How to get the most out of your online tutor

Online tuition is potentially life-changing; transcending geographical barriers, it can connect your child to the perfect provider. Since the experiences that we all endured during lockdown in 2020 and at the beginning of 2021, I have found that everyone is suddenly on board with online tuition. I rarely meet a new client who doesn’t think that it’s a viable option, this is dramatic contrast to what I found even as recently as 2019.

I am a cautious technophile, who places high demands on technology to work pretty much “by magic” – I don’t like wrestling with equipment and I get mightily exasperated when I have to. Yet with the kind of apparatus and software that so many of us have access to these days, I have been delighted to find that the technical hassles are minimal.

However … (you knew there was a “however” coming, right?) … there are certain pitfalls to online tuition, some downsides compared to face-to-face tutoring, which parents and guardians should be aware of. Happily, they are largely avoidable with a little bit of planning. Never forget: you’re paying for a service, and tuition with an experienced, qualified teacher doesn’t come cheaply. Don’t let the fact that you access online tuition in the comfort of your own home lull you into taking it that little bit too casually, or you may well find you get a poor return on your investment.

Is your equipment up to the job?
For online tutoring, there’s no escaping the fact that you will need reliable, fast internet access: this is a must. Whatever software your tutor chooses to use, they will be talking to your child in real time on the web – this is very demanding on whatever service you are using, so a poor WiFi connection or painfully slow broadband will scupper the session. Use this speed test to check whether your service is up to the job: click “Go” and wait for it to measure the speed. If your either your download or your upload speed is less than 5-10 Mbps then you might have problems: remember that online tutoring is a conversation, two people talking over the internet in real time, so the speed simply has to be there in both directions. If a clients is experiencing a temporary slow-down (it happens to a client I have in Cornwall on occasion) I suggest turning cameras off, which although not ideal does usually enable the conversation to continue.

You need to think about how your child will communicate with the tutor. Integral cameras, microphones and speakers are usually fine, but experiment with supplementary equipment if your child struggles to concentrate – students wearing headphones, for example, often find it easier to avoid distraction and focus on the session. Speaking of focus …

Session location: is your child in the right place?
Aren’t iPads wonderful? Many of my tutees access tuition via an iPad or similar tablet, and the advantages are obvious. However, don’t let the freedom that an iPad offers you detract from the fact that your child needs a quiet place to concentrate. If you’re having a conversation, cooking or hoovering in the background, not only are you distracting your child but you may cause noise interference to the extent that the tutor will really struggle to hear them. If your child is wearing headphones, that will help them to zone out the sounds around them but the same will not be true for the tutor – most microphones will pick up a great deal of extraneous sound, and the effect can become close to unbearable for the tutor if people are talking or using household appliances in the background during a session. 

Ideally, your child should be in a quiet room where they won’t be interrupted by noise or curious siblings. You may wish to be present while your child is being tutored for safeguarding reasons; this is fine, but you should prepare to do something quiet such as reading book. Alternatively, and if the only reason you wish to be present is for monitoring, you could consider recording the sessions – many of the platforms used by online tutors allows for this option.

There has been some recent anxiety on social media re. the safety of Zoom and similar platforms. The package works on closed meetings and the only way that an unsolicited third party could join a meeting is if the link to a meeting is shared online. If your tutor shares the link for each session with you and you alone, there should be nothing to worry about, but you should talk to your tutor about their safeguarding policy. Personally, I only use the “recurring meeting” function with adults; with minors, I schedule a unique Zoom link afresh for every single session with every single child. While this creates a little extra admin at my end every week, I believe that it is worth it in order to mitigate against the risk of a reusable link being accidentally shared with third parties.

Session timings: is your child ready?
If your child finds it difficult to get out of bed, you will need to think carefully about how to manage a morning session. I have tutored students on a mid-morning that have clearly just rolled out of bed; dazed and groggy, they are not even close to being fully awake and this means (of course) that their focus is poor. So, even if your child is entering that inevitable phase when wake-up time becomes something of a battle, do try to peel them out of bed well before the session is due to start, allowing time for them to have a shower and something to eat. They then have a fighting chance of their mind being on the tuition session ahead, not still under the duvet.

One of the great joys of online tuition is the time that it can save you. Some clients that are near enough to me to come for home tuition have still opted to go online; I am based in a heavily-populated area of Surrey and the reality of rush-hour traffic can turn even a 5-mile round trip into a potential nightmare. Online tutoring can open up a wider range of possibilities when it comes to time: take advantage of this and make it work for your child.

One final thing …
Your child is smart! They know that an online tutor’s field of vision is significantly limited compared to a tutor that’s in the room with them. So what do you know? They may well try to use their phone during the session, or to access other apps or websites on the machine they are using. So, especially if your child is currently preoccupied with a particular game or social networking app, do make sure that they leave their phone with you for the duration of the session and do check that they have closed down all their other apps and messaging services.

Image by Jé Shoots

felis cattus

From rat-catcher to prized pet?

