaps more fun than functional.

Experimental, slightly progressive learning paths are all well and good when young people are at a level where tweaks in their expertise are all that is required. However, when they are struggling with literacy, and this may be their last chance to grasp it, they need more than a fun lesson. They need to learn how to read and write. Urgently.

My lessons are, I hope, more balanced nowadays. I still embrace some slightly unconventional methods (I intend to risk a wash and blow-dry from my level 1 hairdressers next week as part of an instruction-writing exercise) and I would rather shave my head than be a slave to the test, but I will in the future at least periodically nod in its direction.

Sarah Simons works in a large further education college in Mansfield, England.

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