- “Study What You Most Affect”: Beginning Teachers’ Preparedness to Teach Shakespeare
This paper explores some reflective accounts written by teachers in training in anticipation of their teaching Shakespeare and then uses these accounts to discuss the potential challenges of preparing the next generation of English teachers to teach the plays. The discussion is situated in a particular teaching philosophy that draws on practical theorizing and the concept of participants and spectators, all in the context of the Oxford Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE).
The PGCE is the main teaching qualification in the UK; it is a one-year course that combines two lengthy school placements with ongoing college sessions. At Oxford University, the “internship” model is intended to allow students to develop critical understandings of pedagogy and practice and to experiment in the classroom, in contrast with what might be termed an apprenticeship approach (hereafter, I shall use the term “interns” to discuss participants in this study—the term both reflects their status and distinguishes them from the students they teach). The curriculum (as opposed to professional) course is taught by three permanent tutors, of whom I am one; we share the curriculum sessions among us and supervise the interns’ teaching practice and their academic assignments. There are also a handful of guest speakers who deliver specialist sessions through the year.
Despite the emphasis on Shakespeare as the only named author in the English National Curriculum, and the effectively compulsory study of literature to the age of 16, we are facing in England the challenge of what Sue Dymoke calls the “dead hand of the exam” (85) that reduces engagement with literature. Jane Coles has also noted that, in the main, academic study of Shakespeare serves to emphasize his dislocation from teenagers’ lives (“Every Child’s Birthright?” 55). These are the challenges that we must prepare beginning teachers to overcome for their future working lives. They are not the only challenges, however. Trevor Wright tells his readers, an audience of beginning English teachers, that “You may have loved Twelfth Night at school, but then you were good at English, and this is a handicap for you now in a number of ways” (2). That is certainly one handicap, but there is also a converse one: the student teachers who, despite achieving an undergraduate degree in English or a related subject, are unfamiliar with Shakespeare, who fear him, or whose educational experiences with his texts have been universally negative. In this light, the challenges of [End Page 199] teaching Shakespeare are wide-ranging (as is illustrated below). Beginning English teachers need enough knowledge and experience of different teaching approaches to tackle these challenges with confidence, and this need is something they are aware of, as will become clear.
The Teaching Philosophy
The Oxford internship model has a philosophical base in “practical theorizing,” in which the integration of professional and academic perspectives opens up a range of options for the intern to take into the classroom to use whichever is the most appropriate in their context. In this approach, Donald McIntyre argues,
the theoretical knowledge which we offer student teachers should be treated by them as tentative, inadequate and constantly to be questioned and, where appropriate, falsified; but it should also be knowledge which we offer them because we believe it to be of practical value to them as teachers. Our commitment to the process of experimentation and falsification should be equalled by our commitment to making available to our students theoretical knowledge which they will mostly, with refinement, be able usefully to assimilate to their professional thinking. So acceptance of the importance of theory as process need not, and should not in my view, limit the importance we attach to theory as content.(41)
In other words, there is a reciprocal relationship between practice and theorizing, in which beginning teachers are encouraged to hypothesize and test out those hypotheses in practical teaching situations, supported by the provision of theoretical knowledge in their college sessions.
In its praxis, the PGCE has a strong theme that draws on James Britton’s concept of participants and spectators. Brian Edmiston and Amy McKibben write, “Experiencing as participants, people can use language, movement...