Clients and followers of mine cannot help but be aware of my two cats, who make regular unscheduled appearances on a whim. These two characters are not the first cats I have owned and I strongly suspect they will not be the last. I am a huge fan of all animals, including dogs, and understand the benefits of dog ownership. But for me, the effort versus reward ratio when it comes to owning a pet really peaks with a cat. They let themselves in and out (it’s okay, they’ve got their own keys). Broadly speaking, they look after themselves and they certainly do what they fancy. They hang out with you if they want to but not if they don’t. In many ways, they show us all how life should be done: on your own terms, with no stress and no angst.

The Epicureans were a group of ancient philosophers who argued that the purpose of life was not so much the pursuit of pleasure (they weren’t hedonists in the true sense) but rather the avoidance of distress; one of their many radical philosophical positions was that the gods exist purely as a model for how to live – they exert no influence over human life and take no interest in it, since their existence served no purpose other than to demonstrate how “the good life” is lived. For me, this model is embodied in the domestic cat. And yes, we do worship them don’t we?

The familiar domestic cat, or felis cattus to give its official Latin name, is descended from the wild cats that went through a gradual process of taming, first in the ancient Near East and then later – and perhaps most famously – in Egypt. It is believed that a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and cats started to develop in the near East around 9,000 years ago, when wildcats began frequenting farm buildings to prey on the rodents that were attracted to grain stores. However, cats did not undergo anything like the level of human intereference that we see in dogs, meaning that their breeding was not as selective and the varieties of cat nothing like as broad. I sometimes look at a Great Dane meeting a small terrier when out on a walk and genuinely wonder whether they recognise each other as the same species. But your kitty is not much different from its ancestors. Researchers have extracted mitochondrial DNA (passed down the maternal line) from feline remains that came from Viking graves, Egyptian mummies and Stone Age sites. We can trace our domestic cat all the way back through the line.

A second wave of domestication happened in ancient Egypt around 4,000 years ago. Cats then spread to Europe during the Roman era so, as I never tire of reminding my students, we have the Romans to thank for bringing us cats (along with apples, pears, grapes, turnips, carrots, peas, cabbages, chickens, wine … etc etc etc). The Vikings then spread cats even further, with Egyptian cat DNA being found in a Viking port, suggesting cats were carried on maritime trading routes to northern Europe. But why?

Well, cats were probably taken on ships to help protect the supplies against rodents. While it is thought that some cats may have been moved around as a result of lucky (or unlucky?) raftings, most academics believe that evidence is strong for the deliberate use of cats as a means of pest control. They certainly weren’t taken as pets.

The Romans in particular liked cats for their efficiency at catching rodents. Cats were indeed so good at it that the Roman army took cats along with them on campaigns to safeguard their food supplies. Rats also chew on wood and leather, which made them a threat to Roman armour and equipment, so to prevent loss of food, damage to crucial apparatus and to combat the spread of disease, cats were a secret weapon for the Roman army. I like to think that they were also appreciated as companions for the soldiers, but I’ll place a bet that this is a fantasy.

The Romans did also regard cats as worthy of mythical symbolism, not least as a result of their admiration of all things Egyptian. Cats were the only animals allowed inside Roman temples (I mean … have you tried stopping one? The Romans were a pragmatic bunch, if nothing else). Cats were thought to embody independence and freedom and the Roman goddess Libertas is often depicted with a cat. There are several tales of goddesses, most notably Diana, transforming themselves into cats, a divine ability that I envy immensely.

Interestingly, at Pompeii, the number of cat bones from excavated deposits is relatively low, and no cats are among the casts of creatures discovered in the town. It has been suggested that in this provincial town, destroyed in AD 79, there was perhaps not yet a fashion for keeping cats as pets, though it had already taken off in Rome. Despite the relatively small number of remains, there are depictions of cats that survive in the remains at Pompeii, including two mosaics in the House of the Faun, which are pictured within this blog post.

Much greater numbers of cat bones are found in later archaeological deposits in Roman Naples and by the mid to late 4th century AD, the presence of cat bones from excavated sites throughout the empire shows that cats had become a common feature of Roman domestic life.

A final amusing snippet that I have unearthed just goes to show what a right royal fool the Elder Pliny was. Apologies if I am offending any Pliny fans here, but honestly: for a man who supposedly spent his time making observations, he really was phenomenally dense. In his Natural Histories, Pliny has the following suggestion for how to use cats to protect your grain supplies: “mice are kept away by the ashes of a cat being steeped in water and then thrown upon the seed, or alternatively use the water in which the body of a cat has been boiled.” Okay, Pliny. Ever thought about making use of the cat while it’s still alive to catch the little blighters?

No? Okay, then. Go ahead and boil it.

One-to-one tuition

What is the benefit of working one-to-one with a student, and why does it trump group work every time? This is a question I have been pondering this week, as I listened to two podcasts aimed at private tutors, both released on the same day, both making the case for tutors like me to make the shift into setting up groups for online tuition. The podcasts were great. The group tuition model? I’m not so sure.

