Mythological Allusions in JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls

Heroes and Monsters

A Spartan helmet

I’ve been revising An Inspector Calls with my Year 11 class recently, as well as teaching it to my Year 10s, leading to me to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the play.

One of the challenges I find when analysing modern drama is that, unlike Shakespeare, its meaningful images are few and far between. It’s for this reason that students are commonly steered towards Inspector Goole’s parting speech; it finally provides something students can get their teeth stuck into: the ‘millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths’ and his warning of ‘fire and blood and anguish’ – powerful and accessible images the majority of students can write about at length.

But recently we were reading Mr Birling’s speech in Act One in which he advises the younger men, Gerald and Eric, to ‘make their own way in the world’. I’ve often found it hard to know what to say about that much beyond it presenting Mr Birling as a character advocating individualism.

For the first time, though, this line struck me as rather heroic in tone, bringing to mind a solitary individual embarking on a journey down a road – the ‘way’ – their gaze fixed on the horizon: an image perhaps of Joseph Campbell’s so-called ‘monomyth’, the ‘hero’s journey’.

Mr Birling, then, is arguably boasting about what he perceives to be his own heroism, how his successful journey to seek out wealth and status was actually a hero’s search for treasure.

The Odyssey

Homer’s The Odyssey features the Cyclopes, a giant with one eye

But Mr Birling, of course, is no hero. He exhibits a partial blindness to his environment: the suffering of his workers and the ‘blood, fire and anguish’ of the immediate future. Not so much a hero, then, but a monster: the Cyclopes, whose sole central eye provides a short-sighted, blinkered view of the world.

In Book 9 of The Odyssey, Homer describes the Cyclopes as:

‘an overweening and lawless folk, who, trusting in the immortal gods, plant nothing with their hands nor plough; but all these things spring up for them without sowing or ploughing, wheat, and barley, and vines, which bear the rich clusters of wine, and the rain of Zeus gives them increase.

Neither assemblies for council have they, nor appointed laws, but they dwell on the peaks of lofty mountains in hollow caves.’

If this isn’t a description of the Edwardian Capital class, I don’t know what is: the immortal gods are the upper class, who Mr Birling worships, because they provide for him. He produces nothing himself, and yet textiles pour out of his factory thanks to the efforts of the working class, allowing him to enjoy the port wine (‘Giving us  the port, Edna?’).

Mr Birling enjoys the ‘heavily comfortable’ privileges of his position (the lofty mountains), yet he resides in a home that is ‘not cosy and homelike’ (the hollow cave).

It made me wonder whether there was any further mileage in considering heroism and mythology in the play.

Spurred on by my sceptical Year 11s (‘I don’t think Priestley meant that, Sir!’), I’ve recently taken a look at Priestley’s catalogue to see whether this may have been intentional. It turns out that Priestley wrote the libretto to an opera, first performed in 1949, titled The Olympians.

Set in France in 1836, the opera presents the story of the Gods of Olympus who become a group of strolling players when men cease to believe in them. At midsummer they find themselves again to have divine powers.

Priestley, it seems, was thinking about Greek mythology around the time he wrote An Inspector Calls.

So, what other mythological allusions can be drawn? Here are three more I’ve found:

Titanomachy

The War of the Titans (Titanomachy) was fought to decide which generation of gods would have dominion over the universe

Mr Birling enthuses over his friend’s upcoming journey on ‘this new liner – The Titanic’, a name derived from the Titans of Greek mythology. In this ancient myth, the Titans are a tribe of giant gods. Their parents were the earth and sky and they were the first race on earth to have human form. They possessed gigantic force: brute strength. But they were in conflict with a new race called the Olympians, who had intelligence, beauty and skill. Despite their massive strength the Titans go under.

The myth is a warning against what the Greeks called hubris – the dangers of overconfidence – and it is no coincidence that this is also what An Inspector Calls is about. The Edwardian upper class, who ruled with great strength, brutalised the working class (women particularly), but were consequently doomed, like the mythological Titans, to fall to a new (more Socialist) order that valued kindness, intellect, and skill. Historically, this was true: workers went on strike, women demanded the vote, and Clement Atlee was elected prime minister.

The exciting benefit of using this myth as a ‘lens’ through which to view the play is that it creates new meaning that may have not been previously perceived. The upper class in the play appear human, but they are not fully – they are humanoid, and like the Titans, rather primitive in comparison to the new order Olympians.

Further to this, we can also look to epic poetry to make meaning in An Inspector Calls. Like the Titan myth, these are an ancient set of texts that are heroic in tone. They depict the building of civilization by heroism and the domestication of the savage legacy in our human nature, marking the birth of community; a nation.

Beowulf

Beowulf (right) fighting the monster Grendal

Beowulf is an English epic poem probably composed in the 8th Century.

The hero, a warrior called Beowulf, slays the monsters (Grendal and his mother) who emerge from a lake at night to eat any human they can find.

By defeating Grendal, Beowulf saves human civilization from destruction by monsters; a civilization no longer being brutalised by monsters goes on to flourish – it becomes us.

