National Poetry Day

Right, English teacher hat on.

National Poetry Day – what’s it all about then? Well, it’s like nationwide, it’s poetical and it’s just for one day.

But hopefully its legacy is further reaching and more serious than that. I view it as a seriously effective way of getting children of all ages into poetry. Schools across the land will be finding ways of bringing poetry into the classroom, and thousands of children will have a very positive experience as a result.

I have to admit, though, that for a trainee English teacher who is masquerading under the name of Mr. Milton, I don’t have a particularly poetical history (you could read that in many ways), but it is something that I love to dip in and out of.

A few years ago, I even spent a fairly pretentious summer walking around Paris in a long scarf, writing poetry in a little book. I went so far as to keep a diary called Les Memoirs d’un Garcon Anglais. Pretentious or quoi? I have written a few poems since, but more of that later.

For now, here are a few poems that I really like. No particular reason why – I just think they’re grand. So…

First up is Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate. Say no more:

Mrs Icarus

I’m not the first or the last
to stand on a hillock,
watching the man she married
prove to the world
he’s a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock.

Short though this poem might be, it occupied a half hour bus journey when I read it. It’s funny, of course, but angry too. I felt for poor old Mrs. Icarus. No one asked her about the wisdom of taking to the sky with wings made of feathers and wax. Maybe they should have done.

The night before I’d watched a documentary about the youth leagues that feed NASCAR in America. These ten year olds drive little go karts capable of going at breakneck speeds. They were being pushed to drive faster and faster by their dads. The moms just stood there, biting their nails. I think Mrs. Icarus would have sympathised.

Then onto the next poem, which was introduced to me only today. Love at first sight it was. It is called Litany, by Billy Collins. Again, it raises a laugh but is also a clever parody of the well-trodden poetical practice of comparing an object of desire with, well, another object. Here’s a well-know example (though because he’s well clever, he’s comparing them negatively against other objects):

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

By Shakespeare

Here’s Billy Collins reading Litany. Enjoy.

Right, now I’m going to put myself on the line. While doing some work in the library the other day, I kept on staring out the window, looking at the large tree on noble sentry duty outside. And I wrote a poem about it. So, the world premiere and probably the world dernière too…

I see the leaves turning,
Green, orange, red.
Though they don’t stop dead
But waltz in the wind.
One last dance until they come
To their journey’s end.

Retain the joy of life, I pray
So we can dance on our last day.
We’ll turn our heads to face the breeze
And with a smile, a nod, a kiss
Wind our way onto the floor
And dance till we can dance no more.

Happy National Poetry Day everybody.

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Too many experts

This blog originally appeared on the TES New Teachers website.

You may remember an episode which took place about eighteen months ago. A teacher is talking to a class of disillusioned, uninterested students. One of his opening gambits is strong. Very strong.

“Quiet everybody! I’m told you’re all here because you’ve failed.”

Okay… So, a desire to instil the class with a confidence that is so clearly lacking, and enforcing an atmosphere of positivity?

Tick that box.

Let’s fast forward a little bit, to when a student has just challenged the teacher’s claim that there are many faster and stronger animals out there than humans. How does the teacher react?

“Oh come on, you’re so fat you couldn’t really move!”

This is amazing. My school placement starts in a week or so. I pray I get to observe someone who has mastered their craft as much as this person. But then again, no I don’t. What this teacher was thinking is beyond me.

Is it his fault, though?

In case you are unaware of the episode mentioned above, it took place during Jamie’s Dream School back in 2011. In one of his most explosive recipes, Jamie Oliver took a bunch of disillusioned sixteen to eighteen year olds, stirred in a group of celebrities and experts in various subjects (Rolf Harris taught art, Andrew Motion taught poetry, etc), shoved them into a disused warehouse and tried to make a gruel. Sorry, school.
A rude awakening

David Starky was the teacher mentioned above, and the episode took place during one of his history lessons. Actually, it turned out to be his last. He couldn’t stand the heat, so left the kitchen.

Okay, enough chef gags.

Starky’s a world renowned historian. He has been on countless television programmes and whole rainforests have been transformed into his books. He’s even taught for many years, at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics.

So how did he get it so very wrong?

Because he was untrained, but presumed that his experience would carry him through. But this wasn’t a Cambridge or LSE tutorial.

And thanks to Michael Gove’s new policy of allowing untrained professionals to work in academies, many other people are going to get a similar rude awakening.
Education’s ‘experienced pilots’

I admit, I’m right at the bottom of the teaching food chain: a tadpole who is still ten days away from his first school placement. But even so – and I apologise to any fully-grown toad who takes offence at my presumption – I feel that us PGCE tadpoles are in a better position to teach at a secondary school than most professionals from other careers…


Recently, we have all been making the most of the access that a PGCE gives us to the experience and expertise of our tutors. They are education’s equivalent to experienced pilots. They have aviators, swaggers, greying temples and cheesy, pearly-white grins. Well, not quite, but vitally they DO have email addresses and telephone numbers in case I get stuck grasping something I read in a textbook. Heck, they wrote the textbook! That takes some beating.

