You are enough. You see it on a thousand inspirational posters, swirly italic-effect fonts against backdrops of beaches and sunsets, spring flowers and rainbows and autumn leaves. Search on Etsy, and you can find it on mugs and sweatshirts, coasters and keyrings. It can be personalised, embroidered onto a cushion, painted onto something called a ‘positivity pebble’ that you can keep in your pocket. It’s the title of a book, with the subtitle ‘How to Love the Skin You’re In and Embrace Your Awesomeness’. There’s even a modified version, attributed to someone called Sierra Boggess: ‘You are so enough, it’s unbelievable just how enough you are’.
The trouble is that it’s difficult to believe, in teaching, that we are ever enough. There’s always something else that we could do. Run that extracurricular group, read that article, try that new approach, sign up for that webinar, have that conversation with a colleague about that student who’s underperforming, contact that parent, think ahead to that trip we might run next year … We’ve heard a lot, over the last few months, about the feelings that have driven the current strikes: the real-terms pay cuts, the squeezed budgets, the crisis in recruitment and retention. And there’s the collective sense of burnout felt by a profession that is overwhelmed, accountable for far too many things with far too little support, battling poor behaviour and the after-effects of the pandemic, told constantly – by so many voices, but also by ourselves – that we are not doing enough.
I don’t want to claim special treatment for English teachers, but there’s something about English that is especially susceptible to this sense of not-enoughness. I’ve spent most of my career trying to describe what it is that makes English so complex – hell, I even did my PhD on it – and now, twenty-seven years in, I think I’ve finally pinned it down. In true English-teacher style, I’ve done it as a metaphor. English is a gas. Not in the sense of being funny, or enjoyable (although it frequently is), but because it expands to fill the space available to it. This is partly because in English we work with words, with texts, and words and texts, in all their various and wonderful forms, are what surround us. The conversations we overhear, the programmes we watch, the packaging on the products we buy, the songs we listen to, the websites we browse, the Twitter threads we read: all are grist to our English-teaching mill. And that’s before we even think about books, and everything that surrounds them.
The ever-expanding nature of English makes it particularly vulnerable to debates about powerful knowledge. It’s vulnerable anyway, because debates about powerful knowledge involve debates about issues that are central to English as a subject, not least the kinds of texts we teach and the ways in which we approach them. But if we take a text that is particularly powerful in the English curriculum – A Christmas Carol, say – it’s easy to see how the amount of knowledge available to us, as teachers, has grown massively over the last few years. Historical and biographical contexts, beautifully-produced resources, discussions of key quotations and motifs … It would be possible to spend a whole year teaching A Christmas Carol and still feel that you haven’t explored everything about it and its hinterland that is considered powerful. Except, of course, that you haven’t got a year, because there are three other texts – plus unseen poetry – to cover, as well as English Language. And so the guilt sets in. What if you miss out that key piece of information, that vital worksheet, that will unlock a particular concept for your students? What if that leads to them missing out on a vital grade? What if your department’s results plummet and Ofsted make their dreaded phone call? Your panic spirals. You stop trusting your own judgement, and before long, you’re paralysed, unable to make any decisions because it feels as though every decision is the wrong one.
English, as a subject, needs to change. It needs to change in many ways and for many reasons. Lots of these will be familiar to us: the inadequacy of GCSE English Language, the lack of diversity, the absence of any meaningful opportunities to develop vital oracy skills. But one that we must also address is the need for clearer boundaries around the knowledge we teach.
This is something I never thought I’d call for. I love exploring alternative readings and different approaches: there’s nothing I enjoy more than getting my A level students to examine varying interpretations, to play the unending game of critical debate. Yes, but … Well, okay, but couldn’t you also say …? But it feels, at the moment, as though the possibilities of what we could teach in English are growing at an exponential rate; and, as we all know, the stakes in English are so high that it’s easy to become completely overwhelmed by the scale of what we have to manage, the complexity of the landscape we have to navigate.
I’m mixing my metaphors wildly here, and that’s probably because I am swamped, at the moment, by the kinds of decisions I’m trying to describe. Everything in education, at the moment, feels like that other metaphor: a lethal mutation, spreading wildly, out of control. I think a lot of us feel as though we’re not enough. We might not have to walk through the desert on our knees repenting, but it certainly feels that way, sometimes.