Sunday, 9 September 2018

An open letter to Peter Thomas (Chair of the National Association of Teachers of English)

Dear Peter,

Many thanks for responding to my tweets about your recent article in the NATE magazine in which you offered your thoughts on @Team_English1 and subsequently allowing the article itself to be shared free of copyright.

As you’ve made it clear you’re not yet fully conversant in the social mores of Twitter, I’ve decided to write to you in a traditional form you’ll hopefully feel more at home with: the letter. I’d draw your attention to the fact that, on your advice to “Try quoting some other parts [of your article]”, I’ve done exactly that.

So why, given that many of us would agree with some of your critiques, have members of Team English been left “howling” (to use your preferred verb)? Well, for a start, there was a failure to complete basic fact checking – such as the names of the teachers you had directly referred to. Although I am tempted to retain the monikers you’ve rechristened “Nikki Noopuddles” and “X Curtis” with purely for my own amusement, this feels demonstrative of a wider failure to engage with the real people at the heart of your piece. (It’s Carlin and Chris in case you were wondering.)

You characterise English teachers who ask for help and support as “weak” or unsuited to the job of teaching stating, “limited professional or academic confidence may reflect the nature of recruitment”. You then go on to assert that “Many of the Team English pleas for assistance indicate some very basic teacher needs and anxieties, and a lack of autonomous confidence in subject knowledge and pedagogy that might make some wince.” My first reaction was ‘thank God you weren’t my NQT mentor’. Or Head of English. Or, colleague, for that matter.

How can we develop as a profession if any admittance of a lack of confidence or even anxiety are met with a physical shudder? Surely, the role of a Subject Association is to share subject-specific expertise and pedagogy, not to look down its nose at teachers who are actively seeking it out? The idea that any teacher should have “autonomous confidence” in every aspect of their subject knowledge and practice throughout their career is a damaging one, in my opinion, that stifles professional development and dialogue.

Such elitist attitudes pull up the drawbridge to high quality professional development at a time when our profession needs it the most. When I hear statements like the one you made in a tweet that “My background is in a more academically robust community of speciality enthusiasts” I want to say ‘Good-o for you’. If academic rigour in subject expertise is confined to a niche community within teaching how on earth are we going to improve the teaching available to every child in every school?

As a side note, the news that I am not considered a ‘speciality enthusiast’ will come as news to my long-suffering husband. You’d also better warn the publishers of Mark Roberts and Chris Curtis they’re not considered ‘academically rigorous’ – and ResearchEd of the same about Rebecca Foster and Sarah Barker, for that matter.

In your article you criticise the “formulaic approach” being shared by members of TE but this implication of a homogenous ‘Team English pedagogy’ belies the 18,000 individual contexts, ideas, and perspectives that make up this online community. Be assured that there are many heated disagreements about aspects of practice.

Similarly, your comments about the variable quality of resources and advice on offer demonstrate a lack of understanding of the nature of the online world. Of course the resources are of variable quality: it’s a mark of the wonderful, diverse nature of the Team English demographic. It’s also one of the reasons LitDrive has tentatively introduced a star rating system. But I passionately believe that judgement-free, peer-to-peer sharing is vital if we are going to stimulate dialogue about what constitutes that very quality we are seeking. The moment we metaphorically close our classroom doors through fear of judgement it is immensely hard to prize them open again.

So, why did we not all swoon at your ‘compliments’ or, as you have continually argued, the “favourable publicity” for Team English? Well, because they were buried alongside sweeping accusations such as “There is very little in all this to suggest a wider or deeper concern with English as a humane discipline with substantial roots and flourishing fruits”. Whilst beautifully figurative, I find this quite simply insulting. One glance at the programme for the 2018 National Conference would see that this is not the case, with sessions exploring curriculum, grammar, rhyme, ‘building a culture of academic tenacity’, authorial purpose, and values and diversity.

You suggested by tweet that it would be “Better to direct outrage against those who undermine or damage the values I think we share.” The values I share with Team English are a belief in open sharing, support, and professional challenge. Whilst I cannot – and must not – infer intention from your article alone, the snobbery, denigrating tone, and lack of dialogue with those you have written about to me do not reflect these values. I’d also suggest that the characterisation of female teachers as ‘howling’ with “sensitivities” has more than a whiff of misogyny to it.

My desire in writing this letter is not to further division; I really do care about the future of NATE. There is very clearly a space for a professional association with a “coherent, regulated editorial function” which you rightly state Team English does not have as a group of disparate individuals. However, in order to function effectively I do believe NATE needs to reflect on how – in 2018 and beyond – it can best engage with the community of teachers it supposedly represents.

You state “subject associations are able to speak to other agencies on behalf of English”. Well, no, I’m sorry, they can’t when they no longer have the trust, ear, or financial support of English teachers. For example, I am curious as to how many main scale classroom practitioners from state schools have the luxury of attending the annual NATE conference. Just one day this year cost £200. It’s probably worth pointing out that a day at the Team English National Conference cost a tenner.

I hope that a more productive relationship between NATE and Team English can emerge over the coming academic year. Another offer has been made for NATE to be represented at the Team English National Conference and I for one will still be making a beeline to any stand or sessions you may choose to run.

Yours sincerely,

Caroline Spalding

English teacher


  1. Although I teach in Scotland I have donated (amazing thing for a Jock I know!) to LitDrive and appreciate the time and effort that you and many others have put into creating and adapting resources and making them easily available to us all nationwide. Many many thanks for all you have done.