When looking through the lens of this epic poem, the Birling family and Gerald Croft are representative of such monsters at the beginning of the play. Like Grendal and his mother in Beowulf they use people to sustain their monstrous selves through brutal exploitation. In Gerald’s case, especially, he describes the ‘Eva’ he had an affair with as being ‘young and fresh’, that last adjective being reminiscent of food. The other women at the Palace Theatre bar are likewise ‘dough-faced […] tarts’.

Beowulf, the hero, is represented by Sheila and Eric.

Sheila bravely turns on Gerald, breaking off their engagement; no small act, given the seismic consequence it has for Mr Birling’s intended business affairs.

Eric, initially timid, finds his voice and confronts his father head on. No longer a figure of foolishness, Eric adopts a tone of kindness and intellect, recognising that ‘we all helped kill her’.  

With a new generation behaving more heroically by the play’s close, the future of the nation as a community appears to be in safe hands, and in true epic fashion, a greater Britain can be established – precisely what Priestly wanted.

The present is indebted to the heroism of the past, fostering a sense of national pride.

The Iliad

Homer’s The Iliad – the peace offering of a wooden horse; skilful Greek Spartans hidden within

Another epic poem to read alongside An Inspector Calls is Homer’s The Iliad. In this story a beautiful Greek woman, Helen, elopes with a foreign prince, Paris, who then takes her home to Troy.

Helen, however, is already married which causes a clash between Greece and Troy.

For our purposes, I would posit that Ancient Greece (itself a coalition, significantly) could represent Socialism; and Troy, Edwardian Capitalism.

Rather than attack them head-on, the Greek’s cleverly construct a beautiful wooden horse which they leave at the gates of Troy, but not before hiding some of their most elite Spartan soldiers inside. The Trojans assume victory, presume the horse a peace-offering, and take it inside their walls.

Inspector Goole (not a real police inspector, but in the guise of one) infiltrates the conscience of the Birling family much like the wooden horse infiltrates the walls of Troy. And when Mr Birling, Mrs Birling and Gerald Croft mistakenly think they have been victorious, discovering there is no Inspector Goole, they celebrate (‘Have a drink, Gerald’), only to be stung in the play’s closing lines.

Likewise, Troy, seeing the Greek ships depart and the peace offering of a wooden horse, lay down their arms to celebrate, only to be murdered by the skilful Spartans awaiting within.  

Troy took what did not rightfully belong to it: Helen, a wife of Greece. The Birlings, too, took what was not theirs: more than their fair share.

Troy is eventually burnt to the ground and from those ashes, Ancient Greece rises up to define world history – democracy and our way of life in the west.


Reading texts, like An Inspector Calls, through the lens of mythological allusion is a fascinating way of unearthing deeper, richer and more nuanced meaning.

Helpful, especially when analysing a text that is as heavy-handed as Priestley’s play sometimes is.

How I Taught Better than Ever in 2021

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2021 was a watershed year for me as a teacher.

That sounds terribly boastful, so let me add some much-needed humility: for most of my brief career lessons have felt like a frustrating hodgepodge of seemingly random tasks, techniques, and approaches. They have felt overly cumbersome, like being handed a heavily shuffled Rubik’s cube.

But 2021 was the year I took greater strides towards teaching properly – the mess of previous years’ fumblings now fully-formed into bold blocks of colour.

What, then, do I intend to do in 2022? More of what I did in 2021:

Read around my subject

Last year I began to follow lots of other teachers on Twitter. One unintended consequence of this were the frequent recommendations of good books I could be reading; a ready-made reading list for up-and-coming teachers like myself.

Teachers, like everyone on social media, largely present themselves on Twitter in a shiny positive light. What they choose to reveal about their teaching practice is often (but not always) a reel of highlights from their day: here is a clever thought I’ve had; here is a great resource I’ve made; here is how I handled a tricky situation brilliantly.

What’s great about that is it creates the impression that there is an army of outrageously competent teachers out there (and who am I to say there isn’t?).

This impression elevated my aspirations to a degree higher than they might have been were I only to look at my immediate circle of fallible real-life colleagues. These Twitter teachers inspired me to be better, to want to know more. And so in 2021 I dutifully read more books, blogs, and twitter threads, (partly as a way of keeping up with the @Joneses).

By reading around my subject more I have become a much more effective speaker in the classroom. I can explain concepts better simply because I know more; I can confidently connect the dots together in my mind, talking uninhibited about a topic. I have become the hallowed ‘expert in the room’ whose gravitas makes (most) students sit up and listen.

Why does speaking knowledgably have such power? In part because you can’t fake having subject knowledge. It’s hard won, from the arduous work that reading can sometimes be.

The expectation that teachers have this knowledge in abundance is largely why having an undergraduate level of education is still the minimum expectation.

But even being in possession of a degree, it is hard to really be sure what any teacher knows or doesn’t know. There is not a subject knowledge test you need to pass. Some teachers simply know a lot more (and some a lot less) than others.

With English studies especially there is a question mark hanging over us: what on earth are we expected to teach? David Didau highlights this problem in his latest book Making Meaning in English. He writes ‘one of the difficulties for English teachers […] is that there is surprisingly little substantive knowledge which we agree must be taught. Shakespeare plays are about as close as we get.’

The problem goes further. Beyond reading these texts with students it is not always obvious what we expect students to know about them at the end of a term. Two classes can spend six weeks studying the same play and learn vastly different things about it.

