We’re delighted to introduce this guest post from Tim Ayre, a current student on our Classical Studies MA. Tim teaches Classical Civilisation and English at a secondary school in Dorset, and is a recipient of the MA scholarships that we have been able to offer to teachers looking to introduce or enhance the provision of Classical Studies in their schools. This is one aspect of our role as a partner in the Advocating Classics Education project – watch this space for news of our 2019 ACE event, which we will be publicising very soon. In this post, Tim explains how his work on the MA has helped him to develop his skills as a Classical Civilisation teacher.
I began teaching A Level Classical Civilisation five years ago, almost by accident. On interview for my current role as an English teacher in a large upper school in Dorset, I was asked whether I’d be willing to teach A Level Classical Civilisation as well. My knowledge of the ancient world was limited at best, but having fallen in love with the school I replied that I’d be more than happy to teach what was then a completely unknown subject to me. Since that moment, I’ve had to get to grips with a wide range of authors, texts and topics, from Homer and Virgil to Aristophanes, the Persian Wars, the poems of Sappho and more. Although I have worked hard to gain a respectable level of knowledge, I always felt something was missing. As a ‘non-specialist’ I think I’ve always felt as if I have been pretending or faking it in some way. The MA in Classical Studies has enabled me to make this transition from non-specialist to someone who has, or will have, a recognised qualification in the subject, and I will always be grateful to the Open University for such a rare opportunity.
The content of the MA course has reassured me that I’ve been following the right approach in my teaching of the subject for the last few years, but it’s also helped me to extend my learning in ways that are almost impossible without expert guidance. An example would be Lysias 1. This speech used to be a set text on the old AQA Women in Athens and Rome unit at A Level. I knew it reasonably well from preparing it for class. I had read up on the nature of Athenian legal speeches, the nature of the legal system in ancient Greece and the position of men and women within Athenian society. However, the OU course materials for Lysias 1 introduced me to a whole new realm of scholarship and debate. The work on the meaning and significance of the word ‘timoria’ was fascinating, and made me appreciate how contentious these discussions can be. It has certainly inspired me to begin learning ancient Greek, which I was able to do in August at the JACT Greek Summer School.
I would recommend MA study to any ‘non-specialist’ teacher or even any teacher who has been away from the ‘student’ side of education for a long time. As teachers we are, of course, always learning, but being a student again is a unique opportunity for someone in full-time work. I have enjoyed being guided through course materials and seeing the progression and cohesion as we move through topics, events, authors and time periods. The course materials are ideally suited to those in work, as you can move through the study in chunks and pace yourself according to the planner without worrying about where you are in the course. It has definitely made me conscious of how A Levels could be better structured, and I have tried to be clearer this year in terms of what students should know at particular points in the year. At the same time, the quality of the ‘further reading’ has always inspired me to move beyond the core materials in search of extra insight. Often you have to make a compromise; I haven’t been able to explore as much further reading as I would have liked due to the pressures of work, but it’s good to know that it’s there for future reference.
I was very open with my students about starting the MA course. You always feel a little anxious when revealing things like this to your classes, but I think they all respect the effort involved, especially when they benefit from the knowledge! It’s certainly nice when they remember that I’m doing the course and ask how the study is going. I’ve never been one to pretend that I know everything (you could never get away with that when teaching a subject as a non-specialist) and one of the key messages from the first year of the MA was that the questions are often as important as the answers. I have even confessed to one or two of my students that I have had to ask for an essay extension. I really wanted to avoid this, but one of the essay deadlines fell during Year 11 GCSE English mock exams, and the workload was just too much. I was worried about asking, but my tutor was very understanding and supportive.
One of the main benefits to my teaching from studying the MA Classical Studies course has been the focus on building up an understanding of the recent academic scholarship in the subject. This is now a requirement for the new A Level, so it has been useful to become acquainted with recent scholars and writers on the classical world. It has been useful to sharpen my research skills, particularly in referencing, scanning and in the cross-referencing of online and offline resources. My school has an excellent library, but I’ve never properly used it as part of my teaching before. However, this year I have set students the task of going to the library, finding a book by an Edith Hall or a Paul Cartledge and using the index to locate a useful explanation or idea that can be brought into the classroom and discussed. This is something that I have obviously done myself over the years, but studying again has made me realise the way in which these skills need to be taught and embedded at all opportunities.