This contact with those who know best fills us with more useful knowledge when it comes to teaching in a classroom than years do working as a playwright/mechanic/TV historian.

Don’t misunderstand me – I believe that experience in the outside world stands you in great stead when entering the classroom, but an inkling of what forces are at play in school is also essential. They can be very different from the office.

Those who argue that classroom experience is more important than theories learned at university need to realise that two thirds of our PGCE is spent in a school. And for our first placement, we get to go back to university every Friday in order to ask advice from leading, independent experts – yup, those top guns again.
Supporting each other

And let’s not forget the support from other student teachers. We have built up friendships and talked for many hours about our chosen profession. We challenge, support and swap ideas with each other constantly. When the school placement starts we will scatter across the city with these discourses bouncing around our heads. I really wouldn’t want to start my placement without them.

So I am astounded that this level of training now finds itself in jeopardy. From the two years experience I have of working in a school as a teaching assistant I know how busy teachers are. Are they really going to be able to provide the level of support necessary for any new teachers whose last experience of a classroom could have been more than thirty years ago?

Of course they’re not.

Will these professionals (a label Gove has taken away from teachers) be able to reach their full potential without this support?

There’s a fair chance they won’t.

They might well feel isolated and inadequate as a result. But spare a thought for the real losers in this situation.

After all, how would you feel if you were the object of Starky’s inexperienced blunderings?

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First day…

This blog entry also appeared on the TES New Teachers website.

As no one in particular once said: “Time is a deluding and enigmatic companion”. I’ll stroke my chin and nod in agreement with this, as it really doesn’t seem that long ago – though it most definitely was – when I was a little fella on the eve of his first day at a new school.

The week before, my mother and I picked up the smart new uniform: blazer, tie, and trousers with the right kind of creases in them. I must have tried the outfit on about three times a day in the run up – I used to think it made me look like a businessman, a sad and unglamorous ambition of mine back then.

My parents were anxious, I know, because the evening before the first day, they laid on a ludicrously sumptuous feast: mountains of chocolate cake; undulating vistas of Vienetta; forests of chocolate fingers. As I tucked in, my mother asked me questions: How was I feeling? Was there anything worrying me? What was I excited about? My answers were doubly incoherent: I honestly don’t think I had given it much thought, and I was stuffing a fistful of Wotsits into my mouth.

Now, twenty or so years later, I am once again on the eve of starting a new school.

Yes, I have got a suit. Yes, I have tried it on and yes, it does make me look like a businessman.

It also goes some way in making me look like a teacher.

But will I feel like a teacher when I walk down the corridor towards the classroom? Will I be treated like one once I arrive? Will I continue wanting to be a teacher after the school placement?

These are all questions which I am impatient to find out, and to which I hope the answer is a resounding yes.

After all, I certainly feel ready.

Along with the rest of my student teachers, I have been given copious amounts of sage advice by the course tutors. The lectures and tutorials have been stimulating, sometimes baffling, and always thought-provoking, and the essays we have written serve as superb introductions to a reflective practice we will be required to develop as our careers progress.

But practice can only go so far. A concert pianist doesn’t want to sit in a rehearsal room bashing out scales for his whole career.

I am excited, a little nervous definitely, and so so curious. I wonder how I’ll feel when I write the next blog. So long as the students remain positive, I think I will too.

Before that, though, the customary first-day-of-school feast. Mum?

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One week in…

This blog entry originally appeared on the TES New Teachers website. I will be writing a blog for them throughout my PGCE year.

A week ago, I was making my way to the first day of my PGCE course.

A week ago, I was expecting a tsunami of new experiences, friends and obligations.

A week ago, I was not expecting to be standing in the lecture theatre with 700 other PGCE students as collectively we hummed through our noses while being conducted by an energetic woman who was teaching us how to warm up our voices. But there we were.


We are now professional voice users and our voices are an essential resource. I’m rather proud.

So a week has passed and it might seem like it’s all been a bit of fun. However, work has been undertaken. We’ve had some interesting lectures, wound each other up about classroom management, and we’ve all had several sessions within our specialist subjects. I pray that I will be able to bring as much expression and sheer performance into a Great Expectations reading as our tutor did. Wow. I’ve never felt so sorry for poor, petrified Pip.

Yup, we’ve even had a brief discussion about alliteration.

One thing that has struck me is that if every school pupil saw their teachers in their first week of teacher training, they’d realise that they’re not so far removed from them after all. There are people who are desperate to please the course tutors, there are those who have not done their homework, there are individuals who are not paying attention during lessons/tutorials, whatever you want to call them, and there are probably some who are struggling but remain quiet about it.

Our tutors even put their hands in the air when they want us to hush and look at them.

And yes, we all have to put ours up in return to demonstrate we’re listening.

So, in all, it’s been an intense introduction to the course but one that is absolutely manageable. Yes, it’s been a tad crazy, sometimes even a little baffling, but as the voice coach continued on her voice care crusade, I suspect that most of us couldn’t quite help but feel that we’re in a wee bit of a honeymoon period. We’ve signed up, got the uniform, been shown the barracks – some of us even have smart new haircuts – but the sergeant major hasn’t turned up yet.

