Early in my career teaching English, an inspector who had just observed me teach a complete lesson spoke to me afterwards. He did his best to give me some feedback, even though we both civilly and tacitly agreed it was unnecessary. With a degree of surprise in his voice that I found even more surprising, he said: “You’re a very good reader.” To which I replied, without taking time to even think, “What did you expect? I’m an English teacher!”
What at the time felt like the only honest response, decades later sounds downright rude (that kind of aggressive defensiveness is often characteristic of young professionals.) He took it with the kind of calm professionalism I hope his additional years of experience have also now granted me.
Recently, I was invited back into the classroom to support some A-level students studying poetry in the build-up to their exams.
Any former teacher who still works closely with schools, as I have done for a long time now, will always benefit from getting their hands dirty again. My visit was no exception and I came away with some delightfully grubby mitts.
One of the things I’d been asked to help these sixth-formers with was John Donne, arguably one of the most intelligent Englishmen ever to have committed his mind to expressing himself through poetry. Shakespeare, Donne and Milton form a kind of holy trinity of the English poetic intelligentsia.
At the risk of giving egg-sucking lessons to an entire nation of teachers, poetry is, of course, best listened to. But that deceptively innocent little statement hides a really momentous issue about being that professional who spends hours every day standing up in front of children, expecting them to listen to you.
Researching my latest book, I spent quite a lot of time listening. Most revealingly to recordings of both Milton and Wordsworth being read aloud, online. The range is fascinating. You can find everything from a Cambridge don who’s so talented, she makes Milton’s baroque, convoluted sentences sound like eloquent pub chat; to a bumbling, forgot my glasses and can’t see the autocue properly kind of performance, that’s like the hilarious poetry of Tony Hancock from Hancock’s Half Hour, all misplaced stress and hic, haec, hoc. One thing for sure: the best is in short supply. Even professional actors are capable of botching Milton. Clearly, it is not easy to read poetry aloud, well.
After I’d read Donne’s notoriously complex poem The Extasie aloud to my class of stranger sixth-formers, I asked the students (who had probably analysed and dissected it to death by the time I met them) to tell me if listening to it being read by someone new had made them think something new about it. One of them said something remarkable. She pointed out that it seemed to her now to be more of a love poem than before.
The writer's voice
The moment she spoke, something came back pleasantly to haunt me. A few years ago, I was kindly asked to do the formal reading at the wedding of one of my nephews. The reading was the ironically much-loved St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. A chunk of English prose that’s so well trodden, anyone reading it does so barefoot. For me, there was the added fun of knowing I was reading from a lectern John Donne might well have stood behind himself because the medieval church was in the City, close to his old parish stamping ground at St Paul’s. During the reception, a number of guests told me how much they had enjoyed it, but one guest, a complete stranger, said something really interesting. She said: “It sounded like you’d written it.”
I was a secondary school teacher and I want to stress something that I wish I saw stressed much more frequently by the hordes of other bods and bodies all too eager to tell teachers what to do.
Conflating primary school teaching with secondary school teaching rarely works. More often it confuses things more than it enlightens them. The two jobs are almost entirely different. What I have to say next might have some relevance to primary teachers who read aloud to children routinely and regularly, but it may not.
When you read aloud as a secondary teacher, to a classroom full of teenagers, think hard and carefully about who wrote it and why. This doesn’t just apply to great fiction or poetry, although that is undoubtedly where it’s most obviously an issue for your listeners. It’s every bit as important if you’re reading them an extract from the driest academic work on economics or physics because what matters is that you abdicate yourself, your voice, in favour of the author and theirs.
You can see why this distinction throws such a revealing light on that primary-secondary split. In those early years, when everything is about trying to encourage small children to read and to love reading, a skillful, entertaining dramatic performance of a story can transform a child’s attitude towards reading and books. But in the secondary school, where teenagers are being taught to think for themselves, what they need when you read aloud is for you to be as faithful an understudy for the author as it’s possible to be.
In spite of Matthew Arnold’s frequently repeated assertion; you are not introducing them to the best which has been thought and said in the world, but the best that has been written. Every time you open a book to read aloud and expect them to listen, you really are responsible for managing the transference of one mind to a classroom full of others. But perhaps most frighteningly of all, you're doing it to a generation that has literally, no idea what you’re talking about.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue