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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On dressage and teaching

During my adolescence I was a horse enthusiast. I read, thought, daydreamed, imagined and played at being with horses and learning about horses. Naturally, I wanted to ride horses, and, eventually, have a horse of my own. Both of these wishes came true, thanks to my parents, who first sent me to riding lessons provided by Miss Tunbridge, and then stumped up the cash for a near-retirement galloway (14 – 15 hands) that an American friend who was moving back overseas had to sell. Before she returned to the U.S. this friend also introduced me to the world of riding that extended beyond the offerings of Miss Tunbridge’s classes. My friend competed in gymkhanas and one day events and her bedroom was festooned with ribbons and sashes from her victories. Sometimes I would go with her to these all-day affairs that began the day before with washing and preparing the horse, and went from pre-dawn dark to dusk the following day. Through her I was introduced to dressage.

Dressage has a certain beauty to it. The horse and rider work together to perform a routine in which increasingly difficult moves are completed with the maximum elegance and finesse. I learnt that the routine was set out beforehand and judges assessed each horse and rider on how closely they approximated a ‘perfect’ rendering of this sequence of moves. Many of the manoeuvres originated from warfare in which horses were required to act with dexterity and grace and sometimes with deadly precision on the battlefield. But in the dressage ring, these moves had become abstracted from these muddy and bloody origins to become a performed dictionary of all the movements a horse and rider can do in a ring. It is perhaps as close as horse riding gets to ballet.

I liked dressage – to a point. I would practice the moves on my friend’s horse in her home’s training area. I learnt a lot about riding by submitting to the discipline of dressage. She would teach me the moves and then I would do them over and over and over again. For hours. It was like practising a difficult bar in music.

Sometimes I would join my friend at her pony club (I did not belong). On these days, my friend would kindly loan me her horse so that I could compete in some events and have the experience of being part of that world.

But there was something about dressage that, over the years since, has come to emblematise for me a certain approach to other endeavours quite unrelated to equestrian sports. It is a world that proposes perfection as something to strive for and something that is pre-determined and defined in advance, existing in the abstract. The job of the horse and rider is to match this glinting and distant vision of a perfect performance with their own iteration of the routine. I never rode long or seriously enough to go beyond my initial experiences, (university and a move to more urban climes intervened). On the whole, I preferred cross-country and trail riding. But during those gymkhanas and one day events, I would linger, propped against the wood or steel of a fence or gate, and watch with curiosity as the senior riders competed in their elaborate routines. That there was skill and discipline and grace was unarguable. And yet I also saw something else. It was the idea of perfection, the pre-determined moves and routines, the judges with their score sheets, the stylised moves of the horse, the way in which actions once integrated into a purpose and context had been recontextualised in the show ring, performed for the sake of being judged. And so, when I watched the senior riders I saw what it takes to formalise a field into a discipline that can be worked up into a high degree of skill, taught, and passed on; but I also saw the potential tyranny of such an approach.

This double sidedness of dressage in my youth I have seen again in recent debates about teaching, particularly ‘quality teaching’. Dressage is fine — as dressage. But there are other ways to ride, situations in which to apply the criteria and judgements of the scoring sheet would be wrong and beside the point.

Similarly, when we talk, as we seem to be doing so much nowadays, about ‘quality teaching’, there is a sense that some of us have a score card, and a bunch of routines they would like to see performed. Such a vision of teaching breaks it up into a series of discrete, highly specialised ‘moves’ that can be abstracted from their origins or any messy situation in which they might be used for any real purpose. Hence we have efforts to mandate the same basic lesson plan, with the same opening moves, development moves, and concluding moves across entire schools. Hence, we have this idea that teaching is ‘perfectible’ and that if teachers only learned to finesse their routines enough, student learning would suddenly take a great leap forward. And hence, we have the logical extension of this outlook, in scripted lessons, and ‘teacher-proof’ curriculum that positions teachers as ciphers for knowledge and pedagogy developed elsewhere.

Meanwhile, actual classrooms full of actual kids present a densely textured, constantly emerging situation to which a teacher must respond with empathy, flexibility, imagination, inventiveness, tact and will. Nothing conjures the phrase, ‘heaving with humanity’ quite like a Year 8 class on a Friday afternoon.

My feeling is that these actualities are not amenable to the logic of ‘perfection’ that holds (or, to my inexperienced eyes, seemed to hold) in a white sandy equestrian arena. Teaching is riding in rugged terrain, with unpredictable weather, tight rations, and, for many, antique equipment. Doing dressage may help you learn the moves, it may help you develop skills and some insight into techniques you might deploy in certain situations. Dressage can be good. It has its beauty and its art. But knowing how to use which move when in authentic situations? Putting it all together? Doing what the moment demands? That is where professional judgement kicks in – where the accrued knowledge and insight of past teaching and learning experiences becomes a repertoire, a deepened practice. And, alas, sometimes professional judgement commits an error. But would an off-the-rack lesson plan be any better?

How else, beyond the language of performance and standards, might we talk about the development of teachers’ expertise? Where is the role of reflection and reflexive inquiry into practice? What part do imagination and creativity play? Is teaching just doing a standardised series of things defined by the role – or does specialised knowledge contribute something crucial? How do we mediate between routines and standards on the one hand, and the need for teachers to have enough professional autonomy to be inventive and responsive to the needs of their particular students on the other?

These are some of the questions I have been prompted to ask and explore in my initial foray into teacher education. My mentors have done a good job of prompting and prodding me, but like all really rich questions, things now seem even more complicated than they did before. Teachers work in a policy environment that, increasingly, seems to be using the logic of the dressage score sheet. But, as any of us knows, the irreducible complexity and realness of classrooms, students, teachers, and schools, offer a ready resistance to reductive scripts for teaching practice. They exceed all boundaries laid down in neat little routines. For this very reason they also, potentially, offer fertile ground for other accounts of teaching, other ways of shaping the role and our imagination of it.