It was only until I did some further reading around the texts I’m expected to teach, did I really know what content I could be delivering.  This has made my recent lessons a richer experience for myself, as well as the students I teach.

But oddly it was down to me to do this reading, often outside of school. I have not yet worked in a school where this reading is provided, nor is appropriate time set aside to do it. It all feels very much like an optional extra, and it really shouldn’t be.

Plan lessons that focus on sharing knowledge, not making loads of resources

A handful of years ago my understanding of ‘lesson planning’ was synonymous with ‘creating dozens of Powerpoint slides’. I did this for years and no one ever told me otherwise (largely I suspect because they were all doing it too). There was some hushed talk about teaching without, but this was spoken about in the same manner that one might talk about barefoot marathoners – seemingly plausible, arguably beneficial, although no-one knew anyone who actually did it.

The issue with all this resource creation is that it was outrageously time-consuming. A five-period day could (for me, at least) consist of up to three hours ‘planning’ the night before. Why did I do it? Well, I was driven by worry; concerned with keeping the students busy for fear that if they found themselves disengaged for even a minute they would start flipping over the desks.

A lot of my lessons in 2021 have been stripped right back. I will put a task on the board for when the students enter the room (a retrieval task, usually, or perhaps a question that would lead into the topic of the lesson). After that though, the floor’s mine. I’ll explain what we’re going to learn about and then explain to the class what I want them to know.  Within this there will be questions to check understanding, of course, but a lot of it is me unashamedly talking. One great aspect of this is that the student’s attention is not distracted by anything on the board behind me because, well, there often isn’t anything there. It’s liberating to not feel compelled to step aside for fear of blocking the Comic Sans.

And when I’ve finished explaining a concept and I’m confident most get it, I’ll then do some writing under a visualiser, usually starting with an example. I’ll (once again) talk through it or, if this is not entirely new to them, I’ll do an example with their input to see what they know and whether there are any misunderstandings.

Modelling live requires little preparation time. What time I do spend on planning is used to work through in my mind, or on a scrap of paper, what it is that I want students to know, and how I’m going to show it to them. Sometimes I’ll practice the modelling beforehand if I worry I’ll get stuck, although often that will spoil the spontaneity of writing something live, which is truly what I want to get across.

It’s important to stress that this only ever works when you have the knowledge to share, and that’s the hardest part of all. I now believe that lesson planning should be mostly spent acquiring the necessary knowledge yourself so that you’re able to dispense it to students.

It is for this reason I cannot roll into school and successfully teach a Science cover lesson on plant cell structure to Year 10, despite being emailed detailed Powerpoint slides to work with (believe me, I once tried).

Solve students’ problems

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By signposting what a lesson will be about

Have you ever had students, when they arrive in the classroom, ask ‘Sir, what are we doing today?’

Since they seem to have a real eagerness to know exactly what they’ll be doing the sooner I can explain that, the sooner they ease into the lesson.

So once my students have written down the title, date and had a go at the task on the board when they come in, I’ll explain: Right, what we’re going to do today is….’.

I’m not sure why I started opening lessons with an explanation of the lesson’s aim (maybe because they kept asking…), but I found students to be highly receptive to it, and so I kept doing it.

Why might it appeal? One reason, perhaps, is that it takes away a fear of the unknown. Students can relax more in the knowledge of what to expect; that they’re not going to suddenly have a test thrust upon them, for instance.

By helping students structure their writing

Most of my students are rarely short for ideas. What they do find hard though is putting these ideas into words. I spent a lot of time in 2021 explicitly looking at how to structure sentences, paragraphs, and whole pieces of writing (essays, exam responses, descriptions, stories etc.).

An invaluable resource I strongly recommend for any English teacher is ‘Dr Andy’ who I discovered doing just this via his blog and Twitter account: codexterous – Thoughts about teaching, literature, and teaching literature (home.blog).

As the good doctor explains, this practice of structuring writing should at first be extensively modelled under a visualiser to scaffold, and then removed gradually as and when appropriate.

I have found that when my students became aware of how to structure their writing their thoughts were freed up to concentrate more on the content of their responses as opposed to the wording of their work; a waterslide that drops them into a task they might have otherwise found hard to access.

Have my own exercise book and write in lessons

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A real pleasure I wish I had come across sooner is the joy of writing in lessons myself.

It’s been great at helping me explain what I want students to do. The idea is that their exercise book should mirror mine, so I might do an example first which they copy down, while I explain my thoughts aloud. Then we’ll do an example together, to check they understand what to do and to weed out any misunderstandings. Afterwards, they have a go themselves around which time I’ll proclaim that I too will be doing the same.

I’ve even gone one step further and handed myself an exercise book at the start of the year (‘There you are, Sir’ – ‘Why thank you, Sir’). On the front I’ll even write my name (I haven’t quite got around to writing a date and title yet, but now that I type this I don’t see why I shouldn’t – perhaps that’s what’s needed to address the messy underlining that I sometimes see in student’s exercise books?)

