I don’t teach a subject, I teach students.

“I don’t teach a subject, I teach students.” That’s a noble sentiment, isn’t it? It’s not so much an observation as an ethos, maybe even a philosophy, implying that one is committed to the wider education of the individual. Not just their learning of English, say, but their development as a human, a member of the human species, developing global learning and skills. It’s the kind of self-aggrandising statement which attempts to elevates teaching to some sort of grand calling.

It’s also, if you’ll excuse my language, bollocks. You may think that harsh of me. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being concerned with developing good citizens of the planet, or grit, or whatever it is people mean by “teaching students”: it is a fine sentiment. It’s just not right, that’s all.

With the exception of primary education (which I exclude from what follows), most teachers have a specialist subject they teach. For me it’s English language, especially, but not exclusively, to speakers of other languages. And let me be clear, I really really like teaching language. Not in a hitting-people-round-the-head-with-a-grammar-book, irritating pedant way, although I do sometimes do that, and have to stop myself. No, I am really interested in the way languages work, the nuts and bolts, the ins, outs, aboves and beyonds. And I’m also really interested in how people learn said languages, both as a child and as an adult.

As a result of being interested in these things, I am enthusiastic about them. Only the other evening I got quite over-excited about the difference between raise and rise, much to the bemusement of my students (it also led to a completely snafu’d discussion of the difference between lie and lay, which was embarrassing). I will quite unashamedly call some random facet of language “cool”, even though it does make me sound anything but cool. Expanding from teaching ESOL to also teach GCSE English, CELTA and the old Level 5 ESOL specialism, has only really served to worsen this geekiness. It’s not healthy really, but I do get terribly excited about things like the structure of the Landlady, and in what is either a nadir or an apex (I’ll let you decide) of geekiness described the Very Hungry Caterpillar as a thriller. (Assume you know nothing about the life cycle of a butterfly, and it’s a very different book).

Enthusiasm, even when slightly misplaced, can only be a good thing. Do it well, and it’s infectious. I’ve managed to get one of my students to read at least three books she would never have read, and to have a go at something a bit more challenging. It’s also reciprocal: another student has declared a newly acquired love for the great 19th century novelists, which has made me consider exploring the black hole that exists in my literary habits between about 1800 and 1930. Well, maybe one day, anyway.

An absence of interest in the subject, however, creates a very different situation. According to the grand social motivation of “I teach people”, one would be prepared to teach them any old subject, and I think this holds for a lot of primary school teachers, a profession for whom my admiration has only grown in the last 6 years of having my own primary age children. Beyond this, and things change. Over the years, I’ve grown to love teaching ESOL not just for the subject, but also for the students, and for the difference it can make to their lives: there are few things more satisfying than watching former students go on to do well, or even just to achieve a degree of comfort and security that they might not otherwise have achieved. It’s a great, nay, magnificent feeling.

But it’s not enough.

It’s not enough to motivate you to teach them something you’re not interested in, for example. I’ve been teaching ESOL and maths of late, for example, and honestly, I can’t wait for it to end. I don’t get it. For one, I find it hard: my mental arithmetic is shocking, my memory for things like calculating percentages and doing long division is truly shameful. I also find it, well, uninspiring. For me, maths is like cabbage: sure, I’ll eat it, if I must, and some varieties are OK, and I know, I know it’s really good for you, but given the choice, I prefer my soup made of butternut squash and sweet potatoes.

And it shows. Oh my, does it ever show. Not one maths lesson have I taught that I am at all proud of, and only a couple I enjoyed. If there was a Headway of maths, I would be slogging through that course book like a new arrival, fresh off the CELTA.

But according to the “I don’t teach a subject, I teach students” school of thought, the what of teaching shouldn’t matter – only that I am contributing to some greater good by teaching maths to ESOL students. The same goes for teaching, say, employability skills, or ICT – the sheer joy and satisfaction of making a difference should be enough for me to enthuse and engage students. So why doesn’t it? After all, I would describe myself as committed to ESOL learners, and the field of ESOL generally, and interested in their development both in English and in their wider lives.

It doesn’t hold because to teach anything you need to be interested in the thing you are trying to get people to learn. You need to have an understanding of the thing you are teaching, which implies that at some point you have to engage with learning, or gaining sufficient understanding of the thing. You can get away with it to an extent, as I have with maths, but the cracks start to show really quickly under the slightest pedagogical pressure. That pressure could be behaviour issues, for example, or even something as simple as forgetting that 27 isn’t a prime number. I’ve been on a hiding to nothing since that particular mathematical faux pas, yet my cock-up with lie and lay I could quickly gloss over because I have the knowledge of and confidence in everything English-y to compensate for it.

This works both ways, as well. There are many people in post-16 learning, for example, who go into it for noble reasons, but don’t have a particular interest in the subject. They simply want to help. Which is terrific, and I applaud their motives, but they need to think of something to teach. ESOL especially suffers from this, particularly since the removal of specialist qualifications, and the increased reliance on a voluntary sector. People assume that since they can speak English, they can teach it. Sometimes there is a natural knack for teaching that emerges, perhaps combined with really perceptive reflection skills, but this isn’t often the case. You need to learn how to teach the thing you want to teach, and you need to learn what it is: the desire to teach on its own is not enough.

Ultimately, “I don’t teach subject, I teach students” is one of those false dichotomies so beloved of those who want teaching to be a simple process. I teach English to students. The two things are part of the same thing. I want to empower and help my students as much as I can, but by far the best thing I can do for my students is not teach them subjects in which I am personally  and professionally unqualified,  but to teach them English. You need to be interested in both things, not in the cheap division of one or the other suggested by the trite mission statements of an educational gimmick merchant.



  1. Once again Sam well put. I actually said a year or 2 into teaching ESOL. I came for the love of the students, now I am falling in love with my language all over again. I can remember way back in year 8 (3rd year in my day), my English language teacher getting really excited about teaching it’s and its….and I just didn’t get it. Now, I can be in the middle of teaching a new and complex (for me) area of grammar when I suddenly have a lightbulb moment whilst teaching it and along with the students I squeal oh yes! I get it! Do you get it? And when we get it together its like magic…..

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