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All teachers are teachers of English: all English tutors are tutors of History

At school I remember our class was late for a history lesson. We had been delayed by a ‘substitute’ English teacher whose usual subject was music. This teacher was insistent on finishing his lesson even though the bell had gone 3 minutes earlier.

Arriving at Mr Smith’s (real name) history lesson late was never a good idea. A brave member of our class explained the delay and remarked ‘he isn’t an English teacher anyway’. Mr Smith was having none of this. ‘ALL teachers are teachers of English!’ he replied sternly. The class went silent in puzzlement.

It’s true though.

Teachers are expected to have a high standard of English even before they go to University and once on Campus, they must use a high standard of English in essays, assignments, projects, research and – examinations.

One of my Humanities Foundation tutors challenged me on a ‘split infinitive’. The challenge led me to investigate what this strange phenomenon was about. In a Business Studies assignment, I unfortunately let a double-negative slip-in and the tutor suggested I should ‘watch my English’.

Teachers and tutors of English are expected to cover a multitude of topics including grammar, punctuation, essay writing, language features, structure, and poetry at different levels from Primary through to A level and sometimes beyond.   

In prose and poetry alike, the experienced teachers and tutors among the Qualified Tutor membership will know all too well how much technical material there is to cover in a student’s learning to satisfy the Assessment Objectives.

The newer (and perhaps younger) members of the QT Community might not realise how much historical context is required too, and research is going to be especially important for them. I have the benefit of experience and shall I say ‘mature years’ to help me. We all have to pull on our own knowledge and research to support students’ learning.

Children do have an understanding of history but placing events in order seems difficult for them sometimes. Everything that happened before they were born is often somehow contained in one ‘history cloud’. 

Unfortunately, history can be both sad and shocking and we study it to learn from it.

In ‘An Inspector Calls’ (Priestley), there are contextual issues that need explaining around Edwardian class structures and historical knowledge around The Titanic and the outbreak of World War 1. In this play, a young lower-class woman, pregnant to an upper-middle-class man, kills herself in desperation when help is not forthcoming.  Students need to understand that there was no such thing as benefits in those days.

 ‘The Boy in Striped Pyjamas’ (Boyne) centres around the Holocaust. Why was an aged, Jewish prisoner and trustee waiter, being kicked to death for nervously spilling wine at the Commandant’s dinner table at Auschwitz almost ignored? Why did the Commandment’s own outspoken and gossiping mother suddenly die of unexplained causes? Boyne ends the book with the most profound line well worth discussion, –

  • ‘Of course, all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age.’

Harper Lee’s ‘To kill a Mockingbird’ presents issues of racial prejudice and hatred of a falsely accused young black man and the white man who defended him, in a story set in the American south in the 1930s. Students need a great deal of historical background knowledge to help them understand this.

In ‘Of Mice and Men’ (Steinbeck), Crooks, ‘a negro stable-buck’ has the apparently odd privilege of his own room at a 1930s arable farm, whereas the white farm hands share a bunk room in which they sleep, rest and play card games together. When I asked a student why he thought this was, he replied that Crooks must have been there the longest. Err… no.

Poems too demand a tutor’s knowledge of history. In War Photographer (Carol Ann Duffy), I find myself explaining references to ‘Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh’ as places visited in the world and photographed to give newspaper readers images of death and destruction in their Sunday colour supplements. ‘What are they?’’ one student asked. 

I brought together London (William Blake) and the novella Christmas Carol (Dickens) to give historical context around living standards among the poor in 19th century London and tried to demonstrate that those living conditions were not the stuff of pure fiction, cartoons, or films – but real dreadful historical fact.

It’s endless.

I’m currently covering a series of comprehensions with Year 6/7 transition students about the blitz on London during World War 2 and the subsequent plight of evacuees separated from their mothers – and the plight of the mothers separated from their young children. (Golden Skies, Obediah Stoneheart)

A Year 7 student said, ‘It’s so sad.’ 

‘Yes.’ I replied. ‘It’s History.’

Richard Ashelford
Richard has been a private tutor of English language, literature and Business Studies for over 15 years. After completing an Initial Teaching course and an English Language course at the Open University, he began to tutor seriously. Says Richard, "It’s been a massive learning curve and my own learning seems never-ending. In 2020, I completed the QT Tier 1 Course and I am an active member of the Community. After my first short blog, I was inspired and encouraged by the QT Team to write more. And blog writing is becoming another new skill! I hope my readers think so ..."

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