With the explosion of online tutoring into what amounts to one of the fastest-growing corners of the gig economy, I find myself and my recent career-change somewhat on trend. As usual, however, I also discover that I am swimming steadfastly against the tide. Well, thank goodness for that; being in the zeitgeist is definitely not something I’m used to and I’m more of a heckler than a celebrity.

Many online tutors are expanding their businesses into groupwork, to the extent that some are abandoning the one-to-one tuition model altogether. The reason seems obvious; as one parent pointed out to me when they first got in touch to seek help for their daughter, I could make a lot more money if I worked with several students in each slot. This does, of course, rely on there being a high-enough demand for a certain kind of tuition at a particular level: to be frank, in my rather niche subject – taught in only around 2.5% of state schools – I am not sure that’s ever going to be the case. I do have one group of three, which arose because a parent contacted me directly with the request that I work with three children of the same age who were all ab initio and wanted to learn together: in that circumstance, with three friends at the same level who are all keen to start a new project together, the model works very well and I’m enjoying it. But with remedial tutoring (by which I mean the process of supporting a student who has come to you because they are struggling), I have serious doubts. Firstly, I doubt that demand is high enough in my subject but secondly – and I am still idealistic enough to say more importantly – I do not believe that group tuition is a good model when it comes to making that kind of difference to an individual child’s progress.

One of the absolute joys in switching from classroom teaching to one-to-one tutoring is the incredible privilege of taking a child from the bottom of their class to the top. Taking a child who is failing and turning them into one who can achieve the highest of grades. Taking a child who hates your subject and turning them into a GCSE candidate. Taking a child who has been hiding at the back of their classroom for so long that they need a huge amount of coaching and coaxing before they find their feet. One parent told me that their child was coming home in tears after their Latin lessons because they simply had no idea what was going on in the class and had no idea how to access the learning; after working with me, that child went on to choose the subject at GCSE and achieve a very good grade. One of the client reviews I am proudest of reads “you have turned despair and dismay into enjoyment and enthusiasm”. Another says simply “your lessons were transformational.” None of this could be achieved without the one-to-one model. I stand by that. I simply cannot accept that you can take a child who is failing dismally in a subject and get them a top grade without working with them closely as an individual. It’s what tutoring is all about.

I have written before about the power of tuition and the overwhelming benefit which comes from the opportunity to delve in and unpick a student’s understanding – or rather their lack of it. A good tutor will uncover a whole raft of small misconceptions or gaps in a student’s knowledge within the first session. I likened a student’s developing knowledge of a subject to a wall; students who come to a tutor for help have often got bricks throughout that wall that are either misshapen or missing altogether, causing the whole structure to be at risk of collapse. One-to-one tutoring diagnoses the problems, finds the missing bricks and provides the repointing, replacement and reinforcement required. No amount of rhetoric will ever convince me that the same can be done in a small group. Of course, small group-work is great and you can achieve much more than can be achieved with a class of 30; but it still can’t beat the one-to-one model.

Quiet students can often suffer the most in the mainstream classroom – they can fall behind without being noticed or can have enormous potential in a subject – again, without being noticed. A good tutor (and indeed a good classroom teacher) is an excellent reader of body language. I’ve thought a lot in my work about non-verbal cues, those tiny indications that an individual student can give off when they’re not following something – a twitch of the mouth, a furrow of the brow. In a one-to-one session, that’s my cue to pause and rewind and it’s an absolute joy to be able to do so. In the classroom, not only did I not have the time to respond to every non-verbal cue but the reality of a large class meant that I more than likely missed the majority of them. Due to a quirk of timetabling which I won’t bore you with, I once ended up with an extra Year 9 class of 5 students. Yep. Five. I had another group of 24 and yet another of 28 and one of 5. Ask the previous Head why that ridiculous situation arose. Of course, the children in the group of five progressed – on average – better than those in the two larger groups. But it still wasn’t one-to-one tuition and they still didn’t progress as well as they would have done had each of them – in some kind of fantasy parallel universe – had a good private tutor as well.

I have no desire to stand in the way of progress and if enough online tutors are finding that there is enough demand for small-group tuition in their subject and can get decent results with that model then good luck to them. For me – and this is perhaps because I have spent far longer at the chalkface than any other professional tutor I have met so far, I do not believe my heart will ever be in it. I came into tutoring in the sure and certain belief that the one-to-one model is absolutely unbeatable when it comes to building a child’s confidence, tackling misconceptions, breaking down the mindset that they “can’t do it” and launching them onto a new path of success.

