Shall I compare thee to Year 9?

29th February 2008 at 00:00

Many teachers write for pleasure. Maybe you are a poet and you don't even know it. Madeleine Brettingham discovers how you find inspiration in school

Voltaire called it "the music of the soul". But with Simon Cowell outselling Simon Armitage, writing poetry has never been a more thankless task. A new literary journal dies every minute, and even the most successful poets, such as Daljit Nagra, the English teacher who bagged an Arts Council award for his Indian-influenced debut, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, have to resort to the indignities of a day job to earn a crust.

But despite its studenty image (epitomized by Rick from The Young Ones' awful scribblings) and relatively poor remuneration, plenty of teachers write poetry in their spare time, without the prospect of a literary gong or of dethroning the poet laureate.

So what inspires these classroom Coleridges to immortalize the staffroom biscuit tin or the perils of exam season?

Lizzie Ballagher, who teaches English in Kent, is one of the brave souls who not only pens verse but is courageous enough to submit her poems for the scrutiny of pupils.

"When I'm teaching GCSE poetry I'll bring in one of my poems and ask the class what they think the intentions were," says the 58-year-old, who has published poems and fiction under the pen name Elizabeth Gibson. "When I tell them it's mine, they're surprised."

One of her poems - "On no work of words (apologies to Dylan Thomas)" - is a tongue-in-cheek homage to the Welsh writer, a reference to the difficulty of juggling poetry and teaching. "I write no poems now - no, no longer. Instead my life must move On varied feet, Plodding or leaping With the verses of a school's long week," it begins.

"Poetry is what makes me understand the world and other people. It is to normal speech what dancing is to walking. It has a musical resonance that seems to me to be close to truth," she says.

Obviously, the coarse and worldly work of marking and maintaining order can interfere with the poet's muse, but it can also supercharge it, as Dave Roberts, 43, a science teacher in Cumbria, has discovered.

He writes poetry based on classroom incidents - violence, cyber-bullying and vandalism - to educate his pupils in assembly, and has developed a knack for condensing complex social crises into rhyming couplets. "The trick with the toilets was to be in and out quick For the smell it was hell and it made some folk sick," begins his poem, "Toilet Trouble", about a fictional racist attack. It continues: "Now Chris was used to the abuse of his features But this unfair attack he reported to teachers."

"I wouldn't go as far as to call myself a poet teacher," he says. "My poems are written to appeal to pupils in particular and to make them think about particular issues."

Jayne Gordon, 39, head of lower first at St Paul's Preparatory School in London, has also found rhyming gets to parts of lessons other forms of delivery just don't reach. Her poem "The Complete History Lesson", condenses the entire history of the British monarchy from William the Conqueror to the Windsors into just 38 lines.

While this involves some shortcuts - "Next was John a bad, bad king Barons wrote a charter, a Magna Carta thing" - she says it made the boys approach the subject with fresh enthusiasm.

"We read it out in assembly, two lines each. They all knew each others' parts and were egging each other on."

But what about the staffroom satirists? Those who observe the foibles and absurdities of school life, and commit them to verse, often without their targets' knowledge?

Melissa Heald, 28, an English teacher at a Birmingham comprehensive, says she has kept her comic poem "Staffroom", a light-hearted look at the characters you find loitering around the school biscuit tin, to herself. Perhaps understandably given it pokes fun at "the whining NQT with her lesson plans and hung-over mourning face", and the old hand, "made fat by staffroom cheap-frills biscuits, suit lined with rayon."

"It's a parody of the `seven ages of man' speech from As You Like It," she says. "Someone said to me a while back that every staffroom is like a sitcom. I was teaching the play and the two just merged together."

Angie Pollard, 53, a Guernsey primary teacher, also takes on the mantle of a classroom Alexander Pope with her funny reflections on staff meetings, marking and the temptations of chocolate after a hard day at the chalkface.

"I'll occasionally jot down notes in break, when I'm thinking about what's just happened in a lesson or when I'm preparing one," she says. "It's normally when I've suddenly got a different angle on something."

