How to Build a Classics Department (From Scratch)

My school must have been seriously annoyed when I told them I wanted to teach Classics. I'd been hired two years previously as an English teacher, and it must be annoying when a member of staff says, "You know that thing I was hired to do? Yeah, I don't want to do that now."


They were more than graceful, and I chatted with my HT about ambitions expanding into the mid-future, after which she gave me a handful of periods to teach Classical Studies to some of our S6 pupils, and then to build from there. From small acorns, to use a cliche.


We're now in our fifth year offering Classical Studies at Monifieth High School, and the opportunity to study it has been taken by nearly two-hundred pupils from S3 to S6, including Nationals 3, 4 and 5, and Higher.


Along the way, I have sought advice from teachers in both the private and state sectors, from university tutors, from the SQA and from some of the leaders in other subjects in my own school. I cannot stress with enough strength the importance of talking to colleagues in the subject (which is why we decided to set up this site).


Aside from learning the course content and assessment structures, it has also been necessary - and I increasingly feel this is the key aspect of getting the subject into more state schools - to promote the subject and give it a visibility. Bearing in mind that almost no pupils in my school really knew what Classics was, it was a matter of banging on endlessly about it at any given opportunity. Bit of etymology in English. Bit of a spiel to a cover class. Five minutes at an assembly. Wall displays. Competitions and prizes. A Twitter account. Parents' evenings. A lunchtime club. Let the class name your new dog. Engage in a pointless Origami War. Anything, anything, to say the word "Classics" out loud to people in the school.


Then, once we were up and running, there was the trip to Italy. The following year we were scheduled to do a tour of Greece (did you hear about that Covid thing?) and I'm already looking at a jaunt down to Vindolanda this session. I knew that I had to offer the pupils something memorable, something out of the ordinary, so that word of mouth might start doing some of the work for me.


It has been hard, I can't say it hasn't. But, ye gods, the return makes it worthwhile.


The classes are incredible fun, and I often learn nearly as much as the pupils. It has given me memories I will hold dear all my life.


But if you're going to try it you're going to need the support of your senior management, and in that I have been phenomenally lucky. Without having a Head of Department and Head Teacher cheering you on in your enthusiasm, it is going to be tough. Schools have budgets and staff shortages and a million other demands which make the introduction of a new subject difficult.


However, there is a tangible benefit at the SLT level. Another subject gives pupils greater choice, and could alleviate pressure on other subjects come course-choice time. Do not underestimate the value of having a highly-motivated teacher doing something they love, either. We have all seen those teachers who are going through the motions, and that situation doesn't benefit pupils or staff.


Throughout this journey, I have been helping other state schools across Scotland to start offering Classics in one form or another. My list now shows fifteen with whom I have shared resources, advice and gifts of books. This has come entirely from my pocket, but paying-it-forward is currently the sine-qua-non of Classics. We must share and look out for each other simply to arrest the decline.


And, by marvellous coincidence, it is also the right thing to do.


P.S. You can absolutely bet I'm trying to turn a lunchtime Latin club into a full-blown class.



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