I have been a teacher by trade for 12 years and I have always considered myself to be a passionate historian, eager to pass on my love and enthusiasm for history to my students; pupils and parents alike would always comment on how enthusiastic I was about my subject. However, it turned out that I was somewhat of a fraud. I espoused the skills and abilities required of a historian and made sure my most independent students read around the subject. They were supplied with curated reading lists and I rewarded them when they used their wider reading in discussions, in their responses and in essays. At the start of my career, as an NQT, I relied on the reading I had done during my own degree. I could name drop Kershaw, Lee & Muhlberger into a lesson to demonstrate my in-depth knowledge of the subject. It became apparent, though, that my knowledge was a fixed entity. I was relying on the same voices, the same works and the same dusty corridors of my mind year after year. I spoke to my students about how rich and vibrant history was, but I wasn’t demonstrating this through my own actions: my own knowledge was static.
I knew I wanted to change and read more but the life of a teacher can make it difficult to ring fence time dedicated to subject knowledge development. The demands of planning, teaching and marking can be all consuming. I have witnessed dear friends leave the profession because of how much of their life it consumed. My transformative moment came when I joined Twitter. Through social media I connected with other history teachers who shared my struggle and it was during this time that Andrew Sweet and I decided to create the History Teacher Book Club (HTBC).
Our plan was simple: use the camaraderie of a book club to enthuse ourselves to read more scholarship. We would discuss the book on Twitter to share insight. What has followed has been a dramatic increase in the amount of history teachers collectively reading works of historical scholarship and introducing these ideas into their lessons. I have selected three of the earliest History Teacher Book Club reads to demonstrate the dramatic impact they have had on me as a teacher.
The first was Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd, which covers the primary accounts of people that visited Germany in the inter war period. Having specialised in this period thorough various degree modules, I felt confident I would already possess much of the knowledge and this would merely serve as a ‘refresher read’ for me. How wrong I was. Boyd’s style of giving the outsider’s view of the events in post war and Nazi Germany offered brand new insight. Seeing Hyperinflation through the eyes of the British ambassador’s wife, Lady D’Abernon, showed how those with outside sources of income were able to view the economic hardship remotely. There were the views of spectators at the Munich Olympics and the revelation that W.E.B Du Bois, Civil Rights legend, had spent time on sabbatical in Germany. The discussion of the book fizzed with more of these revelations. It enlivened a topic that lots of history teachers believed they knew so well. I realised that this book was perfect for teaching this period of history as one of the hardest things to teach and most often asked questions is “what was it like to be in Germany under the Nazis?” This book gave me the tools to guide students, as tourists themselves, through the Third Reich in a way I and never been able to before.
Our book choices have sometimes caught the crest of a wave. We read Black Tudors at a time when the whole history teaching community were getting acquainted with Dr. Miranda Kaufmann’s brilliant work. She has gone to great lengths to engage with our community and work with teachers to create lessons around her work. We were fortunate to welcome Dr. Kaufmann to our discussion about Black Tudors. Her work skilfully demonstrates just how diverse the past is and reinforces that my own experience of learning history had been hugely one-dimensional and flat. The fact that it is the Tudor period has meant that we can now teach a familiar, if overtaught, period of English history from a fresh perspective. Characters like Jacques, Diego and Mary Fillis allow us to teach The Mary Rose, Drake and Tudor life with a wider array of voices.
The History Teacher Book Club choice of The Five has been the most dramatic in changing me, not just as a teacher but with regards to my outlook in general. We read Hallie Rubenhold’s book before it was rightly showered with awards. I had studied Victorian crime and completed my dissertation on the newspaper reporting of the Whitechapel murders so, once again, felt I was on familiar ground; once again I was wrong. The Five revealed the lives of the five women who share a common killer and removed the blinkers that I had been wearing for my whole academic life. Their lives tell a rich story of Victorian England. It has changed how I view this period and left me ashamed that I ever taught a lesson that focussed on crime scene photographs or autopsy reports, giving a dehumanised view of the five victims.
Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets is exactly the kind of book that works for all teachers of History and, although it isn’t a HTBC pick, I want to include it as an example of just how important it is to delve into and explore the world of scholarship as a classroom practitioner. It covers a broad sweep of history that is often covered at Key Stage 3. I have taught it for years but never really knew much about the kings in depth. The genius of Jones’ work is that he develops the theme of kingship and dynastic succession at the macro and micro level. He deftly places each king in their own contexts but also shows the weight of living up to the title of a Plantagenet king. I’ve now totally reworked our unit on medieval England to cover far more events and give pupils an understanding of the challenges of kingship.
If I could meet my NQT self I would tell him to spend as much time reading about history as I did planning and marking. I have made more advances in the quality of my teaching in the last two years than the preceding ten years because I have a richer, more varied and increasingly diverse foundation of knowledge upon which to build schemes of learning, lessons and activities. Whether it is through joining the History Teacher Book Club or forging your own path, I hope my experience has convinced you to give it a go.