Beginning to teach A level – the puzzles and the joys!
Esther’s having a week off letter-writing so she can sort out Sam’s first birthday celebrations properly and hence it’s guest-letter-writer time – from me, Ian Dawson.
I won’t pretend my first year of history teaching happened recently. It’s 40 years since I completed my PGCE but the memories stay sharp and clear – that’s the power of the first year of teaching! My first job was in a large comprehensive in Wakefield, the sort that carried the ‘if you can teach here you can teach anywhere’ tag. To my innocent delight my timetable included Y12 and Y13 teaching straightaway, then I discovered I’d be teaching British political history 1815-1914. At university I had overspecialised in medieval history so knew next to nothing about Lord Liverpool, Peel, Gladstone etc. However the history was only one of the things I learned that first year or two. Here are some of the others:
1. The students weren’t as mature as I thought they were …
Those first few weeks I felt younger than the students, especially Y13. That’s mathematical nonsense but psychological reactions are different. They knew the geography of the school, they were the oldest students in the school, they knew the staff. I didn’t know the school, was one of the youngest teachers and hardly knew anyone. More importantly they had that aura of confidence that sixth-formers adopt whereas at that time my confidence was easily shaken. The result was that at first I overestimated their abilities and their need for help. I didn’t realise they still needed telling things over and over, that they needed help with the basics – identifying what to read, constructing essays, spelling Disraeli (and even Peel). Of course when the first work appeared I realised I’d been wrong. They did need lots of help and I did know more about essay writing and learning history than they did but I wished I’d realized a few weeks earlier.
2. … and they certainly weren’t as keen and motivated either.
It’s A level and they’ve chosen History so they’re all bright, keen and well-motivated. Wrong! What I picked up slowly was that A level classes are a wide mix of ability and commitment. Some had always been destined for History A level but for others it was their second or third choice or the one they did because their best-friend was doing it and they’d have been lonely in biology. And even the bright, keen and motivated ones weren’t keen all the time, even the ones who one day might become historians or history teachers themselves. So I realised that I couldn’t and shouldn’t assume interest – I had to enthuse, stimulate, motivate, just as with younger students. Cynics say you shouldn’t have to motivate those who’ve opted for A level History. The cynics are wrong – and probably poor teachers too. It’s our job to motivate everyone as well as we can – and working out how to do that is fun.
3. I was in charge of where they sat
Initially I let them choose where they sat – basic mistake number 462. You can imagine the result – 14 people spread round a room for 30, sitting in odd corners, 2 here, 3 there, not able to see each other’s faces. And I was expecting them to discuss things! No chance. To discuss they have to be able to see each other, sit in a room that’s organized in a business-like manner, ideally in a square or rectangle so we’re all face to face. I therefore had to dictate the seating just as it was my job to dictate the activities and set the tone with my enthusiasm and interest.
4. I needed to structure lessons to stimulate discussion – it wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Why I expected students to speculate, offer ideas, buzz with excitement about Canning’s foreign policy I’ve no idea. Even at university we’d been far too busy discussing sport, beer, who was or was not going out with who to spend time discussing history. So if you want discussion you have to structure it, help students begin talking to each other about the topic in small bites. There’s a wide range of ways of doing this – decision-making games are excellent for example – and they help students mix if they’ve come from different schools and don’t know each other. For some examples and discussion see:
5. I needed to help them learn, not just teach them things
I was very lucky on my PGCE to meet a teacher who thought hard about A level teaching – not just about the history itself. He’d set up a system where he briefly introduced the topic for the next 3 or 4 weeks – made it intriguing, puzzling – then gave students a set of questions and headings to help them make notes on the basic events of the topic. This was aimed at preventing his lessons degenerating into lectures where the students wrote down that basic information. He still made sure they’d got the basics as it was all in the follow-up lessons on aspects of the topic but by then the focus was on what we’d now call enquiry questions – exploring causes, consequences, why some people reacted in one way and others differently etc etc.
That was the start for me of trying to help A level students learn for themselves and become more independent. I discovered that they could read ‘difficult’ text so long as I helped them into it by introducing names and issues through structured role-plays or decision-making games. ‘KS3 techniques’ work really well at A level provide you explain to the students why you’re using them (so they don’t feel they’re being talked down to) and you set the demands appropriately high.
For some excellent advice on this and much else see the work of Dale Banham and Russell Hall and others at
6. The most important books for me to read were the books the students had
I didn’t know much about the topic so it was tempting to grab the latest publications – I was a graduate after all and proud of it! – but first I had to read the core books the students had access to. That was the only way I’d know what they would be reading and what reading guidelines to plan for them. Plus I needed the basics too.
I also needed to learn not to try to read everything! Lack of confidence could tempt me to read one more thing but all that led to was me delivering mini-lectures and their eyes glazing over. By doing too much reading I wasn’t spending enough time working out how best to create stimulating activities or how I’d answer the essays I set – what my argument would be and what knowledge I’d use to support/challenge it – and hence how to teach them to use their knowledge effectively in answering questions.
Being up to date with the latest publications may be good for the teacher’s self-esteem but it won’t, by itself, get students the top grade. It’s them being able to use effectively what they know that counts most. Yes, get as up to date as you can but do it in balance with the other aspects of teaching.
7. I had to sit and wait for them to get to know me
And of course I tried to be friendly too quickly! Just because the students are older you can’t rush the creation of a good relationship with them. As with all students in all years you have to wait for them to get used to you. Just be efficient, organized, create confidence that you know what you’re doing, show you’re willing to go the extra mile for individuals. In short, be a good teacher. Then when they’re ready and they trust you as a teacher they’ll relax and everything will be so much more enjoyable.
So, after all that …
This letter hasn’t tried to be encyclopaedic about teaching A level . And I’ve just touched on some of the main points that remain with me. The final one is simply that I loved teaching A level. I even loved teaching 19th century British political history – Peterloo, Castlereagh, the reform bills, Chartism, Peel etc etc etc – wonderful individuals, dramatic events, all creating the world we live in. I’d love to write a book on the period for A level but it’s now fallen out of fashion – young teachers don’t know what they’re missing!
I wasn’t as good at teaching A level as I’ve made myself sound. There were many occasions when I was dull, humdrum and just boring – but I got better. Honest! But one thing I did do was let myself enthuse about the history. Not just about the topics I taught but all kinds of history. As the great Alan Plater wrote in The Beiderbecke Connection ‘If we don’t share our passions with our children, how will they ever learn to be passionate?’
Letters to a New History Teacher …… is a series of blogs (mostly) by Esther Arnott as she experiences “NQT2” – a return to teaching after a year being a new mum. Her return has given her similar feelings to those she had as an NQT, but this time around she has a bit of experience to share with herself and you, so these blogs are offered in the hope they support those of you setting out on your own new history teaching journeys – whether as NQTs or trainees on PGCE courses or other schemes. The blog will run through the year as ideas – and reality – strike Esther (and as motherhood allows!). She’d love to hear from you if you have particular questions, issues or features you’d like addressed.
His website www.thinkinghistory.co.uk was begun in 2004 to support those new to teaching history but now provides a range of activities and discussions for teachers of all levels of experience. The photograph accompanying this letter does not show Ian during his PGCE at the Roman University of Eboracum.