Her work is mainly light-hearted, although this being teaching there is inevitably an undertone of tragedy in pieces such as "Exam Fever", in which she laments: "The pens and the pencils, the numerous papers piled high on my desk with a scowl The squinting, the marking of young expectations Are turning me into an owl."

Michelle Mulligan's "A Clean Desk is the Sign of a Cluttered Desk Draw" is an ode to the delights of an artistically disheveled workspace. "When exams are on it's covered in piles of paper," says the 24-year-old English teacher from Rochdale, whose "desk is like a hidden treasure chest It's secrets hidden under paper". She enjoys Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, but also takes inspiration from hip hop artists such as Canibus and Sean Paul. "They use assonance and things like that so I use them at school, too. Sean Paul's "Ever Blazin'" is great for similes. The kids are surprised to find out it's about love and not smoking illegal drugs."

Unlike hip hop, fine-tuning the perfect stanza is unlikely to earn you enough cash to gold plate your 4x4 or enjoy all-day saunas with gym-buff models in impractical swimwear. But it remains a satisfying pursuit for hundreds of teachers.

And next time Gareth in Year 9 starts playing up? You can always put him down with a witty rhyming couplet.


Melissa Heald, English teacher

The humble art of teaching is but played

by those who've entered yet cannot exit

the stage

one staffroom in its time holds many

characters: at first, the Student Teacher

crying and sighing in the Bursar's arms

and then the whining NQT with her

lesson plans and hung-over mourning face

tripping quite pale unwillingly to school

the Lover of Education who'll not

be made woeful, but disappear when the

going gets tough with high-arched eyebrow

then the Soldier, the swearer, jealously

guarding her staple gun; quick in quarrel -

now seeking innocent Year 8s at which

to discharge her reputed cannon mouth

and then the Justice, made fat by staffroom

cheap-frills biscuits, suit lined with rayon;

heavy-eyed, nervous at school's formal cuts;

full of apathy towards all modern

initiatives . and so he plays his part

the sixth one is old baggy pants, slipper'd

sometimes in Hush Puppies; his manly voice

still commanding Year 10s though these days

he more likely resorts to a whistle

last character of all that ends this strange

medley is Mere Hopelessness. Without taste

without hope, without reference; not as old as you may think.

He sits rocking, sans everything


Daljit Nagra, an English teacher at the Jewish Free School in north London, has won the Forward Poetry prize and an Arts Council award for his debut collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, which draws on the experiences of his Indian parents who arrived in Britain in the Fifties. Here, he shares his tips with The TES Magazine readers.

- Try and spend more time reading other poets and books about other poets than you do on writing your own poems.

- Have a good dictionary, Thesaurus, rhyming dictionary and book of poetic terminology (The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is the best).

- Look for critical feedback and distrust anyone who says your poems are "perfect" or "amazing" as this might stop you from keeping them alive as working documents.

- Seek feedback from writers who write differently from you: opposition is more energising than agreement.

- Try to be familiar with at least one collection of poetry each from at least 20 contemporary poets; more if you have the time.

- Poetry is slow: poems come slowly, take ages in the editing stage, and they can take ages before they are finally published in a magazine. First collections should take at least five to 15 years in writing as you are learning the craft for the first time, so you are discovering afresh your preferred styles, themes, attitudes, language choices, rhythms and forms.

Staff meeting reflections

Angie Pollard, primary teacher

Isn't it time to go home yet?

Isn't it time to be off?

Isn't it time to go out in the wet

And pick up a cold and a cough?

Isn't it time to finish?

Isn't it time to end?

Isn't it time to pick up my bag

And leave to go off round the bend?

Isn't it time to be sensible?

Isn't it time to be calm?

Isn't it time to completely cool down

Before I can do any harm?

Isn't it time to just stop, now?

Isn't it time to leave?

Isn't it time to chuck it all in

And give this malarkey a heave?

. And how not to do it


Rick from The Young Ones

Oh, Cliff

Sometimes it must be difficult not to feel as if

You really are a Cliff

When fascists keep trying to push you over it

Are they the lemmings?

Or are you Cliff?

Or are you, Cliff?

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