A Passion For Classics

Classics teacher and Reading alumna, Rachael Hopley, talks to CONNECTED about following your passions and the joy of not having life completely figured out.  

Rachael’s career has been characterised by trusting her instincts and seizing every opportunity that crosses her path with both hands. Her commitment to pursing the things she loves has led her to land her dream job as the only classics teacher in a Suffolk comprehensive school. 

Learning at Reading

A self-confessed nerdy child who loved telling people what she knew, her interest in teaching was confirmed during her time studying classics at Reading, where she was offered a wealth of opportunities beyond the course which helped shape her career path.

“Reading was the making of me. It made me who I am today.”

These opportunities, within the local community included the chance to teach Latin to a home education group at The Ure Museum, tutoring a student from Kendrick Grammar School and joining a University-wide scheme where students assisted in secondary school classrooms. 

Helping in history lessons at Bulmershe comprehensive school, Rachael witnessed first-hand the power of an inspiring teacher as she brought the subject to life for a diverse group of Year 9 students. She used the theme of conspiracy theories in relation to historical events, like the moon landing and the sinking of the Titanic, to inspire her students. From this, Rachael quickly realised the potential of finding creative ways to engage pupils with a subject that they might have otherwise dismissed as boring or irrelevant.   

Bringing classics to life

During her subsequent post-graduate teaching training at Cambridge, Rachael worked in two very different schools – the prestigious Norwich School and Freman College. Certain by now that she wanted to work in a state school, Rachael was able to leverage the combination of her academic qualifications and varied work experience to secure her first teaching position at the Thomas Mills High School in Suffolk, near her family home. 

She describes it as a “comprehensive with a grammar feel” and “an amazing place to work”. Far from feeling out on a limb as the only teacher of classics at the school, she relished the chance to do things her own way and attributes her independent spirit to her time at Reading, where she was allowed the flexibility to blossom as an individual. 

As the lone champion of classics at the school, but with a highly supportive teaching community behind her, Rachael saw her opportunity to become an expert in her field and has cultivated a deep understanding of the curriculum as a key member of The Association for Latin Teaching.

As well as enjoying the rewarding experience of teaching GCSE and A-Level Latin to groups of very motivated and hard-working students, Rachael also relishes a new challenge she has taken on recently; that of using classics teaching to help two Year 8 groups with the hope of improving their literacy. Although this has been a challenge, many students have taken the teaching on board and are showing real progress in reading and writing by engaging with classical tales. 

Indeed, as the subject matter goes, the sex, scandals and violence from many ancient myths can be used to good effect when trying to pique interest among more reluctant students. Rachael recently began a lesson by showing images of the naked goddesses from The Judgement of Paris.

“I used ‘censored’ stickers to cover the goddesses more indecent body parts. That morning, the Year 8 pupils sat up and took notice…”

As well as being able to share her own excitement about classics, Rachael’s favourite things about teaching are building strong relationships with her pupils, helping those who are struggling and seeing the impact of her teaching in action. One student was even inspired to write the lyrics to his music composition in Latin after attending Rachael’s classes. 

“My first year as a teacher was the hardest as some of the pupils saw me as more of a peer. Now that I am an established member of staff, it’s becoming easier. Being a young teacher has its advantages though when championing a subject like classics, as pupils might usually dismiss it as old and stuffy.”  

Rachael is a firm advocate for the relevance of ancient history in the modern world. She explains that classics illuminates modern life and is an important grounding and analytical influence. She points to modern parallels, comparing how President Trump came to power with the rise of Julius Caesar. The success of another twenty-first century phenomenon, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, is based in part on his family’s classical expertise, she believes. 

“The high level of discipline that you achieve through studying classics is very valuable in business. You gain perspective, creativity and strong analytical powers. Your brain is disciplined to logical thinking and problem-solving.”

Never one to rest on her laurels, Rachael is now doing a master’s in Education at Cambridge alongside her full-time teaching job. She relishes any opportunity to stretch her intellect and challenge her beliefs and ideas about teaching. She admits that she is so happy at Thomas Mills that she could see herself spending the rest of her career at the school, but that long term, she may consider a move to a comprehensive that doesn’t currently teach classics so she could start a teaching programme from scratch.

Choosing a career pathway

When it comes to today’s creative graduates, Rachael recognises that they can feel a lot of angst about not having a set career path marked out ahead of them, but she would reassure them of the beauty of an arts degree.

“There is too much emphasis on having all of your ducks in a row at a very young age, but we all get there in the end.  It is very easy to dismiss courses like English, history and classics as a waste of time and money, but they equip you with a broad range of transferable skills like critical reasoning, problem solving and communication.”

Rachael attests that many of the peers she is still in touch with from her classics course have taken an indirect route into their current careers and all love what they do. They have successfully pursued a range of different paths with one studying for a master’s in Librarianship, one working in marketing, another in accountancy and one former course-mate now designing jewellery inspired by stories from the ancient world.

Rachael says: “I wouldn’t change a thing, if you do something you love at university, you will reap the benefits in the long-term.”

Find out more about the courses on offer at our Department of Classics.