For me, nothing else will ever be as rewarding as that.

mens sana in corpore sano

As a teacher, I never took any exercise – at least, not in the formal sense. I had a brisk 13-minute walk to work and back, I taught on my feet for most of the day and my classroom was on the first floor; as I am a naturally forgetful person, this led to a lot of racing up and down. According to my FitBit device, I was doing plenty of exercise – not always the golden target of 10,000 steps every day but hey, that arbitrary round figure was made up by the guy who invented the pedometer, so I’ve never taken it too seriously. On some days I did way more – 15,000 steps was not unusual if I met a friend in town after work.

According to my buzzing wrist-nag, I was really very active while I was a teacher. I completely smashed the daily targets of stair-flights and standing hours, as well as the minimum healthy amount of brisk aerobic challenge every day; I’ve always walked fast and never seen the point of dawdling either on the way to work or on the way home. All of this meant that for most of my life, exercise has been laid on as a part of my career and a part of my lifestyle; I simply didn’t need to think about it.

Now my lifestyle has changed I suddenly face the inescapable fact that I simply must start working some exercise into my daily routine as a discrete, deliberate activity – it no longer comes as a perk of the job. I’ve always done a fair amount of sitting on my butt during the summer holidays, so in my mind it was the start of September when this needed to happen, to mimic the return to active living that my job has always gifted me. But what should I do?

Well, there is a branch of Pure Gym just at the end of our road (as evidenced by the number of cars that drive down it in their pursuit of burning fossil fuel on their way to burning their own calories) but the very notion of joining a gym is anathema to me. I’ve probably seen too many episodes of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, but the horror of joining the hoardes of glassy-eyed, lycra-clad gym-goers and hooking myself up to a machine genuinely brings me out in hives. So, my solution is simple. I shall go out for a brisk walk – something between a yomp and a half-hearted jog – first thing in the morning. I may progress onto something approaching a gentle extended jog but I need to take that very cautiously – I tried running before, went way too quickly and my spine (which is in scoliosis) told me in no uncertain terms that I was a total idiot for doing so: without going into details, I’ve never experienced pain like it, before or since. Still, from all the reading I have done, there is no reason why a person with scoliosis cannot go jogging; we just need to take it very gently. Lesson learnt on that score!

Some days I make plans to go walking with a local friend, in which case I can combine exercise with a chat – always a good idea; recently, I have also been checking out some local retirement villages as a possible location for my parents to move to, and getting to those has been quite a hike at times. Sometimes I have business in town (fun things like dental work) and said town is a very decent 20-minute walk. On such days, when the regular irritation of being a non-driver means that walking is my only realistic option to get myself about, I may skip my morning blast; but on any other day, I have agreed with myself, the yomp is non-negotiable. Even – as it was this morning – in the rain.

Now this is the strange thing – I have always maintained that committing to exercise is a chore, something you have to do rather than something you want to do. It was with this mindset that I started the process. Yet, within a very short time and without any effort on my part, my mindset has changed. Exercise now feels like an indulgent act of self-care, something I feel genuinely privileged to have the time for. I have chosen a route that runs down the canal, which means viewing a stretch of water and some wildlife, which definitely improves the experience beyond that of pounding the pavement. I am honestly astonished how much I am enjoying it, how much it feels like an act of self-indulgence rather than a necessity. All of this, I am quite certain, is because I have time.

There is no end to the number of self-help books and the pages of online advice telling people to “make time for themselves” but the reality when you’re working full time – especially in a job such as teaching – is that time is at a premium. When I was a teacher, the very notion of finding time to commit to some exercise felt impossible (and indeed – given the very active nature of my job – unnecessary). Yet I am amazed how my mindset has changed since the start of my new career and how quickly something which felt like a tedious necessity has become a real joy. This morning – would you believe it – the rain increased that joy. For someone like me, who always walked to work, the rain has been nothing but a huge inconvenience in the past; but in my scruffy exercise attire rather than my work clothes, hair plastered down by the wet and make-up free, it felt genuinely joyful – a natural, wondrous experience and one to be treasured. This is the difference that time gives you. I had the time to go out in the rain for 45 minutes, because I had the time to come home, take a shower, change, fix my hair and do my make-up. When you’re stuck in the school building and under pressure to look at least vaguely presentable between 7.30am and 5.00pm there just never seem to be enough hours in the day to make that kind of mud-splashed frolicking a viable option.

Now I have the time, I feel like a child again.

WJEC or OCR GCSE specifications?

As a career-long devotee of the OCR specification, for various reasons it is time for me to get to grips with the Eduqas (WJEC) specification. I am aware that my successor at the large comprehensive I used to work in is going to switch to WJEC and given that A level Latin is no longer available in our area (unless you go private) I fully support his decision and would have taken it myself. For my own part I’d like to be able to offer support to students taking both specifications, plus a home-schooled boy I am working with now will – I believe – respond much better to the WJEC course.

