In a lot of ways, being an English teacher is brilliant. I get to read books and talk about them to people who are occasionally listening, and I get paid for all that. I can sometimes claim the books I buy on expenses. I get really long holidays in which to read all these books. Sometimes, I obsess over a book with sufficient enthusiasm that it inspires my students to read it too, and then we can wave our hands around and shriek about it together.
Sometimes, that’s what happens.
Sometimes, however, that’s not what happens. Sometimes, I get really excited about teaching something which I am very, very emotionally attached to and it all goes horrible wrong. About six years ago, I decided to teach Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to my A-level English language and literature class (for US readers – hi there! – this means they were seniors) and I thought it would be amazing; after all, I love The Handmaid’s Tale and, when I studied it for my own A-levels, everyone else loved it too, so what could possible go wrong? Well, a few things. The main thing I neglected to consider was that I went to an all girls’ school, so we were really quite receptive to the novel’s feminist themes; my male students, not so much. As well as this, while I was getting really excited about Atwood’s use of syndetic listing, a number of my students were just giggling at the Ceremony chapter, which worried me, firstly, because that really isn’t a funny chapter and, secondly, because syndetic listing is really important to me.
My experience with The Handmaid’s Tale has made me wary of choosing my favourite texts for teaching. Much as I love Sylvia Plath and sometimes think of her as both still alive and my actual friend, teenagers don’t always respond as they would if life was like Dangerous Minds and I dread having to have an argument, usually with a rugby player, about the fact that she was actually ill and not just a really bad mother. I also get irrationally annoyed when my students don’t agree with me about The Taming of the Shrew and find Petruchio really funny. On the subject of humour, apparently The History Boys isn’t funny if you don’t understand Auden and please, please never make me have to answer the question “miss, is everyone in this play gay or what?” again.
I think the statistic is that two out of five teachers leave the profession during their first five years; given the awful books I taught in my first year, that I am still inflicting my literary tastes on the youth is a testament to my tenacity and inability to take a hint. Having procured my first teaching job, I eagerly surveyed the departmental book cupboard and for some reason chose a heinous book called Gangsta Rap by Benjamin Zephaniah (who is, I will point out, very talented and clearly doesn’t need to care about my opinion) which turned out to be one of my worst ever decisions. Having slavishly planned my scheme of work over the summer, it became apparent in my first lesson with a delightful year 9 class that this book was not going to work. Without years’ worth of past lesson plans to choose from, I was forced to persevere. I have basically only just recovered. During the same year, in an attempt to impress my new head of department, I also taught Angela Carter’s Wise Children; a brilliant novel, obviously, but a terrifying prospect for a newly qualified and completely green teacher when characters start committing intimate acts with their uncles. There is a look teenagers give you when these things come up in a set text: it kind of says “how many deep-rooted issues do you have to have to choose to discuss this book with children?” and, at the same time, “will you notice if I just quote all the sweary bits in my essays?”
I have also discovered that sometimes kids either lie to my face or I am just too absorbed in the feelings of fictional characters to notice the views of real people. For example, after completing what I had seen as a very successful study of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was reliably informed that the whole class hated it and, recently, I marked an essay from a student which wasn’t about Never Let Me Go, our set text, but did mention his hatred of it several times.
It hasn’t always been bad. One A-level literature class as few years ago really enjoyed Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice; at least, they never said otherwise. Fourteen year olds seem to have a healthy appreciation for Ray Bradbury and the fact that he was clearly psychic. Year 7s tend to agree with me that Millions and Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce are extremely funny. Last year, having come through my obsession with Thomas Hardy, I taught an abridged version of Far From the Madding Crowd to year 8, and I am certain that they liked it. Perhaps not as much as they enjoyed watching the 6-part TV adaptation, but they definitely all had love for Gabriel Oak.
So, these days, I try to be really cautious in my choices. To teach anything I really love is out of the question, because I don’t want to have another Handmaid’s horror. But to go too far the other way would obviously be a disaster; I can’t wave my arms around and shriek about something I don’t even like. Clearly, it is impossible to find something that 20+ teenagers will like, so I now work on the premise that I can just bully them all into liking what I tell them to like. Unless it’s Frankenstein.
If you’re a teacher and would like to form a support group to get us through these problems, get in touch; together, we can recover. Or perhaps you once demoralised a teacher by dramatically throwing a book to the floor and groaning, “miss, do we have to read this?” Either way, comments are always welcome round here.