What becomes an English teacher?

As I have been working with pre-service teachers at the Faculty of Education at Monash University, I have had many occasions to think about how one becomes an English teacher — and keeps on becoming throughout a career. With all the talk about ‘professional standards’, measurable skills, and accountability on key performance indicators, it is easy to lose sight of the deeply personal process of making a commitment to a teaching career.

‘Becoming’ has a neat double meaning that is pertinent to these thoughts. There is the process of becoming; this implies an emergence or an ongoingness, in which the one who becomes is also an active collaborator in this coming into being. There is a curious combination of agency and shaping of what was nonetheless incipient.

There is the other meaning of ‘becoming’, which means fitting, apt, correct, suitable, appropriate and, hence, attractive or flattering.

Plenty of commentators, politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and even statisticians have their say about what they think is ‘becoming’ in an English teacher. But what is really involved in becoming an English teacher? And how do English teachers continue to grow and develop their practice?

The complex dimensions of becoming an English teacher were explored recently in an assignment in which the pre-service teachers critically examined their own experiences as English students in secondary school. They were asked to zero in on one or two critical incidents in their own journey through secondary school and to explore these memories for what they indicate about the values and practices they were exposed to as students. What values about English teaching were apparent, on reflection, in how these prior teachers went about their work? These formative influences have a crucial role to play in the practice of subsequent generations of teachers. Dan Lortie’s idea of an “apprenticeship of observation” (Lortie, 1975) has helped develop our thinking about the impact of early exposure to pedagogical models. To raise consciousness of these influences helps us be mindful of what we might wish to pass on, and what we may want to jettison in favour of other approaches — perhaps more in tune with current conditions for young people. This is the double nature of education — some of it is about passing things on, and some is about making it new.

Every subject discipline has within it a whole worldview of what counts as a knowledge claim, what is credible as evidence, and what we should focus on in our search for new knowledge and ideas. For English teachers, this entails thinking reflectively and with increasing nuance and awareness of what constitutes that indeterminate terrain — subject English. In the popular view, English teaching is largely about skills, communication, and reading: grammar, spelling, and studying poetry and novels. But how unproblematic are even those categories, really, when we think about them in the context of digital media, many ‘Englishes’ across the world, and how we use language differently for different contexts, audiences, and purposes?

What is most striking about the current moment in education is that we tend to focus on students’ discrete, testable skills. We have NAPLAN and all the machinery that accompanies it — automated marking and MySchool. Right now, teachers all over the country are coaching students in years 7 and 9 in how to write a persuasive essay with clear, unambiguous outlines about what meets the criteria of this text type. Of course, one could argue that NAPLAN is just a once-a-year event that has little to do with the rest of the curriculm. Or, one could argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with teaching students how to write an off-the-peg persuasive essay, we are not all Don Watson or Helen Garner after all. But its presence, given how closely it is tied to school reputation, inevitably has a shaping influence on how we conceptualise the business of English teaching and what is ‘becoming’ in English teacher practice.

I will use a memory to frame what a want to say about this, just as the pre-service teachers were asked to do in their recent assignment.

One of the critical incidents in my memory of being a student in a secondary school English classroom was in Year 12. The lesson was in a music room that was, after the municipal theatre we used for drama lessons, my favourite. It had a piano in the corner, a sound desk that linked to speakers mounted on the walls, fresh carpet tiles and clean, cream paint. It was, by far, one of the nicest rooms in the school and the product of a special grant just a few years before. I had had many happy hours in there being taught by inspired music teachers and it was one of the bright spots in my school experience.

But we were not there for music that day. We were mustering in this room for the first lesson of English after the term break. For homework we had been set the novel by Jennifer Johnston, How Many Miles to Babylon? Only six of the 25 students in the class had actually read the novel over the holidays. It was lyrical and, despite its brevity, fairly oblique, requiring some knowledge of the Irish struggles and the First World War to really make sense of it. In other words, we had not a clue.

Our teacher polled the opinions of those who had read it and asked us to rate it for the rest of the class. We lined up (all six of us, it was a measly queue) with one end of the room indicating a 0/10 score for the novel and the other indicating 10/10. I gave it the most generous mark at 6.5/10. The other readers rated it at 4 or 5.

“Why so low?”, our teacher asked.

I liked the writing, but had found its melancholy atmosphere and air of tragedy opaque. (Naturally, I did not use this language at the time. I probably said that it was beautiful, but sad and hard to understand.) Had I known the historical and political context, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more. Unfortunately, two of my reading peers started in about a scene towards the end of the novel where one of the characters gets serious hypothermia and he and the protagonist strip naked and lie together in bed.

Hypothermia. Two men. Naked. In bed.