Given my need to concentrate on the finer details of the differences between a specification that is new to me and one which I know like the back of my hand, I decided to focus my mind by writing up my findings in a blog post. There’s nothing like having to explain something in your own words to make one concentrate. This is, by the way, a recognised truth when it comes to learning: simply reading something or even taking notes from a source is unlikely to aid your understanding. Putting your source to one side and then trying to explain it in your own words has been proven to be a much more powerful way to ensure that you will remember what you are studying. This is because our memory is reconstructive rather than reproductive; memory works (and therefore improves) by continuously regenerating what it remembers, so forcing yourself to reproduce in your own words something you’ve read about is a challenging but effective way to ensure that your newfound knowledge will stick.

So, here are my findings. If you’re interested in the full range of qualifications available in all Classical subjects at all levels in the UK, Steven Hunt provides a really useful overview in a 2020 article for the CUCD, which is publicly available. He discusses the specifications available for A level, the IB and beyond.

General overview

A GCSE qualification in Latin and accredited by OfQual for use in English state schools is offered by OCR and by Eduqas, which is the examining body of WJEC accredited for use in England. AQA used to offer a GCSE in Latin but this was discontinued before the new GCSEs were launched in 2018. Both OCR and WJEC have shared criteria, which are dictated to them by OfQual: the number of examination papers (three) and the length of those papers, the minimum length of the literature that must be studied in the original Latin (around 200 lines), plus a choice between an element of prose composition or questions on grammar and syntax. There is no coursework or controlled assessment and the examination must be linear, not modular – in other words, it must be sat as a series of final examinations at the end of the course. Despite these prescriptions, the two examination boards still provide some considerable variation, which I examine below.

Compulsory language paper

The language paper, compulsory in both specifications, lasts for an hour and a half and makes up 50% of both qualfications. Both specifications have a set vocabulary list and both of them state that students will be tested through translation and comprehension, plus a choice between some grammar questiona and some short prose-composition sentences (for which there is a restricted vocabulary list and a restricted grammar list). Both boards test students’ knowledge of the accidence and syntax laid out in their specifications and this is where the differences lie: the demands placed on students by the WJEC language specification are notably lighter than those expected by OCR.

Both specifications call for a knowledge of all five declensions – in reality, this means a focus on declensions 1-3, as the words from the defined vocabulary list in the 4th and 5th declension are vanishingly few. Similarly, both specifications expect a knowledge of all forms of adjectives, including their comparatives and superlatives. However, there is considerable difference between the two boards when it comes to a knowledge of verbs and all their derivative forms: OCR theoretically demands the indicative forms of regular and deponent verbs in all voices and tenses except for the future perfect; in the subjunctive it requires the impefect and the pluperfect. WJEC, when it comes to the passive voice and deponents, demands only the present, imperfect and perfect passive and deponent verbs in the 3rd person indicative! I had to read this several times to make sure I was reading it right. So, no pluperfect passive and no passives of any kind in the subjunctive and they will only need to recognise passive and deponent verbs in the 3rd person. When it comes to the syntax, the basic uses of the subjunctive seem to be identical with the expectations of OCR.

Participles? OCR expect the lot, whereas WJEC do not list the future participle as an expectation. They also state – and brace yourself here, if you’re an advocate of the OCR syllabus – that the ablative absolute is not required. I am still reeling from this. No ablative absolute. I mean … wow. It goes on. Another shock came when I realised that WJEC only expect students to recognise the present active infinitive – no others. This means that their testing of the indirect statement will be very basic and the relevant rules for the sequence of tenses will be very easy to teach.

Other smaller differences in the expectations for the language paper remain, such as WJEC does not include malo in its list of irregular verbs, unlike OCR. Likewise, the verbs sum and possum are only required in the present and imperfect indicative, present infinitive and imperfect subjunctive for WJEC. These differences may seem minor but in reality it means that there is a massive stack of knowledge not required by WJEC. The fact that students end up with the same qualification does give me pause, and were I teaching with the aim of preparing students for A level then I would stick with OCR. However, with the removal of A level as an option in my local area then my successor’s decision to switch to WJEC is entirely correct: it would almost be madness to do otherwise.

Literature and culture: with options:

The boards differ further in the way they lay out their literature and culture papers. For OCR, candidates must be prepared for two out of the following three options, each worth 25%: prose set text, verse set text or Roman literature and culture in translation. This means that all candidates must study one text of around 200 lines in the original language, and many will study two. Personally, I always taught both set texts as I hated the vagaries of “just teach them some stuff about slavery/daily life”.

WJEC lays things out a little differently. Their “Latin literature: themes and sources” paper is compulsory and worth 20%. Teachers have a choice of theme but whichever they choose consists of a mix of both prose and verse texts in the original language. There is also some supporting material, which is designed to place the texts in their cultural context. For the final paper, worth 30%, teachers can choose to prepare their students for “Latin literature narratives”(basically more set text work, mostly in the original with some sections in translation), or they can choose the “Roman civilisation” element, in which students study some general themes and sources all in translation. Personally, I will be avoiding that for the same reasons as I avoided the cultural background paper with OCR.