And that is one professional voice user who isn’t shy of making his essential resource heard.

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Here we go…

Lever arch files? Check.

Post-it notes? Check.

Coloured pens? Oh yes.

Just as I do when the plane taxis towards the runway, I am experiencing a whole catalogue of emotions moments before I officially become an English PGCE student (or S.T as we are also known).

Excitement, definitely. I’ve waited a long time for this course to start and for it to be finally here is a relief. There’s only so long that you can talk to people about what you are going to do before you get fed up and you actually just want to get on and do it. And here I am, getting on and doing it. Almost.

But excitement isn’t just it. There is a culpable amount of relief too.

When I was young, there were some water slides near my house. Needless to say, I was desperate to go. My parents were not. I had to make do with feeding off the tales of those lucky sods who were lucky (or ‘spoiled’, as my mother would say) enough to have gone. I would listen in wonder to accounts of vertical drops, pitch black tunnels, twists and turns that would make a fighter pilot nauseous. These were great to listen to, but I still needed to live it myself. This is the same as my PGCE. I have heard from many others who have all gone through the experience, and I have been very interested to hear their tales. Indeed, it has all been thoroughly useful in my preparation. However, I need to do this now. I need to stand at the top of the slide, torrents of chlorine water impatiently flooding past my ankles, and take that leap. It is my turn, and I am relieved I no longer have to wait.

(By the way, I did eventually persuade my mum to take me to the water park. It was better than anything I could have imagined).

Add to this cocktail a healthy dash of nerves. Everyone wants to be the best they can be at something; how will I measure up? As part of a pre-course task I have had to write what kind of a teacher I want to be and I couldn’t help wondering whether I was setting myself up for a big fall with my idealistic, and some might say naïve, hopes and aspirations. Voices from the TES forums, letters and comments haunt me late at night. They sound embittered:

“What?? You want to feel part of a strong and effective team? Ha! Good luck. How can you when the Head of Department/Headteacher/Minister of Education undermines you every step of the way?”

“A healthy work/life balance? Dream on. My five year old can barely recognise me.”

There are times when I wonder what exactly it is I’m letting myself in for. What the hell am I doing, and why am I making such a huge financial sacrifice to do it? And then I remember. I remember the dynamism of a classroom. I recall the energy of the pupils. I think about the rewards that are possible through your hard work – how you can have such an enormously positive effect on young people’s lives. I think about how unhappy I was professionally before my two-year stint as a Teaching Assistant, and how that job was the first one I truly loved, and how I barely saw it as a job anyway. And above all, I remind myself that this is something I have to do.

I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Those nerves return though, and I’m pleased they do. They’ll keep me on my toes.

So why am I doing this blog?

From a very early age, I have found that writing helps me collect my thoughts and move on. Whenever there were times of teenage turmoil, whenever I need to reflect on situations, work out what my next move should be, I have put pen to paper. It has been a very powerful device for me.

In the upcoming months and years, the call for self-reflection will be stronger than ever. This is my answer. An opportunity for me to collect and organise my thoughts and put them down on pixelated paper, and help me to think back on each situation and work out what went well, what could have gone better, and most importantly how I can continue to improve.

Of course, my real hope is that it connects with student teachers who are going through the same experiences as me, and ignites discussion, brings comfort and shows solidarity in some way. It’s always nice to be able to hold someone’s hand as the plane thunders down the runway.

So, to sum up at the end of the lesson – sorry, blog. What can you expect?

Yes, you at the back – speak up, I can’t hear you.

Honesty? Yes, absolutely. Well done.

Yes, Teresa? Tears? Ummm…. Ok, yup, possibly.

Last suggestion – yes, what do you have for us?

**bell rings**

Well, I guess we’ll just have to find out next time.

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Hello and welcome

Hi all,

This is a very quick introduction to answer two questions: who am I, and what am I doing?

To start off my first ever blog with two questions that I can’t really answer seems a little incongruous, but let me explain.

My name isn’t  Mr. Milton, though as an English teacher I wish it was: in the interests of keeping everyone happy I’ve chosen a pseudonym. I’ll also be sure not to mention any schools/individuals/pupils etc by name. I’ll either re-name them (which I’m rather looking forward to doing), or generalise, which I’m very good at.

So that’s the first question gone unanswered. Now to focus on the second. I can actually do a little better on this one.

I am about to embark on a PGCE in Secondary English at a leading provider in London. For those of you who don’t know, the PGCE is one of the main UK teaching qualifications. There are other qualifications out there so as I write, thousands of aspiring teachers like me have just commenced their training in what ever guise it takes.

There you have it: I’m a PGCE student and I’m writing a blog. Anymore than that and I’ll start to stare at my feet and mumble.

“During my PGCE I’ll be…. well….. placements, you see and, um…. well… lots of work….. long hours…. and well, it hasn’t really started yet so ummm…..”

“This blog will be about ……. ummm….. well, it’s kinda like…… um, you know… that…… thing?”

Curious? I hope so.

I am.

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