Final word - Fran Hill

14th August 2009 at 01:00

Original paper headline: Final word - O how my Bard was botched

Here in front of me I have a worksheet on "the sonnet form". I gave it out with supreme confidence to a trusting GCSE class when I was a newly qualified teacher six years ago. It looks great - bullet points, a little table to fill in, a fancy Shakespearean font. But actually it's a complete pile of tosh.

Please don't ask me how 10B managed to get such good grades the following year - it was certainly nothing to do with my knowledge.

Back then, I was as green as they come and what I knew about sonnets could be written on my little fingernail. In fact, I should have presented it to the class on my little fingernail - at least that would have been of some interest.

Instead, I burbled my way through this worksheet, getting my pupils to fill in the table as I talked. Meanwhile, I prided myself on innovative pedagogical methods. They don't call this the Not Quite Teaching year for nothing.

Now I look at this worksheet, which I discovered while sorting out old resources, and blush. I taught - self-assuredly but erroneously - that the Bard invented the sonnet and wrote all of his to women. I have since taught sonnets at AS level, and let's just say I've learnt a few things.

It's a shame because those first groups of pupils in my budding career as a teacher would have been fascinated by the truth - that most of the sonnets were addressed to a man, and that they contained some filthy, filthy jokes.

But I suppose learning to be a teacher is like that. You don't get a warm- up period in which you teach "pretend" children who won't be affected by your incompetence and the fact that you may not know your sonnet arse from your sonnet elbow. What you do get is real children who need real teaching for real exams. And, scarily, they can recognise the real you - the petrified, dry-mouthed, knee-trembling you - within 43 seconds of the start of the lesson, if you don't know how to act.

That's why I'm extremely glad that I trained to teach when I was already as old as Noah - I had three teenagers of my own. I knew how to act confidently to 10B, even though I had been in the toilet all breaktime and had a book called Manage Your Craven Fear in my handbag. I had practised sounding brave and convinced for years with my kids: "Yes, you may think I'm Stalin personified, but you're still not staying out until midnight" and "I don't care if I am to parenting what Nero was to Christianity, you're not having takeaway pizza."

Of course, I cared that my children thought I was the pits at these times, just as I care now if I'm not completely sure that I'm doing the right thing for a class. Sometimes my daughter would barely have finished stomping up to her room muttering "I wish I had Sophie's mum" before I'd be sobbing into a tissue.

But to show signs of vulnerability at the moment of conflict? That way lay sleepless nights and a leaning tower of pizza boxes by the bin. And in teaching, that way lies the temporary job at the supermarket while you reconsider your career.

Teacher training institutions should run drama workshops that show trainees how to play "I know exactly what I'm doing even though it's only day three and my sonnet knowledge isn't quite what it could be".

Lesson one: ask a pupil to give out the tosh worksheets. At least that way no-one will see your hands shaking.

  • Fran Hill is an English teacher at an independent girls' school in Warwickshire.
    • Mike Kent is on holiday.

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