A key difference in approach to the literature between the two boards is that OCR literature examinations are closed book, which means that the students need to know the texts really well – frankly, they need to know them off by heart. WJEC take a rather different approach by making their examinations open book, meaning that students are provided with a clean copy of the Latin text plus the vocabulary list. In terms of teacher preparation and school investment, the very fact that WJEC provide the the texts and the vocabulary online as a PDF download is in itself quite a revelation – OCR leave you to get on with it all by yourself. That said, there is no set translation provided, so teachers will still need to prepare their own working translation and/or one for their students.

I am keen to reach out to teachers who are more experienced in preparing their students for the WJEC literature as I am as yet unsure how much they feel their students should rely on the texts in the examination. Something I recall from doing open-book examinations back when I sat my A levels is that you really don’t have time to be looking too many things up, so in reality you still needed to know the text like the back of your hand. I am also not sure how much advantage it will give students when the text is all in Latin; surely they still need to know a translation really well, since none of them will be truly capable of translating real Latin on sight (especially if they haven’t studied the OCR language specification!)

So, my mission now is to do so and start making as many friends as I can with the WJEC advocates. I am looking forward to the process. I am also excited about the prospect of working with different texts and I like WJEC’s decision to include supporting material, which forces teachers to contenxtualise the texts for their students; OCR’s approach encourages robotic rote-learning, which always felt like something of a shame. So, calling all teachers of WJEC – where are you? I’d love to learn from you.

Happy New Year

tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis

For those of us whose lives are tied up with education, the academic year can be a far more powerful marker of the changing times than the winter solstice.

I have always found the gateway to January a strange thing to celebrate, yet the pressure you’re under to party like it’s 1999 on December 31st is relentless. Fast-forward 24 hours and suddenly everyone is on a detox, which is even more depressing: count me out on that one – as if January weren’t miserable enough! January is – without a doubt – the most intolerable month of the year. Long. Cold. Dark. Simply awful. One of my oldest friends has a birthday in the first week of January and she tells me it’s agony. Quite literally, nobody wants to know; everyone battens down the hatches and goes into hibernation when it comes to socialising. It’s a month to be endured, not enjoyed.

September 1st is the New Year for me – always has been. As someone who has never left education, my year has been shaped by the academic calendar for as long as I can remember. I left school for university, stayed there far longer than is decent and then went into a PGCE followed by full-time teaching. I have quite literally never seen the world when it has not been shaped by academic term times and academic holidays. So as the days start to shorten at the end of August, quite strikingly in that final week, it’s as if the world is preparing itself: ah yes, I think, time to sharpen the pencils and prepare the rucksack. Season of lists and hello brutalness: it’s back to the chalkface again.

This year, of course, feels somewhat different for me, and today is particularly symbolic. Today the local school I used to work at opens its doors to staff and welcomes them back for two INSET days prior to students returning on Monday: many schools across the country are following a similar pattern. For the first time in 21 years I will not be there. So what will I be doing? I have a couple of clients in the morning, one child who – like most – is not yet back in school plus a regular adult client. After that – and just because I can – I’ll be going into London to meet an old friend for lunch. Cheers!

I won’t miss the hard plastic chairs and the “vision” for the next five years. I won’t miss the results analysis. I won’t miss the overwhelming feeling that my time could be better spent preparing my classroom and writing my seating plans. I will miss the people, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging. I knew it would be this way: the price we pay for opting out of any system, for jumping off the hamster wheel, is a slight sense of wistfulness as we watch the other hamsters do their scampering. It’s still worth it.

For many teachers, the start of September is marred by anxiety dreams. Many teachers love their job, but this does not make them immune to feelings of apprehension when it’s time to go back to school. Six weeks is a long time away from a job which relies so much on performance and – like any performer – teachers are often plagued with self-doubt prior to their return to the stage. My most common recurring dream is being in front of a class which will simply not listen; I stand impotently at the front, wringing my hands, snapping at the children who either talk over me or laugh. There have been times when I have woken myself up shouting. Strangely enough (or perhaps it’s not so strange) I have still had a couple of these anxiety dreams this year; my subconscious has clearly not absorbed the fact that I will not be returning to the chalkface and is still convinced that I will find myself in front of a class next week; given that I still occasionally have an anxiety dream about completing my PhD – something which I did in 1999 – I’m not holding my breath for when these dreams will stop.

Teaching is a wonderful job in a thousand ways and while the end of the summer holiday was always a bit of a drag (as my husband puts it: fundamentally, work sucks) I did still look forward to the start of the new year in September. There was something wonderful about the fresh start and the preparation for the return of old students and the welcoming of the new. Each year I strived to do a better job than the last and each year – in incremental ways – I believe I managed it.

This year for me brings greater excitement though, as I step into my new guise as professional Latin tutor and start shaping my business for the academic year. The summer is a tricky time for tutors, with many families choosing to take the whole holiday away from the books; despite this, I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of work that has come my way, with several new clients booking in for summer booster sessions and others wishing to make a head-start on their studies for the new academic year. I have an encouraging number of new clients booked in from next week and my weekend slots are already close to full for the year – something I could not have imagined happening so quickly.

