‘Even Michael McIntyre never had to perform for 6 hours solid,’ says Fran Hill, author of new book Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? released tomorrow, 21 May. But can teaching really be that hard?
Charting the life of a secondary English teacher over the course of an academic year, the book is testament to the patience, resilience and humour of those who choose to enter this most noble, though often maligned profession. If you teach, it will have you nodding with recognition. If not, it will give you a fascinating glimpse into a world necessarily shadowy and often closed to those outside it.
Lucky enough to have reviewed a pre-publication copy, I can tell you this memoir is tender, warm, honest and very, very funny, a kind of fifty-something Bridget Jones Diary meets Adam Kay’s This is going to hurt.
But the book is more than a laugh-out-loud, affectionate dance through the joys and frustrations of working with wayward kids and crazy colleagues. Fran Hill shows how different versions of ourselves, forged in childhood, that most pervasive of identities, can rear their heads again and again as we witness the agony and ecstacy of being young. Particularly when not all of our memories are good ones.
Stuck at home during Lockdown and actually missing school after 50+ years in class, child and adult, this book was a welcome reminder for me of the best and worse of our school days. Fascinated by her experiences of secondary teaching, different to my primary ones, I interviewed Fran about the book and her motivation for writing it.
You’ve been keen to market this book as a memoir, and I’m wondering how you would define that? Also, how true is it, in terms of factual content?
I’ve been careful to say that it’s an account of a ‘typical’ year. So, I’ve taken all my memories of different educational settings, classroom events, teachers and pupils, and metaphorically thrown them in the air, letting them come down thoroughly jumbled up. This was necessary to protect the innocent, or perhaps the guilty. I did set the story in 2017-2018 so that term dates and world events that I mention could be consistent.
The world of teaching often seems quite ‘closed’ to those outside it, which is partly what makes this book so appealing. Why do you think that is?
It’s frustrating, isn’t it, that often people don’t understand what being a teacher is really like, but I suppose the same applies to doctors, cleaners, professors and the staff in Tesco. Until you’ve done the job, your perceptions will be skewed. That’s something that reading can do for us: introduce us to other people’s worlds. I also think that because most people have been to school themselves, they believe they know the world of school. But, as all teachers know, the picture from the other side of the desk is different! I think of teachers as performers, sometimes on stage for six hours a day, without much break, and with frequent hecklers. That’s a big ask.
The hilarious and frustrating interactions with both kids and colleagues, make the job sound such a mix of highs and lows. Are you still teaching? Why/why not?
I taught for 16 years in a range of educational settings. This is the first year I’ve worked entirely from home, combining English tutoring with writing to earn my keep. To be completely honest, a drop in personal confidence contributed to my leaving the classroom setting – it takes massive resilience to hold on to your philosophy for teaching despite the constraints of ‘the system’ and I decided to try autonomy for size. I may go back to the classroom. On the other hand, now the book is out, I may never get invited!
How true to life are those funny stories about the kids?
They are so true to life, it hurts. Kids are flipping hilarious and joyous, often unwittingly so. It’s what I miss most about the classroom, although the pupils I tutor can be pretty funny too. But that’s not quite the same as being in a room with 30 kids and not being able to keep your poker face because of their antics. One line in my book is, ‘It’s hard to punish the funny.’
The glimpses into the personal life of the character in your book, for different reasons, are riveting. How true to life are these? And how do you think a teacher’s personal life and background can impact their work with young people?
These glimpses are the most ‘factually true’ parts of the memoir and they crept in almost unbidden while I was writing. What I thought was going to be a funny account of the teaching life turned into something more, perhaps because the writing of it coincided with my growing interest in childhood trauma from both a professional and personal viewpoint. I see the book now as an exploration of how one’s past life impacts on the present. Also, I am interested in the way pupils perceive their teachers; it’s hard for them to see their educators as human beings sometimes – people with hurts and angst and scars who struggle to maintain confidence or belief in themselves because of previous experiences. On the flip side, an awareness of trauma and its effects can help teachers to see their pupils more humanely, too, and I think education is catching up with this now.
In your opinion, what could be done to make teachers’ lives more manageable so that great teachers like you (don’t argue!) remain in this incredibly valuable profession?
I believe the fundamental answer is: let them teach. Like many other public service professions, you start doing the thing you love, and for which you applied for the job, and soon you’re drowning in other unrelated tasks that restrict you from doing it properly. It’s easy to lose confidence and believe you’re a poor teacher when, in reality, it’s the fault of the system and its unreasonable demands, often in the service of nitpicky accountability and league tables. I’d better stop this answer before I burst a blood vessel.
What is your most memorable experience as a young person at school yourself?
I bunked off for a day with my friend, Jackie, when I was 15, but my foster dad, wise to my antics, turned up at Jackie’s house by break time and drove me into school. I was not happy and, once at school, refused to change out of my jeans into school uniform. The deputy head put me in detention for the rest of the day. My Geography teacher sent me stacks of work to do on Isambard Kingdom Brunel and I learned a lot about his bridges. I’d like to say I retained the information but don’t push me on it.
What do you think teenagers, troubled or otherwise, look for in a good teacher?
Teachers often get advice about how to run classrooms so that pupils with special needs can cope: calm presentation, firm rules, consistency, fairness, clear explanations, patience, etc. I always think, surely that’s what all pupils prefer. Added to this, they like teachers who clearly love their own subject, have a sense of humour, and can apologise when they know they’ve messed up. It’s very powerful if a teacher can say, ‘I’m so sorry. I think I made a bad decision there.’ Troubled teenagers especially are looking for adults to trust.
How easy/hard was it to write this book?
I did much preparation, filling in an entire teacher planner just as I would at school. I planned what lessons I’d be teaching to which classes, when I’d be on duty, when there’d be meetings, parents’ evenings, school events etc. This gave me the bones to put the flesh on. What I did find difficult at first was capturing the ‘diary-style’. I was breaking all my own rules about how to write in grammatical, complete sentences and it pained my teacher heart.
What would be your message to other writers about how to successfully attract a publisher for your work/
Do your research, scouring publishers’ websites for their preferences and tastes. Follow any submission guidelines to the letter. Never send in work you’ve rushed off – they will always notice, and you’ll have wasted that opportunity. Bear in mind that big publishers accept only agented writers, so indie publishers can be more accessible. Get involved on Twitter: the writing community is generous. Don’t take rejections personally; I never do. (That last sentence contained a lie.)
You can read my pre-publication review along with others here
The book is available to buy from a number of outlets including amazon from Thursday 21st May