“Miss, We All Hate This Book:” The Secret Diary of an English Teacher

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.

handmaidSometimes, 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 gangstaduring 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.

fftmc-gabrieloak-1

Ahh, Gabriel Oak, you beautiful farmer man.

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.

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17 thoughts on ““Miss, We All Hate This Book:” The Secret Diary of an English Teacher

  1. Holly says:

    Let me just say that if I had been in your class studying The Handmaid’s Tale, I would have rejoiced- that book is phenomenal! The problem I’ve had with the majority of my English teachers in high school is that a lot of them have just given up and resigned themselves to the idea that a lot of teens nowadays don’t appreciate or enjoy literature. My college English professors, on the other hand, have been fantastic– if only they were around when I was in high school!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jenna (@Jinkiesbooks) says:

    I loved the handmaid’s tale! We read it my junior or senior year (I had the same teacher both years so they blur together) she also had a read huck finn, and every quarter (3 months) we got to pick a book off of a list and do a project on it. Also, I’ve never heard anyone speak ill of Frankenstein so that surprises me they don’t like it. It sounds like you have a weird class.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight says:

    Huh, I never thought about this from the teacher’s POV. It does seem rather disheartening! I do applaud teachers for what they put up with. I mean, I was always the student who dutifully read the books (half the students didn’t even bother) and then listened and smiled and nodded to make the teacher feel good, but I can’t say I enjoyed most of them. I think I just disliked being told what to think about them and having my own enjoyment and interpretation squashed. It’s hard to enjoy a book when you’re trying to remember what room of the house the character is in when she says XYZ in case that question is on the exam. My favorite of all the school books though was Catch 22, which I read as a senior, but of course I feel like that’s the one we hardly discussed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Katy Goodwin-Bates says:

      You are so right: having to remember minute details for exams drains all the love out of reading. The new course I have to teach to 15/16 year olds is all closed book exams, so basically they’ll have to memorise a Shakespeare play, a 19th century novel, a modern novel and 15 poems. Way to inspire a lifelong love of literature! I’d love to just be able to teach whatever I like and grade the class based on discussions and open-ended questions (I feel another blog coming on…). Thanks for your comment; I’m loving hearing people’s views on this.

      Like

  4. Blaise @ thebookboulevard says:

    I read both Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights for classes (and Pride and Prejudice on my own time), and what I found was that my fondness for that period of time was divided between how much I enjoyed the book and how well it was discussed in class–not by the instructor, but by the other students. The discussion for Frankenstein in my class was far more lively, far more interesting, than what ended up happening with Wuthering Heights (which I suspect was because hardly anyone was reading it, and because of those hardly anyone enjoyed it). When it comes to a book flopping, for lack of a better term, I’m much more likely to blame the students than I am the instructor for choosing a bad book.

    After all, we read Huck Finn, and I hated it, but the discussion wasn’t great either (I’ve since read bits of analysis that make it more interesting to me).

    I also read The Scarlet Letter, which so many people I know seem to agree is an awful book (our instructor clearly didn’t think so), didn’t enjoy it, but the discussion was nonetheless fantastic because we as students were critical about why things were frustrating to us and what didn’t work for us in the novel in terms of theme and symbolism.

    Does all that make sense? I know it’s a bit ramble-y ^^;

    Liked by 1 person

    • Katy Goodwin-Bates says:

      It made perfect sense, and thanks for writing such a detailed reply. It’s really interesting hearing people’s memories of reading at school. Class discussion is so important; I even find that, if I have a class where kids get involved in discussion, even a hated book provides lots to talk about. Everyone loves a good rant! I didn’t really enjoy The Scarlet Letter but I can imagine it being great for discussing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Alexa @ Words Off the Page says:

    This is so interesting because there are some books I’ve absolutely hated (*cough* Heart of Darkness *cough*) but I tried to keep my head on right about it. I actually really think Handmaid’s Tale is an important book for young people to read, but alas, high schoolers are anything if not unappreciative. Even in AP classes. I think I can’t ever be a teacher because of it so I applaud you for doing what you do. I can’t deal with the narrow mindedness of a lot of teenagers, but that kind of comes with the age :/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wendy says:

      Heart of Daaaaaarkness! In college, it was the LAST book we read in the 19th century lit class and the FIRST book we read in the 20th century lit class, because it was published in 1900, and because apparently our five person English department couldn’t be bothered to look over each others’ syllabi.

      Like

  6. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    Ha! I feel your pain. I can’t imagine how tough it must be to see your class hate a book you love and feel has so much to offer to them! I teach a MG homeschool co-op writing class and we read Tuck Everlasting, which is a book I loved when I was that age. For the most parts, the kids seemed to really enjoy it – but I thought it was somewhat sad when I read one paper that talked about how much the girl hated it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wendy says:

    Have you read any of Donalyn Miller or Penny Kittle’s work? They are American teachers who are strong components of student choice in developing their reading lives. I know it’s not always possible, and I know that kids need to be pushed to read outside their comfort zone (and supported in that as well, through class discussion, etc.). But I think that unless kids are already strong and enthusiastic readers, we English teachers sometimes drive them away from a love of and interest in reading.

    I teach middle school (12-14 year olds), and today I was booktalking Wonder by R. J. Palacio, a book universally admired and beloved. One of my students raised her hand and said, “No offense, but why is everyone always saying that’s a good book? Every time I hear about it or read a little bit of it, it seems like the most boring book in the world.” The rest of the class started nodding. Sigh. It seems odd when even children’s books can’t be appreciated by kids. Every adult I know who’s read it has been blown away!

    Oh, this post really sparked a lot of thought for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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