So to mark the beginning of the academic year I shall be raising a glass to my colleagues and thinking of the scores of friends I have stepping back up to the chalkface once again. Like me, many of them truly love it, but also like me, many of them have found the last couple of years the toughest since the start of their career. I hope things get better for them. I hope the press and the government cut them some slack for once. I hope OfSted don’t come calling until they’ve at least got into the swing of things once more. I hope they’re able and allowed to turn the heating on when they need it. I hope the students know how lucky they are.

Roman brutality

How much is too much for Year 7?

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have various issues with the new(ish) Latin reading course entitled Suburani. I’m not a fan of the way it approaches the grammar and the clients I have had from schools who have adopted it have all come to me in a state of bewilderment – they have little to no understanding of what they have been learning and their grasp of morphology is woeful.

One aspect of the course that I have found worthwhile – and what is attracting schools to it – is its portrayal of Roman suburban life. There is no idealism and no “whitewashing” here, no triumphalist focus on the easy lives of the wealthy Roman elite. Life is harsh and often desperate; the insulae offer filthy and dangerous accommodation to vulnerable families, a racket run by corrupt landlords on the take, men who are themselves frequently in debt to a wider system of corruption; some appear to be battling with a gambling addiction. There are beggars on the street. Most powerfully of all, we see the reality of how wonders of the ancient world such as the public baths were built and maintained: by slaves under the ground, soot-covered and scorched from the heat of the furnace, contaminated by their time spent in close contact with the sewerage system. Bravo, I thought.

And yet …

During my preparations for working with one client I found myself taking a closer look at chapter 6. The final story in this chapter is a continuation of one called fuga (“flight” or “the escape”), in which two slaves unfortunate enough to be working the fires underneath the baths make a desperate bolt for freedom, slipping out through the sewerage system by night. They are spotted and chased by dogs, which the guards send after them. One of them (named Gallio) is caught immediately and questioned; the other is caught a few days later. Below is a screenshot from the online version of the text book, followed by my suggested translation:

Screenshot from Suburani, fuga, pars secunda, at the end of chapter 6

The guards torture the slave for two hours. At the third hour, the guards take a branding iron out of the furnace. They bring the branding iron towards Gallio and mark his head. The pain is unbearable. There are three letters on his head.

For three days and three nights, Thellus runs. On the fourth day the slave sleeps in a field. At the first hour, two farmers see him. The farmers capture Thellus and take him to the guards. The guards smile. Thellus is terrified.”

Suburani, fuga, pars secunda, pg. 98

I have never been one to romanticise the ancient world, indeed many students have found my endless attempts to remind them of its disappointing realities somewhat irksome. It is not acceptable – I believe – to let them stare in wide-eyed wonder at Roman feats of engineering, without taking a moment to remind them exactly who did the back-breaking, life threatening, life-shortening work which made these structures a reality. I think it’s hugely important and I have done this throughout my career.

The fate of Gallio and Thellus is entirely authentic. Slaves of this type were of little monetary value and – another thing I like to point out to students – monetary value was a reasonable barometer of how a slave would be treated in the ancient world. Slaves used for unskilled manual labour were worth the equivalent of a few pence and were bought and sold in bulk. Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap. That’s the grim reality, I’m afraid. The recapturing and surrendering of Thellus by farmers also illustrates yet another thing that I like to emphasise: slavery was not an illicit trade exploited by an extremely wealthy minority who considered themselves above the law; it was the establishment, an integral part of the machinery of daily life, accepted and sustained by everyone, questioned by no one. Some of the most brilliant minds that sprung up in the ancient world, when they turned their philosophical skills to the question of slavery, overwhelmingly spent their time arguing in favour of it: some people are born to be slaves, said Aristotle, the father of the scientific method. In the ancient world, if you found a slave, you caught him, you handed him in and you pocketed the reward should there be one. Everybody – and I mean everybody – was complicit. The branding on the face? Standard punishment for runaways, so that everyone could watch out for them in the future. Barbaric? You bet. Never let anyone tell you that the Romans were civilised. Have I told children all of this in the past? Yes, I have.

Yet the story of Gallio and Thellus worried me, due to the very fact that empathy is so deliberately and so successfully invoked. I was shocked by it, even though I knew that this kind of thing happened to slaves with horrifying frequency. Would I want a child of mine to read and understand this story at the age of 11? I’m honestly not sure that I would. The stories in Suburani invite very young children to empathise with characters which are then subjected to lengthy torture. There is a fine line in teaching between asking students to acknowledge brutality and expecting them to process it on an emotional level. In our eagerness to break through the natural cynicism of modern youth, we should not forget that we are dealing with children; children who are indeed subjected to a 24-hour rolling backdrop of horror across the globe, thanks to modern systems of mass communication. It seems undeniable that we are facing a crisis of mental-health issues in teenagers, and I’m not sure that we should be quite so gung-ho when it comes to provoking their emotions in this way.