All hell broke loose in the classroom. The boys asserted that they were not going to read a book about “a couple of homos”. I protested their reading of the reported scene. I was irritated by their reaction, which was typical of that place and time, but prejudiced and still annoying.

To my dismay, our English teacher then said something like, “Well, in that case, with it being so unpopular, we will do Educating Rita again. How does that sound?”

We were going to study the same text we studied in the first part of the course. Again. We were not going to have a choice of what text to write about in Part A of the exam. We were going to read the 80 odd pages. Out loud. In class. All. Over. Again. Oh. And watch the film. There was a film of that text, but not the other one.

I was furious. I did not want to write on Educating Rita in the exam. The Jennifer Johnston novel was clearly more challenging, but I could tell that there would be lots to write about if we only got into it. It was beautiful and sad and I wanted to know about why the two young men in the tale could not be friends. And I did not like the way the teacher did not challenge the homophobia, the anti-intellectualism of some rowdy boys, but instead used that as an prompt to not teach a significant portion of the year 12 English course. (On reflection, her response also flew in the face of Willy Russell’s argument in his play.)

So here’s the thing: would a focus on skills such as grammar, spelling, punctuation and persuasive devices address the student attitudes that were on display on that day? And was it only a failure to adhere to ‘professional standards’ that marked that incident? Since that time, AITSL has codified scores and scores of proficiency standards for what teachers should be able to know and do. Of course, the standards as such did not exist in that time, but my intuition is that it was not a lack of discrete technical capabilities that motivated my teacher’s response. Rather, it was something deeper, right in the grain of her teaching. And I, in turn, felt deeply at odds with it all that year.

This was ethos stuff, stance. I had a saxophone teacher who was scant with praise and never satisfied until I had practised and practised difficult bars and all those semi-quavers lightly danced. But when I pulled it off, he would nod, taciturn and say, “Not bad.”I knew that he was after the best I could give, and, as a result, I was more than happy to work for what my best could be.

By contrast, what my English teacher seemed to be doing was the pedagogical equivalent of underarm bowling. And I can only guess that she did this because she came to her practice thinking that that was what we needed, what was good for us.

This incident marks a significant memory in relation to my practice. I felt so let down that day, so limited by a stance I did not agree with. Since then, I myself have become an English teacher. I have an outlook that it is my job to make challenging but worthwhile texts accessible to my students. I don’t like to bowl underarm to them. I want them to keep going, keep practising, until I can nod and say, “Not bad!” And they can feel good — about a genuine achievement.

English is a broad discipline. Among its concerns are the ways in which, yes, skills, but also imagination, insight, leaps of the unexpected, language in all its richness and textured felicity coalesce into new meanings. It is no accident that one of E.M. Forster’s catchphrases was “only connect”. In English classrooms we are seeking connection — between each other, between the past and the present, between the givens of our lives and the lives and meanings we are trying to create. In these respects, it seems to me that the focus on meeting discrete performance indicators, while an exercise with some benefits, imports a value system and epistemology into English (and a host of other disciplines) that is actually alien to it. It is not that cut and dried. There have been times for me when reflecting on professional standards, especially subject-specific ones, has been an occasion to think about my practice and how I might develop it in new directions. But I don’t pretend that I am a disinterested technician merely applying the correct procedures to a clearly defined problem. I am bringing a host of complex values, commitments and hopes into the classroom with me — as are my students. We meet in that space, grapple with language and texts and where we are coming from. We sometimes fail to meet in that middle space; sometimes we disagree, or students are disengaged, despite a school’s best efforts. We are, after all, dealing with complex free agents.

This open-endedness is captured for me in a statement by Douglas Barnes that my colleagues at Monash have referred to time and again:

“When people talk about “the school curriculum” they often mean “what teachers plan in advance for their pupils to learn”. But a curriculum made only by teachers’ intentions would be an insubstantial thing from which nobody would learn much. To become meaningful a curriculum has to be enacted by pupils as well as teachers, all of whom have their private lives outside school. By “enact” I mean come together in a meaningful communication—talk, write, read books, collaborate, become angry with one another, learn what to say and do, and how to interpret what others say and do. A curriculum as soon as it becomes more than intentions is embodied in the communicative life of an institution, the talk and gestures by which pupils and teachers exchange meanings even when they quarrel or cannot agree. In this sense curriculum is a form of communication.” (Barnes 1976: 14)

Doug Barnes cover

References:

Barnes, Douglas. (1976). From communication to curriculum. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Lortie, Dan. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

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2 thoughts on “What becomes an English teacher?”

  1. Amazingly written. Thanks, Fleur. I feel fortunate to have you as a mentor, and I hope that we will stay connected through our communities of writing and teaching far beyond the semester. I can only hope that I will one day be able to communicate my ideas as artfully and reflect as critically as you have done here.

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