My knowledge of some subjects is vast. I have a great deal of knowledge around a range of literature texts, theories, vocabulary and how we can develop writing. I have an undergraduate degree, a Master’s level degree at distinction and I am currently studying for another. I have a great deal of experience around this too, having spent a large portion of my adult classrooms, supporting, delivering or observing lessons on these texts.
I have also read a huge number of books, being a voracious reader at different points of my life. I have read everything ever published (as far as I know) by Toni Morrison, MR James, Shakespeare, The Brontes, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Stephen King. I am not an expert in all of these though, there are many others who know much, much more. I also don’t know everything about how these should be taught though just as I have read them.
However, my knowledge of English, whilst seemingly quite impressive, is actually quite limited. Within literature there are a myriad of texts we could study, and I am aware that my knowledge is a tiny asteroid within a universe of possibility. The National Curriculum and exam specifications mean that some of that knowledge has been narrowed down. We know we need to cover Shakespeare, 19th Century prose, a modern text and a range of poetry. I suppose looking back I have probably taught somewhere in the region to 30 different texts, a huge number of poems and a variety of non-fiction texts. There are plenty of teachers who will have taught many more. Some of those texts I have taught to multiple classes, over multiple years which again extended the depth of my knowledge.
What we should or should not be teaching in my subject is hugely contested and that is before we head into conversations around how we should go about doing it. I am aware that I do not have all the answers to this although I have opinions.
I also have quite a wealth of knowledge around pedagogy. I have read a lot of books, blogs, and articles on generic pedagogy and that which is specific to English. I have spent years of my life thinking about it, talking about it, practising it, and challenging my own thinking around it. I still am a long way from having an absolute understanding of what this should look like, but like others suggest, I have a good understanding of some of the best bets. I can even explore with subject specialists how this should be enacted in their own lessons.
My knowledge of other subjects though is much more limited. My journey with Maths ended at AS level, was briefly revisited when teaching some classes at KS3. Science, French, and Geography ended for me at GCSE, other than the occasional cover lesson which quickly highlighted where my ability to keep a class on task did not translate to me being able to have the depth of understanding needed to actually teach those classes. History, with new historicism approaches in English, has continued to reappear throughout my studies, and now I am studying for a joint award between English and History at master’s level to add to my A Level. The study of literature has also led me to further explore religion, philosophy and sociology, media, drama, and film. The interaction with these subjects is important to the English discipline although that doesn’t necessarily mean I will be able to crack on and teach those subjects well either, although teaching drama, film and media have been part of my experience too.
My teaching experience has also centred on Secondary teaching in the South of England. I spent time volunteering in primary, have worked with primary colleagues on transition, attended training led by primary teachers, particularly specialists in literacy and early reading. 20 something years ago I helped out in my son’s reception class and went on some trips with him. That, other than some reading and listening to what those working in that sector say is the limit of my knowledge and experience. The same is true of colleges, having never worked in one.
I am lucky that I have networks of people I can call on and access to a healthy library online, something that didn’t exist in my early years of teaching, to help to aid my understanding of the issues presented outside of my immediate experience. That does not mean though it has somehow become my experience.
Of course, the limitation of my knowledge does not mean I can’t have opinions on these other areas or be interested to discuss them. It’s not about ‘staying in your lane’, although it is interesting who is told to do exactly that when it comes to discussions on education. Parents, members of the public and students can all have opinions. What my humility tells me though, is that I do not have the right to demand others do what I tell them, insist that I have more subject knowledge than them, when mostly I have no idea what knowledge they do and don’t have. We see all the time on social media people who feel having an opinion is more important than having any knowledge in a field, wanting to opine on economics, medicine and most recently, virology. Misinformation spreads and misunderstandings abound. If found being a leader in school has been a humbling experience, as you realise that you don’t have all the knowledge not only of a subject outside of your own, but also of a class you do not teach. I believe staying humble is important. It means you are more open to listen to other ideas. It means you are less afraid of being challenged in your own thinking and know where to draw on the expertise of others when you need it. It means that you are more likely to approach leading others in a way which builds trust and mutual respect, essential if we want to develop the education on offer for the students in our care.