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Teacher Feature: Miss O’Leary

English: The foundation of human connection

This is an adapted interview with Miss O’Leary, an English teacher from Mansfield, who shares her views on the journey of self-discovery and connection that English brings about and the growth we experience as students throughout our English careers.

English is so relevant and applicable to our own lives and personal experiences. Whether you’re reading a Shakespearean play or a postmodern poem, you can always form a connection with it. This is because all literature is reflective of human experiences and emotions, meaning we can all relate to it in some way. This connection provides a sense of peace–when we see our own emotions and thoughts reflected in another person’s words, we realise that we are not alone, and this sense of solidarity is comforting in an increasingly lonely world. Students don’t always come to this realisation immediately, but the moment when a student truly comprehends the power of words is one of the many reasons why I love what I do.

In a way, being an English teacher is different because it’s crucial that we create an environment where students let go in order to connect with the text.  It’s all about developing and nurturing confidence and bravery, as reading should be an experience and not just a process. Sometimes when students are too focussed on grades, it’s easy for them to just read the words without comprehending them.

It’s interesting for me to see how my students develop throughout their English careers. Younger students often enjoy the imaginative and creative sides of the texts. They like to get absorbed into the make-believe worlds and get swept into the characters that inhabit these worlds.

However, as students enter the realm of IGCSE exams, they tend to become fixated on their grades, and forget the value of the experience. Students seem to always want the teacher to tell them what to think, and to tell them what the ‘correct’ interpretations are. But that’s simply not how English works. It’s frustrating at times because you feel as if they lose the bravery that allows them to suffuse their own interpretations of the texts into their analysis, because they’re so focused on their grades at the end of the year.

However, at AS and A level, Cambridge’s emphasis on personal response within the course means that teachers place more of a focus on making the texts relevant to everyday life. It’s during these years that I see the breakthrough in most students. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a student realise the power behind literature. When a student is able to see that a text’s message can transcend the pages of a book, into concrete representations of humanity, history or their own experiences, they are able to extend themselves beyond the set limits of the book, and in turn, excel in the subject.

My passion for English is all about language. I am fascinated by how powerful it is and how it can be used and manipulated to create effects that can transcend perceived barriers of age, culture, race, gender, and time. My heart will always be with literature because the first time I connected with a text was in an English classroom in year ten. I was always an avid reader, but at that moment, it was not just about the story or the character: it was about the words. English is a journey of self discovery and growth.

Take King Richard III, an English monarch during the Middle Ages, as an example – he is portrayed as the epitome of evil and Shakespeare manipulates language to make us despise his every action. However, our responses to his character are more complex than just anger or hatred. We get so swept up in Shakespeare’s writing of Richard’s speech that we can’t help but admire him, be surprised by him and connect with him to some extent. And it’s these types of responses – the ones that surprise us when we realise how we feel – that give us greater insight into the complexity of our own identities. Often this is because it calls into question who we are and what we stand for. You see versions of yourself reflected in the characters and the beauty of English lies within it being a very individual and personal experience.

In a classroom setting we don’t always recognise just how powerful English is. Shakespeare’s portrayal of King Richard III was so influential, that even now, over half a millennium on, you can still ask anyone in England about this character and they will tell you about how he brutally murdered his two nephews to capture the throne. To this day, none of these incidences have been proven to be true. However, Shakespeare’s words were so powerful that they breathed life into these events, convincing us that these were very real occurrences, and thus have allowed them to transcend time and become a part of our own history.

This is why it is important for students to go beyond their habit of systematically analysing texts. While good marks are important, we must remember why we study these pieces of literature in the first place. English is really about human communication and experiences. It is only when students are able to see the real beauty behind words that they are able to unlock and witness the true power of literature.

Written by Helen Wu, Editted by Wendy Lee

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