Poetic inspiration for new teachers

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

To Learn the Future – an anthology of poetry aimed at new teachers – is hoping to inspire and support those at the beginning of their careers. Sam Phipps explains

Everyone knows that NQTs need all kinds of skills and character traits when they start out in the classroom. This year every new teacher in Scotland is receiving a special gift to help them on their way – a pocket-sized anthology of poetry, edited and produced just for them.

To Learn the Future (pictured below), which is published by the Scottish Poetry Library and was officially launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival earlier this month, is meant to inspire, amuse, console and sustain teachers not only at the start of their careers but – with any luck – throughout the long, challenging and uplifting years ahead.

As Jackie Kay, the Makar – National Poet for Scotland – writes in the foreword, it comes with no strings attached: “The wonderful thing about this book is that it has no agenda, no policy directive. No grading required. No planning necessary. What a relief!”

The anthology is for teachers across all subject and student groups, rather than being aimed at English or arts specialists. It is going to all new primary, secondary and college teachers, with copies also for sale in the Scottish Poetry Library shop and online, on a not-for-profit basis.

Its editors are teacher and poet Kate Hendry, teacher and author Jane Cooper, and the Scottish Poetry Library’s former project manager, Lilias Fraser. The idea is that the book will help teachers reflect on new experiences, and on the trust and respect they want to establish with pupils and colleagues. But it is emphatically not a manual.

“We’re very pleased with the way it has turned out,” Ms Cooper said. “A colleague described it as a pocket-sized piece of treasure. I think a lot of the teachers who read this book will think: ‘Yes, it’s okay to feel like this. I’ve noticed that too. I had a situation like that’. The book will be most successful when it gives a teacher a moment of recognition.”

In giving those moments, the poems should help boost new teachers’ resilience and remind them that they are part of a supportive and understanding collective. Key professional organisations including the General Teaching Council of Scotland (GTCS), Educational Institute of Scotland, Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA), NASUWT, and Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland have backed the project.

Ellen Doherty, director of education and professional learning at the GTCS, welcomed the “carefully selected and thoughtful” selection of poems. She said: “In supporting the project we hope that the little book will not only accompany teachers throughout their careers, but also hope that the content will help maintain and sustain them during the highs and lows, the best of times and the worst of times of one of the best jobs in the world.

“Some poems may make you laugh, some may make you cry, some may make you think – the rest is up to you.”

Featured poets include Emily Dickinson, Sophie Hannah, Vicki Feaver, Gavin Ewart, Dave Calder and about 50 others – some famous, others more obscure.

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the SSTA, added: “Despite the occasional frustrations in teaching the rewards are immense and the insights contained in the poetry will help to sustain them and make a long-lasting contribution to young people for generations to come.”

Something for all

The choice of poems is wide-ranging in style, tone and content. Many poems encourage empathy or offer insight for times when teachers need to find extra courage, compassion and commitment. Others celebrate the inspirational, the funny and the reflective. By no means all the poems relate specifically to the classroom. Some, like Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things, seem to contain something universal.

English is not the only language here – Gaelic and Farsi-Dari are also represented, with translated versions alongside, and Czech poet Miroslav Holub also features.

The idea for he book was sparked by the success of Tools of the Trade, an anthology for new doctors that the Scottish Poetry Library produced in 2014. The second edition of that volume sold out after an article in the Wall Street Journal boosted demand in North America.

Scottish Poetry Library staff then wondered whether there were other professions whose newest members might benefit from a volume on the same model. Teaching soon emerged as the most suitable candidate, its case underpinned by two main factors: the high number of classroom teachers who have written poetry – among them Robert Frost, WH Auden, DH Lawrence, Norman MacCaig and Liz Lochhead – and the ease with which poems lend themselves to offering insight and life lessons.

Poetic development

During the compilation of To Learn the Future, teachers were invited to read and comment on shortlisted poems, with their brief responses printed at the end of some of the poems.

School of Embodied Poetics by Nina Pick, opens: “When I first started teaching, I thought / my students could see my heart on my sleeve...”

It drew this comment from Richard, a teacher from West Lothian: “It reminded me of my early days, when I assumed the children could sense my nerves, knew when I made a mistake and could tell I would beat myself up when they left. Then when I started to be me and not someone else teaching, it got easier.”

First Day at School by Roger McGough begins: “A millionbillionwillion miles from home / waiting for the bell to go. (To go where?) / Why are they all so big, other children? / So noisy? So much at home they / must have been born in uniform...”

Moira, a recently retired maths teacher, writes: “The world should be an exciting safe place for a child experiencing new sights, smells and sounds but this poem reminds me that it can also be confusing and lonely.”

Classroom Politics by Fiona Norris highlights some of the responsibility facing teachers: “They will not forgive us / These girls / Sitting in serried rows / Hungry for attention / Like shelves of unread books / If we do not / Make the world new for them...”

And amid a continued decline in the number of pupils studying languages, it is timely to read remarks by one of the featured poets, Christine De Luca, in notes at the end: “Growing up bilingual – Shetlandic and English – I gradually came to appreciate the joys of linguistic flexibility. Languages open doors into apparently different worlds, but stepping further in, the differences fade away in our common humanity. I try to help children value their mother tongue but also to enjoy learning other languages.”

The best lines

As to the separate question of how poetry is faring in the classroom, Ms Cooper, who has worked as an English teacher in Edinburgh for 25 years, says the new set text lists are “extremely strong, stronger than for fiction and drama”, and particularly good on Scottish poets.

She added: “Before introducing students to new poems I always find some kind of hook so they can relate them to their own lives.”
What about writing poetry? “Pupils tend to get the most chances to do that up to around the third year of secondary, then it becomes harder to find time in the curriculum,” Ms Cooper added. “And no matter what you say, they always ask if it has to rhyme! That idea is so ingrained.”

But as Ms Kay added, To Learn the Future offers escape from such concerns. In her foreword, she concludes: “This gem of a book is for everyone, and I hope it will be enjoyed as much by the PE and physics teachers as by those who deliver A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Whether you savour them in your lunch hour or after hours, these poems will hold open the door and make you welcome.”

  • Sam Phipps is a freelance education journalist.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin