Understanding Sheila | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
Scene from An inspector Calls

Understanding Sheila

Students use the character of Sheila to further understand the interplay between identity and choices, before going on to analyse Priestley’s presentation of Sheila in Act One.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

lesson copy


English — UK


Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About this Lesson

In the previous lesson, students were introduced to the concept ‘Universe of Obligation’ and used it to consider the behaviour of Mr Birling in relation to Eva Smith. Students also began to explore the consequences of being left outside of an individual’s or community’s universe of obligation, focusing their study on workers’ rights in a debate. 

In this lesson, students will analyse the character of Sheila to further their understanding of the interplay between an individual’s identity and choices, whilst also considering the influence that power can have on one’s decision-making process. It is important to consider the power that someone possesses because when someone is in a powerful position, the choices that they make can have a great impact on the lives of others. Power in a society is often distributed according to particular features of identity, such as class or gender. A society’s biases towards certain features of identity over others can provide some people with more power than others. As people often share and reflect the biases of the societal structures in which they live, people with power may choose to act in ways that exclude or mistreat those with identities that society is biased against. Ensuring that students are aware of this subtle and complex interplay between identity, values and power is vital if they are to challenge not only individual injustice, but also structural injustice. 

Next, students will be given the opportunity to draw connections between the character of Sheila and themselves, not only reflecting on the relationship between their own identities and choices, but also considering whether or not power plays a role in their social interactions with others. Such reflection will encourage them to consider how the topics they explore in the classroom are relevant to the world outside of it, and will help them view themselves both as agents of change and as agents whose actions have consequences with repercussions beyond their own lives. 

After reading more of the play, students will build on the work they have done in previous lessons regarding inferences, claims, relevant evidence and annotation. First, they will consider how to use evidence from the text effectively to support their claims, making links to the sociohistorical contexts of the play, if relevant, and then they will analyse Priestley’s presentation of Sheila in Act One in a formal piece of writing.

The activities in this lesson refer to pages 16–26 of the Heinemann edition of An Inspector Calls.

  • Analysis (Lit-AO2, Lang-AO2)
  • Application of Contextual Information (Lit-AO3)
  • Clear and Coherent Writing (Lit-AO4, Lang-AO5/AO6)
  • Critical Reading (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO4)
  • Critical Thinking (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Evidence-Based Reasoning (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)

Students read the play both for comprehension and to engage critically with the themes and content, thinking about the interplay between identity, values and power through the character of Sheila. Students then prepare to write an analytical paragraph by identifying claims that can be made about the presentation of Sheila, by selecting appropriate evidence to support these claims and by developing their ideas for effective analysis; such a process requires evidence-based reasoning. This includes the identification of rich words or phrases to analyse in depth and the consideration of relevant contextual information. Having done this foundational work, students then write a short analytical paragraph. Teachers are encouraged to review these paragraphs to give students either verbal feedback or written feedback using the Marking Criteria Codes strategy. Doing the latter will enable teachers to correct any issues regarding the structure and content, as well as any errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation, which will help students become effective writers. Additionally, the use of discussion and writing throughout gives students the opportunity to verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs. 

Learn more about this unit’s Alignment with GCSE Specification.

What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?

  • How does our identity impact how we treat others and the choices that we make?
  • Why is it important to consider the role that power plays in our social interactions? 
  • How does Priestley present the character of Sheila in Act One of An Inspector Calls?
  • Students will identify how Sheila’s identity influences her behaviour towards Eva Smith.
  • Students will discuss the role that power plays in our social interactions.
  • Students will analyse Sheila’s behaviour in the first Act of An Inspector Calls and write an analytical paragraph discussing Priestley’s portrayal of Sheila.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 8 activities
  • 4 teaching strategies
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 3 handouts
  • 1 extension activity
  • 1 homework suggestion

Sheila Birling’s abuse of power in relation to Eva Smith highlights the power that came with class and wealth in Edwardian England. It is worth keeping in mind the fact that although both characters are women, and, therefore, regarded as inferior to men, Sheila is protected by her position in society in a way that Eva, and women of her class, were not.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

The ability to analyse evidence is central to the study of English; students need to analyse texts and be able to form interpretations or conclusions. At the heart of analysis is explaining how evidence supports a given claim, but students may also need to develop their analysis by referring to relevant contextual information. When students are starting to analyse texts, it can be helpful to give them a set structure or framework to follow and to model the process for them using ‘think alouds’. Such an approach makes visible the many ‘invisible moves’ writers make and helps students understand what they need to do and how they can present their ideas.