I’ve taught badly-behaved classes before where even the notion of taking my eyes off them for a second would be unthinkable, but this year it seemed to work rather well for most. I might be wrong, but I think some students appreciated that I was bothering to do the task I had set them. As a novice teacher I often felt a bit awkward whenever I set an extended task. I’d get the class in silence, start a timer, and then hover, peering over student’s shoulders or egging the reluctant to get started.

But I felt this made circumstances worse. I might be imagining this, but me floating around the room was giving them an opportunity – to ask me a question, or to glance up to see whether I was watching them. What was going wrong? Was I inviting disruption?

Doing the work myself, however, is showing that I am personally capable of doing what I’m asking of them; that it is not only possible, but dare I say even interesting.

Second, it shows I trust the students to do it in the first place; I expect them to get on with it and not have to be cajoled. By modelling I’m explicitly showing exactly what it is I want my students to do, and how to succeed at it – sitting still; looking at the paper in front of them, not at other students; writing, not talking.

And, so far at least, they seem to be getting on with it.

Let go of grudges

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I wish I didn’t do this, but I have the memory of a particularly vengeful elephant and any sort of perceived slight, from students or staff, threatens to stay with me to my grave.

I saw a great tweet recently from @Jeffreykboakye who said: ‘a school is no place for grudges […] you know when you meet that student in the corridor that you’ve had a few historic run-ins with? The most powerful thing to do is to enthusiastically greet them like an old friend.’

Last term I decided to throw caution to the wind and give this a go.

And do you know what? It bloody worked. My cheery ‘Morning!’ elicited positive or, at the very least, neutral responses. Nothing bad happened.

But, most importantly, it just felt good, and you can’t put a price on that.


So, if you happen to peer into my classroom in 2022 you should see me doing one of two things: hoovering up more knowledge or explaining it to students.

And if you find me doing neither, please take me to task – I promise I won’t hold it against you.

Are Children Bad?

Freud having his field day

On 27th October 2021 Katharine Birbalsingh, Headmistress and Founder of the free/charter school Michaela, tweeted the following:

Twitter

In subsequent days Birbalsingh has been both hounded and celebrated online in equal measure. Her critics are seemingly shocked by her audacity to bring religion into the context of educating children. Her defenders, however, say that children (as people) inherently struggle to make the morally right choice when the wrong choice can often be so damned tempting.

As an English teacher this reminded me of John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, the story of two American ranch workers who dream of one day owning their own piece of land.

A few years ago, while teaching a top set boys’ class in Year 9 I dared to be a bit clever and have them write a psychoanalytical interpretation of the tale through the lens of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the human psyche. In a nutshell, Freud argued that the human personality is the result of competing internal forces: the Id, the Ego and the Superego, which can be defined as thus:

Sigmund Freud’s theory of the personality

The case I put to the class was this: Lennie represents the Id – his urge to pet soft things, his eagerness to take care of imaginary rabbits. Petting rabbits will not make Lennie any richer in a material sense, but that doesn’t stop him wanting to. We are all Lennie to a degree in that we all want something, all the time. We have done since birth and will go to our graves laced with wants. As Freud acknowledges, this is chaotic and animal-like: a toddler having a meltdown in a sweetshop. We are all born with this readily installed, and it never goes away, only ever being managed.

Lennie’s close friend George is the Ego. He’s in charge most of the time. The more practical of the two, he tends to the tricky business of getting them not what they desire, but what they immediately need: employment, food and shelter – safety. These don’t magically appear because they want them. A plan must be put in place to obtain them, a plan that only George, and his more practical nature, can formulate. George taking care of Lennie is the Ego managing the Id.

The Superego is presented in the form of the boss’ son Curley. Steinbeck uses him to criticise American society, as he personifies the ranch’s hostility towards its workers. A tyrannical figure, he keeps order through cruelty and the threat of violence. Both George and Lennie learn very quickly, like all the other characters, to keep their heads down and behave accordingly each time he shows up.

So what’s this got to do with Original Sin?

Students are often confused as to why George stays with the burdensome Lennie. Whenever I’ve asked them why he might, they often suggest that is may be as Lennie is a big man he is capable of beating up anyone who might wish to hurt them.

But this isn’t it.

George doesn’t stay with Lennie because his desire to touch soft things is chaotic and animalistic. It is because Lennie’s insistence on hearing George speak about their dream of having their own land (and rabbits) brings out in George a child-like desire; a craving for something that is often so silly and impractical you would ordinarily be too embarrassed to say it aloud.

Like us all, George fundamentally needs to believe that the dream of owning his own piece of land is still one day possible despite, in the context of The Great Depression, it being exceedingly unlikely. He needs to feel that there can be more to life than the practicalities of simply surviving; the monthly getting and spending, even if this is an illusory dream.

Lennie (left) and George (right) from the 1992 film adaptation

Most teachers enjoy working with children, I believe, because most young people are a source of energy and optimism having not yet had their faces rubbed in the dirt by painful experience. They are innocent in that sense, admirably believing they can achieve anything if they just put their minds to it. And who knows? Maybe they just might.

Are children bad then?

Childish Id – or Original Sin, if you prefer – can be very ugly if left untamed. As depicted in the novel, without George, Lennie ends up committing a terrible atrocity. And we have all experienced to some degree the horror of this in the classroom or at home. Teachers and parents must stand by and support young people, like George does with Lennie, for the sake of the child and for the sake of others.

