Updated: May 9, 2020
For many budding scholars, their love of Classics all began in the classroom. The after-school clubs, the thrill of that one memorable Roman Day, the history lessons of glamourous empires gone-by. If you were lucky enough, there were probably school trips to your closest ancient site: be it Fishbourne Palace, Bath Spa, or even the ruins of Caerleon. Such experiences would not be possible without the wonderful teachers and organisers that allowed such inspiration to blossom. Their adoration of the ancient world and their dedication to nurturing the next wave of new classicists is admirable and inspirational in their own right.
The path to becoming a teacher is one of many twists and turns, with enthusiasm-charged highs accompanying stressful lows. The opportunity to teach a topic you adore to the next generation could sound to some like a dream come true, but to others the nerve-wracking prospect of navigating a post-academia job market can match or even supersede the joys of teaching. It’s tough to apply oneself in this way, but it can be rewarding nonetheless. Sharing one’s knowledge of the ancient world can give you just as much intellectual stimulation as you are offering your students – it really is a two-way relationship.
Teaching may not be for everyone, and there are certainly daunting hurdles ahead, but everyone’s path is unique. Here to discuss her own journey through teaching is Dr Cora Beth Knowles, an Associate Lecturer of the Open University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
When did you first become interested in Classics?
For me it was always all about the books. For Christmas, when I was seven years old, I didn’t want a bike or a scooter – I wanted my own dictionary. My family had very little money, so presents tended to be second-hand or home-made; but that year my parents bought me a brand-new little leather-bound dictionary with my initials embossed in gold on the cover. That sealed my fate!
In some ways I never really did become interested in “Classics” as a separate subject; I simply stayed interested in books, and it gradually dawned upon me as I grew up that books existed in languages that weren’t English. I became fascinated by Roman literature in particular, and over time that became my focus. I learned Greek to read Homer, so that I could understand Virgil better!
These days I’m interested in lots of different aspects of “Classics”, from Augustan literature right through to Rome-themed verse novels of the nineteenth century - but the books remain central. I have a tremendous admiration for classicists working with other sources and in other ways; but I’m still just as much a bookworm as I was when I was seven!
What made you decide to teach?
I didn’t exactly decide to teach; the decision was made for me! When I was an MA student at university, I was informed by my Head of Department that a comprehensive school in my home town was looking for someone to run an after-school Latin club. He looked at me expectantly; it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the job was mine. It was my town, after all, and I was its sole postgraduate Latinist. The fact that I didn’t want to teach, had no experience of teaching and was petrified at the mere thought didn’t appear to be relevant.
So, I did it. It was scary and difficult and unfamiliar, and for a while I hated it. It didn’t help that I was only 21, looked much younger, and wasn’t naturally authoritative. One day I made the mistake of wearing an outfit that was similar in colour to the school uniform, and a teacher shouted at me for being in the staffroom. I apologised and scurried away!
I had to learn quickly, through trial and error – but eventually I realised that I was enjoying myself. The kids were so eager and so full of questions that the sessions were driven more by them than by me; and I learned that for me, the way to feel comfortable with teaching was simply to concentrate on sharing the things I loved.
I started to teach Beginners’ Greek at university while I was doing my PhD. That was when I started thinking that maybe there were ways to approach university teaching more creatively. I began to use some of my school-teaching strategies at university: bringing in props and toys, staging performances, emphasising characters and contexts along with verb tables and comprehension. I started to look around for help and suggestions from teachers in different situations. And in a move that defined my future career, I enrolled at The Open University, to study for a Masters degree in Education alongside my PhD.
I fell in love with The Open University during those three years. The modules, the flexibility, the opportunity to study whatever I liked without anybody telling me I couldn’t – it all suited my magpie interests. And so, when I finished my PhD in Classics at the same time as my MEd in Education, it was the most natural thing in the world to apply to teach at the OU.
What is your goal?
My goal was always to read everything and learn everything – preferably while wearing slippers and eating chocolate in the comfort of my own living room. That still sounds pretty good to me. I don’t like the rat-race of academia and the pressure it brings. I’m not looking for promotion or a better job, because those come with expectations. Instead I like to take on extra projects that look like fun – things that are innovative or creative, or which open up Classics to a wider audience.
I would like more job security though. I’ve been ‘precarious’ for fifteen years, on yearly contracts which may or may not be renewed (often with very little notice), and which don’t run through the summer. The tension never really goes away. However, the OU – very much against the current trend of HE institutions - is moving towards giving its casual workforce more permanent contracts. It’s a huge shift in the institutional culture, and a very welcome one for many thousands of employees.
Have you come across any obstacles whilst teaching from home?
So many obstacles! Teaching from home is not for everyone. It’s very difficult to set barriers between ‘work’ and ‘home’, the way you would in a more formal workplace. Also it can be very difficult to project an image of professionalism when you’re surrounded by children’s toys!
A particular problem is that I have to work a lot of evenings and weekends, because that’s when people are able to attend tutorials. That means there’s never really a time when I’m not working. It makes it very difficult to switch off, and a non-work evening often has to be a conscious decision.
Despite its challenges, teaching from home has been a lifesaver for me. My son, when he was small, had a lot of problems and needed me around full-time; and if I’d had any other job I would probably have had to give it up to make time for all the appointments and therapy. I was lucky that I could fit my work around giving him the care that he needed. It was a difficult few years – but I was able to be a full-time carer and keep my job. I know a lot of other distance learning tutors in tricky family situations who find the flexibility of distance teaching invaluable.
Do you have any advice for people who want to look into teaching?
Try it out! And try it in different contexts, until you find one that suits. Volunteer to help out in a school; ask a lecturer if you can do a guest-spot in one of their lectures; set up a club for kids, or a short course for adults. Most people don’t really know how they feel about teaching until they try it. In my case I found that I much preferred teaching adults. I’m still not particularly authoritative and having to control a room full of teenagers gives me a headache! With adults, teaching feels more like a sharing of information and views, and that sharing often goes both ways. I learn just as much from my students as they do from me!
Teaching – unless you plan to go down the formal route of getting a PGCE – isn’t always a clear career path, and if you want to take it, you often need to make it happen for yourself. So, don’t wait for an engraved invitation! Go out there and look for opportunities to get your hands dirty, and see what comes of it.
Cora Beth Knowles is an Associate Lecturer in Classical Studies with The Open University, teaching adult distance learners from home. She studied at Newcastle University for her first three degrees in Classics, culminating in a PhD on Tacitus, before moving to The Open University where she obtained three more degrees in an assortment of subjects. She is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and has recently been awarded an Excellence in Teaching Award for her development of the independent website https://classicalstudies.support