We recommend that you use the Marking Criteria Codes when reviewing students’ written analytical paragraphs. This will help students to develop the structure and content of their writing, and their written English. They enable teachers to give each student in-depth feedback in a short amount of time and encourage student engagement with said feedback.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides.

The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Part I Activities

  • Explain to students that today they will be exploring how the choices we make are linked to our identity and experiences, as well as our perceptions of situations, but that the impact of these choices varies according to the power we hold.
  • Project the following two prompts one at a time and ask students to explore them in a journal reflection:
    • Identify a time when you felt that someone misjudged you. 
      • Where do you think this false impression came from? 
      • How did you react to being judged inaccurately?  
      • What was the power balance in this situation, and what impact, if any, did this have? 
    • Identify a time when you misjudged someone else. 
      • How did your false impression affect how you acted towards that person? 
      • What were the consequences? 
      • Where do you think this false impression came from?
      • What was the power balance in this situation, and what impact, if any, did this have on your decision-making process? 
  • Before having students apply the Think, Pair, Share strategy with a partner, acknowledge that it can be hard to share our ideas with others, and then model risk-taking by sharing something from your journal reflection about names with the class. Remind students that they don’t need to read aloud from their journals and only need to share what they feel comfortable conveying to their partner. 
  • After students have had a few minutes to share their ideas, discuss the following questions as a class:
    • How does it feel to be misjudged?
    • How does it feel when you realise that you have misjudged someone else?
    • Why do we sometimes misread situations and misjudge someone in the process?
    • What role does power play in how these situations unfold?
  • Tell the class that in this lesson, they will look closely at Sheila’s treatment of Eva Smith and consider the ways in which identity and power might have impacted her decision-making process. 
  • Before reading the next section of the play, as a class, start to create an Identity Chart for Sheila on the board, asking students to copy it into their books. Prompt students to use what they know about her from pages 1–16 of the play. They may wish to include quotations from what they have read so far to explain their views.
  • Assign five students different reading parts and have them take their relevant props from the prop box. You will need students for the following roles: Sheila, Birling, Inspector, Eric, and Gerald. 
  • Read the section from ‘Sheila has now entered’ (bottom of p. 16) to when Sheila runs out (top of p. 21). You may wish to arrange the classroom so that you have a mock stage at the front, so students perform the scene to the class. 
  • After students have read this section of the play, ask them to make predictions about why Sheila ran out and what they think she did to Eva. Students can share these with their table or with the class.
  • Then, continue reading the play to the end of Act One on page 26. 
  • After having read this section of the play, project the following questions and ask students to discuss them with a partner. Then facilitate a class discussion to enable students to share their ideas: 
    • How do features of Sheila’s identity impact her interactions with Eva Smith?
    • What features of her identity give her power over Eva Smith? Why is this problematic?
    • When Sheila learns about Mr Birling’s treatment of Eva Smith, she states, ‘But these girls aren’t cheap labour – they’re people’ (bottom of p. 19). How does her statement here clash with her treatment of Eva at Milwards?
    • How does Sheila change in the course of the scene? What factors might account for this change?
  • Working in pairs, have students use a different coloured pen to add to Sheila’s Identity Chart, again justifying new words or phrases to describe Sheila’s identity with quotations from the text. The use of different pens enables students to keep better track of how her character changes across the first Act.
  • Give students the chance to discuss the following questions with their partners and then lead a class discussion:
    • Do you like Sheila’s character more or less now than you did at the start of the lesson? What makes you say that? 
    • Have features of your identity ever allowed you to behave in a way that you have regretted? If so, how? How did power come into the situation?
    • Can you think of any examples in society when people have been mistreated on account of their identity? Who holds the power in these situations?
  • Time allowing, end the lesson with a quick wraparound in which each student chooses one phrase to summarise one of their key takeaways from the lesson.