There will be many Classics teachers out there who disagree with me and I am keen to hear from those using Suburani in the classroom. Perhaps I will change my mind. But as things stand I am disquieted by its content and concerned that some children will be disturbed and distressed by this no-holds-barred approach. I believe that the truth can and should be told about the ancient world without what I see as a genuine risk of harm. Trauma is such an over-used word in modern education that I hesitate to suggest it, but I feel it’s appropriate here. Let’s not forget that our children are entitled to just a little bit of innocence before the world truly reveals itself in all its barbarity; we certainly shouldn’t underestimate their ability to grasp it, and I for one am not entirely sure I want them feeling the full weight of its horror at the age of 11.

On waiting

Most of the time I am glad not to have grown up in the 21st century. Not that I would have wished to have been born any earlier than I was, given my status as a woman – life was pretty shoddy for us girls prior to the 1970s. But when it comes to a 21st century arrival on this planet, I’m not so sure. So many things which I make extensive use of as an adult pose a threat to younger members of society – one poorly-worded social media message can land them in all sorts of trouble, one inappropriate image even more so. Yet if there is one thing which does makes me envious of those who are growing up in the new millenium, it’s how little time they have to spend waiting.

Waiting is torture when you’re young. The older you are, the easier it gets, not least because time seems to speed up with every passing year. Hurtling into middle age can feel like a white-knuckle ride. How did I get here so quickly? Just moments ago I was drumming my fingers, awaiting my A level results, teetering on the brink of adulthood, anticipating all that there was to come.

Whilst I attended school in the 1980s, the school at which I found myself was so old-fashioned, it may as well have been the 1880s. We wore cloaks. Parts of the school had no central heating. We stood up when an adult entered the room. We went to chapel. We wrote in fountain pen – no biros allowed. We were – prepare yourselves please, as this is a controversial issue in education – silent in the corridors. Thankfully, I was a day girl, but the majority of students in the school were boarders and the school revolved around that fact. The school day ran from 8am to 7pm and included time for “prep”. We also attended on Saturday mornings.

When it came to exam results, the fact that the school was designed around its boarders, many of whom came from far afield, meant that there was no Results Day; no students attended the school to collect their grades, the reasoning for this presumably being that many of them lived too far from it to make this practicable. So while the rest of the country received their exam results on the Thursday, we all had to wait 24 hours while staff at the school stuffed a whole load of pre-addressed envelopes and delivered our results to us via the postal service. We received them on the Friday.

The more I think about it, the more it seems frankly extraordinary to imagine myself being willing and able to wait an extra 24 hours to receive those exam results. One class-mate who lived a stone’s throw from the school ended up marching in there and demanding to see her results. I don’t know how keen they were to oblige, but they did eventually hand them over; it probably helped that she got straight As, something largely unheard of in the school at the time. But the rest of us waited patiently, as did our parents. No complaints. No whingeing. If you’d met the headmistress, you’d understand why.

This is the old library at the school in 1945. It looked exactly the same in 1985.
Same goes for the clothes we were permitted to wear in the 6th form. Seriously. If this
photo were in colour, I could have taken it myself.

It is hard to comprehend how different things are for students now, who receive confirmation from their chosen university at the same time as the results go live. It was only as I pondered this that I rememered how I found out about my degree result in the 1990s. Nothing was sent to me by post, but I had a vague feeling that maybe the results should have been finalised. In the end, tired of waiting, my father drove into the university to take a look at the noticeboard. And there it was. He then drove to the supermarket in which I was working to tell me the verdict.

But before I become too envious of today’s youth, I should remind myself how every year the mainstream media tear them to pieces and feast upon the fragments of their dignity when it comes to results time. Every year it gets worse and since 2020 it has been on a whole new level. Students have been told that they are told they are failures, that they are slackers, that they didn’t do “real exams”, that their grades are hideously inflated, that they won’t be recognised by employers – all lies. On the other hand our youngsters are fed a diet of hysteria, told that this year it will be “tougher than ever”, that universities “won’t have enough places”, that the world is in crisis and they will never be able to buy a house and, hey, we’ll probably all be dead within 50 years due to global warming anyway. You name it, our kids have had to put up with it. I think if I were a parent of an 18-year-old right now I would have taken them to a remote desert island with no WiFi, no television, no nothing until the whole thing was over.

Whatever results our Year 13s are finding themselves presented with this year, I am sure that they will face it with dignity. This year group have had it incredibly tough, missing out on the opportunity to sit their GCSEs, missing out on a significant amount of Year 11 and much of Year 12. On top of this insescapable reality, to have to deal with the sheer nonsense pumped out by news outlets that should frankly know better, seems intolerable to me. Yet they will deal with it and they will move on. So now I’m back to being envious. Off to university, off to start an apprenticeship, off to start life. How absolutely wonderful. Good luck to them. Their time is now and they deserve it.