An English teacher on her high horse: ‘Academic’ vs ‘Creative’ subjects.

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I re-read this article today and got very, very annoyed.  It’s about the government’s EBacc, about ‘academic’ and ‘creative’ subjects and about how a ‘rigorous’ education is more important than an artistic one.

To me it’s funny that English is considered one of the ‘hard’ subjects that makes for a ‘rigorous’ education, as opposed to one of the ‘creative’ subjects that the government doesn’t seem to value anywhere near as much. Obviously I think it’s a vital subject, but I think its importance lies in that it teaches us to think. I also think that it’s not necessarily ‘English’, the language, that’s important. In English lessons, in English speaking countries, we’re teaching three fundamentally important things, and only one of them is to do with the language specifically. Yes, we’re teaching communication in the English language, and that is necessary for both English speakers and those who want to be English speakers. In that sense, English is on a par with any other language, and it’s this element that the government seems to consider makes it ‘hard’ and therefore ‘worthy’.

The other aspects of the subject that make it so freaking wonderful though, are nothing to do with being able to recognise bias in journalism, or punctuate a sign, or write a letter to an employer.

0dac601965da5c8f440ae7c642eb81faThrough Literature we learn how other people think the world works, and we learn how to tell the world what we think about that. There is nothing more creative than exploring and analysing other people’s dreams and views, and showing your own to them. Literature is inextricably linked to ‘the creative subjects’, to Drama, to Art, to Music, and it is also linked to ‘the academic subjects’, to History, and even to Maths and Science, subjects which some people mistakenly think it is impossible to be simultaneously interested in if you are a ‘bookish’ sort of person. Reading, understanding, exploring and responding to a poem is not a ‘hard’ skill that children need to learn so they can get jobs as lawyers and accountants and doctors and all the other jobs that we aspire for our children to have. It is the very essence of creativity. It is a skill, for sure, that can help children get those jobs, but it is also a skill that can help children make sense of the world in which they live, can make them emotionally mature and secure people, and can give them the tools to make a difference where they want to, whether as lawyers or mothers or binmen.

quote-Boris-Pasternak-literature-is-the-art-of-discovering-something-137109_2It is saying, ‘why was Wordsworth ‘wandering’? Why wasn’t he striding purposefully? Why wasn’t he running? What was he thinking? Who was he with? Why? What was I thinking about the last time I took a walk? What is the point of exploring the field over there, or the world? What might I discover? What do I want to say about it? Why is it important to say whatever that is? Or why should I not say it at the moment?  What can I learn from other people who think the same thing, or the opposite thing, or a thing somewhere in the middle? What can we learn from each other?’

It is clear that these questions (and the hundreds of others we could ask) easily lend themselves to further exploration in other subjects-Arts, Sciences, Humanities…the world is multifaceted and so is a good education. What a waste of time and energy if a child who is a talented musician isn’t able to explore some of these ideas through writing harmonies or exploring how to convey the poem’s emotion on the piano, or a child who is interested in science and drama (yes! they coexist!) can’t be inspired to examine things like human psychology through devising, or the vital crossover between personal growth, scientific discovery and morality through plays like Copenhagenmg22730380.800-1_800

So yes, English is important, and indeed, in my biased view, it is one of the most important subjects we teach. But to split subjects into ‘academic’ and ‘creative’ and to assign more value to one group than to the other, is to completely miss the point.

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Favouritism

047d039e0bdfdda1503c03154f3b8966It’s no secret that teachers don’t have favourite pupils.  It’s unprofessional, cruel to the other children in the class and generally not fair as, of course, all children have the right to be treated equally,  But what I – and I suspect most teachers – do have, are pupils that stick in the memory, even ten or twenty years down the line.

In my first job I had a Theatre Studies class with one particular student who was so incredibly talented that he made me cry during his examined performance.  I taught a boy in an A level English class who used to bring me poems and bits of novels he was working on.  I had a girl in one GCSE class who struggled a great deal but worked so hard that she got an A* through sheer force of will – and she did AS English a year early, at the same time as her GCSEs, and got an A.

All of these pupils from ten years ago, and many from more recent schools that I’ve worked in, stand out for me from the hundreds – thousands? – that I’ve taught.  But what I absolutely love about tutoring is that now, all my pupils are memorable, and for all the right reasons.  Every tutee that I see is here because they want to learn.  They want to improve.  They’ve taken the brave step of acknowledging that they need help with some particular aspect of their learning – even if they’re not completely sure what that is and they need me to help them figure it out – and they’ve arrived, pen in hand, ready to go.  Some of them are very shy, some are confident, some seem confident but are actually incredibly nervous.  I’ve tutored pupils whom schools have refused to teach – who have all turned out, by the way, to be bright, sparky, impressive young people.  I’ve tutored pupils with SEN who are floundering in classes of 30 at school, and who have sat with me, drunk copious amounts of tea, given it their all and done the unthinkable – passed a GCSE that ‘everybody’ said they would fail.  I absolutely love tutoring because every student that comes through my door leaves again more confident and motivated, better equipped to face their difficulties and feeling ready for the next step.  So no, I don’t have favourites.  It wouldn’t be fair.  They’re all brilliant and I remember them all with a fierce pride.