Part II Activities

  • Explain to students that they will be analysing the character of Sheila in further depth, thinking about what Priestley’s portrayal of her suggests about her as a character. 
  • First, explain to students that they need to write down at least two claims concerning Priestley’s presentation of Sheila in Act One of An Inspector Calls and one piece of evidence they could use to support each claim.
  • If needed, you can provide students with one or two of the following example claims to get them started:  
    • Priestley presents Sheila as immature
    • Priestley presents Sheila as protected
    • Priestley presents Sheila as prejudiced
    • Priestley presents Sheila as considerate
    • Priestley presents Sheila as perceptive
    • Priestley presents Sheila as insecure
    • Priestley presents Sheila as powerful
    • Priestley presents Sheila as changed
  • After students have had a chance to gather their two claims and two pieces of supporting evidence, ask some students to share their ideas with the class. Challenge them to explain why their evidence is relevant.
  • Ask students to select one claim and one piece of evidence to support their claim for this next activity.
  • Explain to the students that to analyse how their evidence supports their claim, it is useful to first annotate the evidence, identifying any words or phrases to zoom in on and/or thinking about whether or not the evidence links to the sociohistorical context. Doing such a process can also help them identify the sorts of quotations that facilitate rich, in-depth analysis. 
  • Then, project the PowerPoint slide to display the example annotation, or model an annotation of a quotation on the board, thinking out loud to highlight your annotation process. You may wish to use the questions below to guide your verbalisation of the annotation process. Please note, it can be particularly useful to discuss what sorts of words and phrases are appropriate to zoom in on with students.
    • How does this piece of evidence support my claim? 
    • Is there a word/phrase that I can analyse to support my claim further? 
      • What does this word or phrase mean? 
      • How does this word or phrase support my claim about Sheila?
    • Is this evidence relevant to the sociohistorical context of the play, either when the play was set (1912) or when the play was written and first performed (1945)? If so, how?
    • Is there anything else that stands out about this evidence? 
  • Ask students to follow the same process with their chosen claim and its piece of supporting evidence by analysing their evidence in their books.
  • Circulate while students work to check in one-on-one, offering individualised support where needed.
  • Next, explain to the students that they will be focusing on developing their analysis with the aim of writing an analytical paragraph about how Priestley presents Sheila in the first Act of An Inspector Calls
  • First, give students the Developing Analysis Grid handout and ask them to fill in the sheet using their annotations to help them. 
  • You may wish to project the PowerPoint slide with an example to help students and/or to complete the process from scratch as a class on the board, fielding ideas from the students.
  • To differentiate the activity, you also could provide students who need more support with partially complete handouts, with some of the columns filled in. You may also ask more able students to analyse two claims by completing both rows.
  • Once students have completed one row, explain to them that they will now be writing a short analytical paragraph. First, model writing your own analytical paragraph on the board, using the structure below, explicitly explaining your thinking through a ‘think aloud’ and/or taking ideas from the class. You may want to write a model using a different character or using a unique claim to ensure that students do not copy what you write.
    • In Act One of An Inspector Calls, Priestley presents Sheila as. . . [insert claim]
    • When [insert when/what occurs], Sheila states [insert quotation] 
    • This quotation suggests Sheila is [restate claim] because. . . 
    • The use of the [word/phrase – select a phrase to zoom in on] reinforces this idea because. . . 
    • Priestley’s presentation of Sheila links to Edwardian England because. . .
  • Finally, give students the Sheila Analytical Exit Card handout to complete. Students could also do this exercise on separate paper or in their books, but if they do the latter, ensure that they hand in their work to you at the end of the lesson so you can assess their progress. 
  • You may wish to give students an opportunity to review their analytical paragraphs at the start of the next lesson. One way to do this is to take note of the common successes and the most frequent errors or confusions you encounter when reading the exit card paragraphs. Then, at the start of the next lesson, you can give students the opportunity to identify one success and one error that apply to their work, and then ask them to correct the error in their books. Alternatively, you can mark and give students specific feedback using the Marking Criteria Codes sheet. If you choose not to mark these paragraphs, it is important to collect the exit cards and read them so any confusions can be addressed directly with the students themselves.

Extension Activity

To deepen your student’s understanding of Sheila’s character and emerging understanding of the consequences of her actions, have students consider the first scene from her point of view. Explain to students that they will now do a paired writing task, in which they will write from Sheila’s perspective. Ask each student to write a question they want to ask Sheila at the top of a page. Tell the students to then swap papers/books with their partner and answer their question to Sheila in writing. After a few minutes, ask the students to stop their writing and write a new question before they pass their responses back. Students then read the responses to their first question, and respond to the next one, swapping books/papers once more when the time is up. This activity can be done in larger groups, where students sit in a circle and pass their papers to the left each time.

Homework Suggestion

If students are unable to finish the paragraph in class, set it for homework and collect it at the beginning of the next lesson. If they are able to finish the paragraph, then you can give students the Character Map handout to complete for homework to enable them to reflect on and better understand the character of Sheila.

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