But the paradox of Steinbeck’s novel, and the controversy that comes from talking about children and Original Sin, is that our wants are not exclusively awful.

They are also the stuff of dreams.

5 Reasons Why I Had a Horrible First Year in Teaching (and How Not To)

Learning from my mistakes

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If it is true, as Wordsworth wrote, that ‘the child is the father of the man’ then logic would have it that the novice is the teacher of the expert. We learn from our mistakes, as the adage goes. I certainly had to.

But that doesn’t mean you have to make the same mistakes as me in order to learn not to do them. A wise person doesn’t just learn from their own mistakes, but also those made by others.

What, then, should you avoid doing at all costs in your first year of teaching? Well, exactly what I did, for I was not a wise person.

I present to you the 5 don’ts (and 5 preferable dos) I learnt the hard way during my horrible first year in teaching:

DON’T – Stay off social media

You’ll have already heard a lot about how your first year of teaching is going to be really busy so it makes sense to stay away from time vampires like social media as much as possible.

But Twitter can be a good exception to this rule.

There you’ll find a community of education professionals, like you, who engage in conversations around teaching. What is commonly referred to as ‘Edutwitter’ has daily discussions (and arguments) ranging from everything you could imagine: behaviour management to classroom displays; career advice to subject knowledge.

Many contributors are very generous and share their resources for free.

I have personally found it helpful to see that many other teachers are tackling the same problems I’m facing. It has made me feel less alone, giving me greater confidence that actually, for the most part, I do know what I’m doing.

DO – Get on Twitter

Begin by searching for topics that interest you. In this context, ‘teacher’ would be an obvious one to try, or ‘education’. Do you like what they’re saying? Then give them a ‘follow’. Then look for other people worth following by seeing who they’re giving ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ to.

A word of warning though: while it’s a wonderful source of wisdom, one emerging danger with all social media is that it quickly becomes an echo chamber in which you will quickly only hear from lots of people who conveniently agree with you. This can be very disorienting as it can give you a false impression of how ‘most people’ feel.

Follow people whose viewpoints resonate with you, but also follow those whose opinions are contrary to your own. It is important to hear opposing views in order to receive a more balanced commentary on education. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but just as you wouldn’t surround yourself with ‘yes men’ in real life, nor should you online.


DON’T – Learn as you go

Observing other teachers and copying them is really all I need to do, isn’t it?Practice makes perfect, surely?

Well, yes and no. You will certainly learn through practice and certainly from observing others, but you’ll also pick up bad habits along the way. And remember: practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Better, then, to practice the good, rather than cement the bad.

CPD (remember this term because you’ll hear it often) stands of ‘Continuous Progression and Development’. At the time of writing there has never been more experts writing books, blogs, Twitter threads (and even TikToks) with the intention of helping teachers of all levels improve. And it only appears to be growing.

In my training year only one book was recommended through my initial training provider: How to be a Brilliant English Teacher by Trevor Wright. Amongst all the uncertainty in that year, that book turned out to be my bible. I should have read others (I wish I had), but I didn’t know what else was out there. For me, book recommendations are where Twitter really shines. I have read several books now and each has had a huge and immediate impact on how to I teach. Books are superb for cutting your learning curve – unlike me, not only will reading help you get better at teaching, you’ll get better at teaching faster (and spare yourself some humiliation along the way).

DO – Read books

Twitter is overflowing with book recommendations. But another word of warning: it’s really tempting to read books on topics you’re already competent at. I spent this past week reading the brilliant A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland, convinced that it will help me as a teacher because which teacher doesn’t need more subject knowledge?

While it wasn’t a waste of time by any stretch, I did use it to conveniently ignore another book on my pile I should be reading more urgently: Running the Room – The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour by Tom Bennett. If I was being honest with myself, my behaviour management is not as sound as my subject knowledge.

Note to self: more on modelling behaviour, and less on Moby Dick.


DON’T – Blame others

The problems I had when I began teaching were, on reflection, largely self-created. I’ve managed to deduce this because I still teach in the same school, to similar cohorts of students, with largely the same staff and resources available. But now, five years in, my days feel a lot more manageable.

What changed? Frankly, I did. I used to expect quick results, thought I could do it all by myself, and took more than I gave. Now I am more knowledgeable, more skilled and a far better teammate to my colleagues.

Rather than willing everyone else to change, I had to do it myself instead.

DO – Take responsibility

Resist the temptation to find fault in other people. It’s a simple cop out that is all too easy to do and lets you off the hook from the tricky business of changing.

Concentrate instead more on what you can control, which is yourself and what you do. Focus on improving one aspect of your teaching at at time, starting with the most urgent and go from there.


DON’T – Go it alone

As a novice teacher I foolishly imagined I was working in conflict with those around me: students, parents and staff. I believed that in order to do a good job I had to do it despite the students who were poorly behaved, the parents who wouldn’t reply to my emails, or the judgements of other teachers.

Which of course wasn’t true; just a bizarre state of paranoia. It was only when I began to open myself up to others that I began to get better at teaching: becoming more familiar with my students, co-operating better with and seeking advice from other members of staff.

