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Institute of Continuing Education (ICE)


Becoming a better teacher of English: my experience of the Master of Studies in Advanced Subject Teaching at the University of Cambridge.

Sarah Gray

Teaching English is an extraordinary and extraordinarily rewarding and challenging job. In my 17 year career so far I have been a teacher of English, a teacher of film, a form tutor, a head of year, a head of sixth form and am now an assistant headteacher. While I relish the varied roles I’ve had in school, it’s being in the classroom I enjoy the most: I enjoy the process of teaching – the planning and the thinking through of pedagogical methods and choices and I always envy my students when they encounter new writers and texts for the first time.

Deciding to apply

This is one of the reasons I decided to undertake some further academic study of my own. I had thought about it for a long time – I’m not in the early stages of my career and didn’t ‘need’ to complete a master’s degree for any particular career purpose but I had long wanted to return to academic study. I have always enjoyed spending a couple of days each summer in my local university library, researching new A Level texts and writers, but wanted to undertake some research of my own.

I investigated several masters degrees – there are quite a number out there for practising teachers. I knew I wanted to focus on the teaching of English: I wanted to get better at teaching and know more about my subject. I also needed to be able to study part-time as I have a full time job. I applied for the MSt in Advanced Subject Teaching at Cambridge only after encouragement from a friend – she suggested applying and my first reaction was to tell her that I wouldn’t get in. I’m quite good at English but, you know, it’s Cambridge and everything… (I wasn’t the only one to think I might get ‘found out’ as the course progressed).

The first year: reflecting on my practice

The degree is part-time study over two years: in the first year there are residential weekends at Madingley Hall in Cambridge where you stay, work and socialise with your fellow students and engage in a pretty rigorous programme of lectures and study. The first weekend asked us to consider what it might mean to engage in ‘advanced subject teaching’ and to consider our understanding of the development and history of our subject.

I have always believed that good teachers are reflective ones but I was asked to reflect on aspects of my subject that I had long taken for granted. We had lectures from writers and teachers whose work I had encountered (and admired) before, but I also developed new knowledge (something that happened throughout the course): hearing Professor Helen Cooper read Chaucer was just amazing. The weekend also addressed research skills and the theory of the classroom and very quickly we were encouraged to challenge what we read, to question, and to evaluate, and I think that this has been one of the greatest benefits of the degree. I was a good reader before the course but the experience has sharpened my critical faculties – I am a better and more critical reader (and what’s more valuable to a teacher of English than that?).

We produced three written assignments over the first year. There were a range of interesting modules to choose from and each weekend focused on different aspects of subject knowledge, the development of pedagogy and research skills. The one I enjoyed the most, perhaps, was the assignment and focus on the development of new subject knowledge. Lectures on textual scholarship and questions of authorship inspired me to explore an A Level text I was teaching in a new way.

For my second assignment I investigated the emblematic and meta-theatrical significance of the skull in Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. I researched Geoffrey Whitney’s emblem books, accounts of 16th-century set-piece executions and ways that the skull has been used in theatre. I have returned to some of that research recently in the teaching of Hamlet for the new A Level English Literature specification. The final assignment of the year was a small case study: I conducted a series of lessons to explore some year 11 students’ responses to context in Jane Eyre. Rather than writing, the students produced artifacts to represent their responses to Brontë’s writing (and yes, I know how that sounds) but the work they produced was subtle and imaginative.

The first year of the course develops you as a researcher, reader, thinker and writer through the weekends and the incredibly detailed feedback you receive for written assignments. (That, in itself, is a useful thing – just the process of receiving written feedback on my own writing made me reflect on, and adjust, the ways I give feedback to students.)

The second year: research and dissertation

The second year of the course is focused on the development of the dissertation and I had to submit a proposal for my dissertation in my original application. I was keen to explore and understand something of the relationship between how writers like Shakespeare and his contemporaries were taught rhetoric and how that shaped the writing and production of their poetry. As well as developing subject knowledge, the dissertation is meant to challenge and sharpen pedagogical practice.

So that I might examine my own teaching practice and engage with the challenges of the new linear A Level in English Literature, I decided to develop and explore ways of teaching unseen poetry. I worked with a group of enthusiastic year 12 students, developing resources, recording lessons and refining them. The final title of my dissertation was “The language of poetic rhetoric at A level: an exploration, using methods of case study research, into ways that the ‘unseen’ poem may be taught”. We had received a good grounding in how to undertake research and were supported in the second year by our tutors, through the VLE and through supervisions at Cambridge.

The first supervision was, I admit, both thrilling and intimidating: it requires a bit of more than usual confidence to meet with a supervisor who is an expert in their field and talk about an area of your subject that you picked because it was new to you! I found, however, that my supervisors were fantastically supportive, interested, interesting and helpful. I came away from each supervision with new ideas and new books to read and they were a real highlight of the experience.

Becoming a better teacher

It’s clear, of course, that I loved the experience of the master’s degree (and, that I’ve passed, and done very well because, you know, I wouldn’t be writing this…) but it was hard at times. I had a very supportive school and headteacher, encouraging friends and family and students who just threw themselves into some pretty difficult poetry. I had, however, just taken on a new role as an assistant headteacher when I started the course and sometimes managing everything was a real challenge.

But, it’s a master's degree, it’s at Cambridge and it’s very hard work – I didn’t really expect anything else. I made some good friends, met some fascinating people, heard some amazing lectures and became part of a university college and all that that offers. The academic challenge was the best and hardest part – I sometimes had an image of one of those Perspex rulers – you know the ones that students like to see how far they’ll bend until they snap? On occasion my own personal ruler nearly snapped – but actually I think that might be one of the best things about the experience. I pushed myself to think about literature, to write academic essays and to reflect on my pedagogical practices in ways that I had never done before and I am absolutely a better teacher because of it.

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