DO – Play well with others

When you have a problem, the solution will likely be in the form of another person. A mentor, ideally, or perhaps a sympathetic ear from a trusted friend. Good colleagues are good because they reduce the suffering of work. They can often provide solutions you would have never imagined yourself because it’s likely they possess skills in areas that for you are a weakness.

And they’re fun – other people have the power to surprise us and make us laugh.


DON’T – Work yourself silly

A teacher’s workload has become the stuff of urban legend even amongst those who do not teach. I heard dozens of horror stories of teachers working every evening and all weekend to keep up. Some well-meaning friends and family even discouraged me from the joining the profession in the first place.

But how much work is too much? It depends. Some people are simply gifted with a greater capacity for demanding work than others so you’ll need to figure out for yourself where the line is.

I personally like to do some planning in the evenings. I actually enjoy sitting at my computer after everyone else has gone to bed, listening to a podcast and thinking about the next day’s teaching.

That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and not everyone’s personal circumstances will allow for it, but I’ve been doing it for years and it’s what I prefer.

I used to think that I could cut down severely on sleep to help fit everything in, getting just a few hours kip each night. Even typing that now, I realise quite how ridiculous it sounds. And needless to say it proved to be a disaster. It is certainly possible to work too hard.

DO – Work sensibly

In Aesop’s fable The Goose & the Golden Egg a countryman, unsatisfied with his goose only laying one egg a day, kills the goose and cuts it open thinking he’ll get more eggs. Of course, there aren’t any more eggs, and he never gets another egg again.

Part of managing workload is figuring out how productive we can be (getting our ‘golden egg’) while being mindful that as soon as we push ourselves too hard for too long, we risk burning ourselves out (and killing the figurative goose).

Monitor your energy levels regularly and adjust your work rate accordingly. I find that I get a lot of work done at the beginning of a week because I’m well-rested from the weekend. Understandably I get a lot less done at the end of the week because I’m tired. And that’s usually okay because I can then compensate for it at the beginning of next week.

The sun has now set on this year’s summer holiday and despite my mistakes; the lessons I learnt the hard way when I began teaching, I’m actually looking forward to the next academic year.

And so, on that note, I wish you a good one.

Or at least one not quite as horrid as my first.

16 Unforgettable Lessons About Teaching I Learnt from Watching Benjamin Zander

Conducting good lessons

Classical Music Conductor Benjamin Zander

I have a confession to make – I’m not really a fan of TED Talks.

It’s an unpopular opinion, I know. I find the scope and ambition of them to be wonderful, and while the speakers are all experts in their respective fields, it’s rare to find one delivered by someone who is actually good at, well, talking. Too many are clearly nervous, dry-mouthed, reading a heavily scripted speech from an autocue. It’s a turn-off.

But not Benjamin Zander. In 2008 the English conductor and Music Director for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra delivered a TED Talk on (to quote TED) ‘classical music, and helping us all realize our untapped love for it — and by extension, our untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections.’  

Call me ambitious, but if I could achieve even a smidgen of that, I’d retire a happy man.

And while the content of the talk is certainly inspiring, I couldn’t help but feel there was a lot to mine from a teaching perspective. I’m not alone. On YouTube, where the video has been watched over 6 million times, a comment underneath asking, ‘Can you just imagine having this man as a music teacher?’ garnered four thousand ‘likes’.

Do I believe Zander could really hold his own with Year 8 on a windswept Friday afternoon? Not necessarily. In the video he addresses a paying adult audience who are unfailingly polite, aware of his standing in classical music, and are very much in his pocket from the beginning. But, as I’ll explain, I still feel there is a lot that could be transferred.

Here, then, are 16 lessons about teaching I learnt from watching Benjamin Zander’s joyful 2008 TED Talk:

Meet your students where they’re at

‘My estimation is that probably 45 of you [in the audience] are absolutely passionate about classical music…Then there’s another bigger group. These are the people who don’t mind classical music. Now comes the third group. These are people who never listen to classical music. That’s probably the largest group of all.’

In my classes there are some students who appear to adore English. They’ll be the first to have their reading book out in form; they attend creative writing club at lunchtimes; they write for the school newspaper after school.

Then there are those students who appear not to mind the subject. They appear to recognise the importance of being literate, want to do well generally, and might even find some of the topics interesting.

But there are a sizeable few who, if they didn’t have to, would happily sit plucking the pages out of a book, one at a time, like the wings off a fly.

I try to bear this last group in mind to some extent when planning lessons. How am I going to get their eyeballs on the page? How do I make it clear that they need to learn this? What is the point of all this?

I don’t always arrive at answers, mind you. Besides, these will often differ depending on the student, the school, and plenty of other factors. But they are questions I feel I should be asking myself.

Address common misconceptions

‘And then there’s the smallest group of all. These are the people who think they’re tone-deaf… actually, you cannot be tone-deaf. Nobody is tone-deaf…you have a fantastic ear’

As a student at primary school I despised poetry. My teacher in Year 6 once tried to teach us Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. I can’t recall much from those days, curriculum-wise, but I do remember despising those lessons, and that poem, especially. Which is odd as it’s a great poem.

The problem, I think, is that ten year-old me didn’t know what poetry, as a medium, set out to do. So instead of reading it as a poem, I read it as a very short, and very dull, story of a bloke sauntering down a lane, not really knowing where he was off to, and never really ending up anywhere.

Read like that, and you can see why I might have simmered with resentment.

I might well be wrong, but I believe that anticipating such misconceptions – seeking them out and addressing them head-on – has the potential to cause a sea-change in some of the bad attitudes students display towards various subjects.

Appear really competent

Zander interleaves his TED talk with moments sat at the piano. Unsurprisingly he’s excellent at playing it, which is important, as by doing so he reassures the audience that they’re in the hands of someone more skilled than they are. He is showing them that he is the expert in the room and therefore has something to offer them.

I don’t shy away from showing off my skills and knowledge. As far as I’m concerned, there should be no room for humility. The students need to know that you’re the right person for the job. So show them.

Take something complex and expose how it works

‘Did anyone think while I was playing, “Why is he using so many impulses?” If I had done this with my head you certainly would have thought it [Zander then proceeds to nod his head on each impulse] For the rest of your life, every time you hear classical music, you’ll always be able to know if you hear those impulses’

Most topics appear overwhelmingly complicated until they’re broken down to their more basic components. Zander takes the high art of classical music and boils it down to a series of simple head nods.

Each topic we teach can also be boiled down to its skeleton. I used to hesitate to show the bare bones of something, worrying that that I’d murder the metaphorical frog by dissecting it – concerned that while students would have learnt more about frogs, the frog they’d be left with would be dead.

I now see topics less like frogs on a table in a lab and more like clocks on a watchmaker’s bench. Teaching is the act of unscrewing the back off an old clock; to expose the clockwork and watch it spin. Only then can students appreciate the craft of the watchmaker more than if they had only looked in wonder upon its face.

Do the same with your subject – unscrew the back and expose the cogs. You can’t kill it.

Have a clear objective

‘I’m not going to go on until every single person in this room…will come to love and understand classical music. So that’s what we’re going to do’

It’s my school’s policy to plan each lesson around a so-called ‘Line of Enquiry’ – essentially a big question we attempt to answer in that lesson. At first I felt ambivalent towards this. Thinking of the question was hard and it felt like more work. But it makes the hour I have with my students purposeful. It keeps me on track because it’s the main thing to attend to. Helpful, when it’s tempting to drift and waffle about everything and anything the topic has to offer.

Don’t doubt for one moment the capacity of your students

‘You notice there’s not the slightest doubt in my mind that this is going to work…it’s one of the characteristics of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity of the people he’s leading to realise whatever it is he’s dreaming’

Whenever I share a complicated text with ‘low ability’ students I’m often taken aback at how they engage with it far better than I had anticipated.

Most of my time spent lesson planning now focuses on scaffolding rather than differentiation. Complexity for all, but with ‘power-ups’ for those who need them.

Share beauty

‘I’m going to take a piece by Chopin… a beautiful prelude by Chopin’ [proceeds to play the piano beautifully to the awed silence of his audience]

Whatever you teach; art, science, foreign languages, geography; there will be many beautiful aspects to it. An appreciation of that beauty will be blatant to you and is probably why you decided to pursue teaching it in the first place.

I’ve started asking myself, when teaching a topic: what is so beautiful about this? And then sharing that view with my students. They often like to disagree, and that’s fine. But beauty, where it can be found, is life-affirming.

And who doesn’t need more of that?

Put yourself in the students’ shoes

‘You know what I think happened here in this room. When I started you thought, ‘how beautiful that sounds’

It took me a long time to recognise the difference between explaining something to a class and explaining it at them. When I did the latter I used to just project my explanation out into the room somewhere, over their heads to the clock on the back wall or at the bin to the side of the room.

Now when I’m explaining something to a class of students, I’m talking to individual faces, gauging how much each is listening, looking at their eyes to see whether they understand or appear confused. Only by doing this can I then steer the explanation in a different direction if needs be by repeating what I said, explaining it a different way or happily move on.

Don’t be precious – have a sense of humour

[playing Chopin in a melancholic tone] ‘I don’t think we should go to the same place for our holidays next year. It’s funny, isn’t it? How those thoughts kind of waft into you head. And if the piece is long and you’ve had a long day you might actually drift off!’

Quite often students will try to find the funny in what they’re studying. There’s often plenty to find, although most of it unintentional. As an English teacher, teaching a national curriculum which focuses on many Victorian  texts, I can’t seem to get through the day without stumbling across a description of an erect gentleman ejaculating in a lady’s ear.

Meanwhile some students who struggle to recall very much Shakespeare at all have an uncanny ability for recalling Lady Macbeth plucking that unfortunate infant from her nipple.

Even Lennie’s rabbit obsession gets progressively funnier each time he opens his mouth in Of Mice and Men. Just when you think he’s moved on, there he is again banging on about alfalfa.

Teenagers find these moments hilarious. And that’s largely because they are. Some might argue that laughing at these moments undermines the gravitas of these texts or the solemn act of learning. After all Shakespeare did not intend for us to laugh at Lady Macbeth’s nipple. He wanted the audience to be horrified.

But trying to police these moments is like shielding a sandcastle against a rising tide. It’s exhausting and hopeless.

I try to anticipate these moments now and not be surprised by them anymore. I’ll share in the amusement briefly with a raised eyebrow, demonstrating how to do so sensibly. Then move swiftly on.

Make it about them

‘So we have B, A, G, F and then….?’ [audience correctly hums E]

I used to loath student participation because I didn’t know how to get good responses from students, so what I did get was underwhelming and felt like a waste of time. I had to learn how to guide students to better responses first.

One of my favourite moments in a lesson now is when a student makes a point I hadn’t before considered. These are gold and I celebrate them enthusiastically whenever they arise. But I need to seek them out first. I need to have dialogue.

Believe your subject is for everyone (they just haven’t found out about it yet)

‘Nobody is tone-deaf. Every village in Bangladesh and every hamlet in China – everybody knows da, da, da – DA, everybody… is expecting that E.’

It’s very tempting sometimes to dismiss certain students, to assume that maybe your subject is beyond their grasp or to convince yourself that they’re never going to need to know about sonnets in real life (whatever that is).

I frequently need to remind myself to have high expectations for all. Whether this eventually comes to fruition or not, I need to start a lesson believing they can get it. And even if they don’t, I need to start over again the next day with that same noble ambition.

See the big picture as well as its constituent parts

‘Chopin wouldn’t have wanted to reach the E there because what would have happened? It would have been over… He’s just about to reach the E and he says “Oops, better go back up and do it again. So he does it again’

Teaching a topic sometimes feels like I’m looking through a microscope, zooming in on something to study its details. The problem, sometimes, is that it can get so abstract what we’re learning about appears to lose all meaning.

I try now to regularly zoom back out to see how what we’re studying fits in with its environment. Nothing is ever that interesting in isolation. It is often far more intriguing when linked to what surrounds it.

It’s important to examine the wood, but this won’t make sense unless we also look up at the trees.

Awaken possibility

‘For me to go from B to E I have to stop thinking about every note along the way and start thinking about the long, long line from B to E.’

You can’t go to South Africa without thinking about Nelson Mandela in jail for 27 years. What was he thinking about? Lunch? No, he was thinking about the vision for South Africa and for human beings. This is about vision. This is about the long line. Like the bird who flies over the fields and doesn’t care about the fences beneath.’

I get too bogged down in the day to day minutiae of lesson planning, or setting detentions, and often forget what it’s all for. I need to remind myself what the point is in all of this. Only by doing so can I better tolerate the difficulties of teaching. Only then does the suffering feel worthwhile.

Tell a tale

‘There’s a gentleman in the front row who just went [sighs]. It’s the same gesture he makes when he comes home after a long day, turns off the key in his car and says “Aah, I’m home.” Because we all know where home is. So this is a piece that goes from away to home’

Why do we all enjoy a rollicking good tale? Stories are baked into humanity and have been used to help us understand a world which for the longest time appeared strange and frightening, such as the Ancient Greeks who used myths to explain natural phenomena in terms that we could understand.

I find that students, even the very difficult, will pay attention when being read a good story. And while subjects like English are geared towards storytelling, I’d argue that stories can be found across the curriculum in all subjects: the autobiography of a significant historical figure’s life, for instance.

We want to hear about problems, struggles and survival. It makes whatever we’re studying feel instantly relevant and irresistibly human.

The definition of success – shining eyes

‘I suddenly had a realisation – the conductor of an audience doesn’t make a sound…. He depends on his power to make other people powerful. I realised my job is to awaken possibility in other people. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it…who am I being that my children’s eyes are not shining? …. [success] is not about wealth and fame and power. It’s about how many shining eyes I have around me’

You know what I’m going to say already, don’t you – the power of a teacher is in making students powerful, to awaken the possibility within them. I’m cringing a bit as I type that as it’s such a cliché, but only because it’s true.

Have I had shining eyes in my lessons? Sometimes. Ever since I heard Zander’s TED talk I’ve started looking more for these little beacons of success. Are they consistently there? No. And that’s okay. We can’t expect success all the time. But noticing these glimpses of success when they’re around are so important to help keep you going.

What you say makes a difference

‘It really makes a difference what we say. I learnt this from a woman who survived Auschwitz ….

She went to Auschwitz when she was fifteen years old and her brother was eight and the parents were lost and, she told me this, she said, “we were on the train together going to Auschwitz and I looked down and saw that my brother’s shoes were missing. I said, ‘why are you so stupid, can’t you keep your things together for goodness’ sake?” … Unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to him because she never saw him again.” He did not survive… she said, “I walked out of Auschwitz into life, and I made a vow…I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.”

Now can we do that? No. We’ll make ourselves wrong and others wrong. But it is a possibility to live into.’

Decades on, I remember a handful of sentences said to me by my teachers at school. Some of them were horrible. A PE teacher once nicknamed me ‘Brain Cell’ for my apparent inability to remember instructions. Sadly, it’s barbed comments like this which stick the most.

But there were some lovelier comments too. Like when my Head of Year stopped me in the corridor at the end of Year 7 to congratulate me on the high number of merit marks I had accrued. 23 years have passed since, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

Perhaps this is sentimental middle age creeping in, but wouldn’t that be the very best thing? Decades from now, a person remembering words you had said to them?

Wouldn’t that have made all of this worthwhile?