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


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

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


Reflections on Reading Group Readings January 2015 – Kracauer and Benjamin

Diamond Sharp

The two readings for the Summer meeting of the Monash Literacy and Teaching Reading Group (a descriptive rather than ‘official’ title) were from Germany in 1930. One was an excerpt from Siegfried Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany. The other was an essay from Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”. They made an odd pair and, as I am not an expert on Marxist theory or dialectical materialism, they were at times dense. These reflections treat the two articles as provocations or openings for considering the place of ‘cultural producers’ such as writers and teachers.


The excerpt we looked at from Kracauer was “A short break for ventilation” which documented the author’s visits to newly modernised factories and workplaces in Weimar Germany. Kracauer treats his visits as excursions into what the modern workplace extols as ‘efficiency’ – a god that we still worship. The…

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Review – The Price of Privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. New York: Harper. 2008.

Diamond Sharp

book cover price of privilegeMadeline Levine’s book The Price of Privilege gives the non-professional a good overview of the problems besetting affluent teens with some compassionate and practical alternatives to their current predicament.

It is tempting to dismiss the psychological ill-health that seems to be hitting adolescents from privileged homes. Like the issues dealt with inOverwhelmed, it would be easy to disregard the problems explored here as just the sort of thing that wealthy people inflict on themselves. However, Levine’s book persuades us that we should take these problems seriously. Her argument is that teens are teens, after all, no matter what their background, and need mentoring into adulthood from trusted adults. What’s more, these teens in particular, are more likely to become the surgeons, politicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and leaders of the future. So, we want them to be resilient, moral, compassionate, stable, and capable of making positive contributions to their community…

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Review: Brigid Schulte. Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No-One Has the Time. Bloomsbury: 2014.

Diamond Sharp

Image credit: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/11/289018821/for-working-moms-key-to-balance-may-lie-in-elusive-leisure-time Image credit: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/11/289018821/for-working-moms-key-to-balance-may-lie-in-elusive-leisure-time

I saw mention of Shulte’s new book in an article about the plague of over-busyness that has taken over our lives. I wish I knew what that article was now, but of course, at the time, I was merely skimming it, while fielding incoming emails, and chomping down on instant couscous and tuna in the little window of ten minutes’ quiet I allowed myself before flinging myself at the next task on the enormous and endless pile. I did not take a moment to note it, save it, even clip it, but went right on to the next thing.

Something stuck, though, from that little mention; I downloaded the book to my Kindle that night. Reading in the hour before bed is my daily, sanity-saving luxury. Schulte’s work confirmed for me that it is just such ‘clearings’ in our daily round that is one of the keys to tackling…

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Yagelski, Writing, and the Lego Movie

Diamond Sharp

One of the highlights of the Term 1-2/Easter Break for me was participating in a reading and discussion group at the Faculty of Education at Monash University. (Thanks to Madeleine Coloumbe for inviting me along, and to Drs Graham Parr and Scott Bulfin for welcoming teachers from outside academe.) It was a rare chance for me to engage in discussion with other writer-educators about the theories and questioning that drive our practice in the classroom.

The set reading for the discussion was “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being” by Robert Yagelski. This was my first encounter with Yagelski’s work. Some of the ideas that caught my attention in the article were:

–          That writing can be a process or way of being, rather than only an effort towards producing a standard-English product.

–          That writing is a way of…

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A reflection on selection aids

This has been one of the most eye-opening parts of the ETL503 course so far. However, it does make sense that if you are a TL with a limited school budget you have to have a rationale for how you select resources and spend your acquisitions budget. It is clear that you cannot just grab what looks good – ways of evaluating the resources and the possible contribution they will make to teaching and learning in your school are essential.


Broad bibliographies that can be searched by subject are a good place to start and to build awareness of new titles being added to school libraries. SCIS (Schools Catalogue Information Service) http://www2.curriculum.edu.au/scis/home.html reduces the burden of cataloguing new materials on school libraries and also offers up-to-date lists of resources being used by other libraries. Potential issues for this selection aid are that you need a subscription (which I don’t have) and there are not any reviews of the usefulness of the materials catalogued. So this would be a first stop in a TL’s search for resources to support teaching and learning.


Core collection and resource lists produced by education and curriculum authorities would be vital. I would use these sites in compiling a selection list for particular areas of the curriculum especially those linked to the study design and assessment requirements. For example, the Victorian Certificate of Education has required texts and resources for particular units of study: http://www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/Pages/vce/studies/index.aspx


A strength of using this approach is that the TL can be sure they are supplying the necessary resources for their students. A weakness is that, again, there are no reviews to assess the value of resources. What’s more, relying on these lists will give your school only a very limited scope, when often, what the TL is looking for are further resources to support student learning beyond the limits of textbooks and assigned reading.


In an IB school, such as where I teach, a TL can access the online IB resources, which do contain more than reference lists and bibliographies for set texts. Teacher reviews, online publications and journals, and samples of IBO-endorsed resources are available on the site, in addition to the Prescribed Book List. http://www.ibo.org/




For the wider reading program in my school I would access the Childrens’ Book Council of Australia website, particularly the lists of recommended titles. Most school libraries would subscribe to the Reading Time review journal that the CBCA produces. The fact that the CBCA review titles across age groups and fiction and non-fiction would be helpful for school librarians looking for a broad range of quality materials to appeal to different ages, interests and reading levels. http://cbca.org.au/awards.htm


The journal Viewpoint is useful in providing reviews specifically of young adult fiction to support the wider reading program. In my school, wider reading is actually an assessed item reported on at years 7, 8 and 9, so a good selection of fiction is valued by both teachers and students.



Reviews from students themselves are often useful for gauging the real level of enjoyment and engagement young readers derive from recent titles. I have found Inside a Dog valuable already as an English classroom teacher for finding titles to recommend to students. Young people often prefer to hear from what their peers like, seeing that as more trustworthy source of information about good reads than fusty old teachers and parents. As a school librarian I would use this site for ideas about what titles are proving popular. The ‘Book Trailers’ feature is especially intriguing – could this be used to present potential titles to a focus group of young library users to get a feel for what they want? http://www.insideadog.com.au/


In addition to the IBO website, another selection aid that has not been mentioned on the ETL503 module reading is subject associations. As an English teacher, I belong to the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English (VATE). The website, quarterly journal and the e-newsletter regularly feature views of materials for use in the classroom or for professional development. A strength of this selection aid, and others like it for other subject associations, is that the resources are reviewed specifically for how they might support teaching and learning and their potential applications in the classroom. A weakness is that the long reviewing cycle means that there can be a delay between publication and review and the emphasis is on textbooks and related materials. www.vate.org.au

A further selection aid is a feature of Web 2.0 — social networking. Inside a Dog uses these capabilities to some extent, but personally I find Library Thing for Libraries great for user reviews. Advantages are: peer-to-peer review; up-to-date resources; searchable by topic, author or title, just like a catalogue. Cool! http://www.librarything.com/forlibraries


Overall, it seems to me that there are a range of fairly reliable and up-to-date selection aids available for printed materials, but that selection aids for e-resources are still evolving and that the TL is faced with particular challenges in evaluating the usefulness of e-resources. Downloading samples and trial subscriptions could be one way of circumventing the element of the unknown in this domain. Another step is initially buying a small subscription for a targeted group of users and asking for their feedback before committing more money for a wider group of people to use it.

ETL 503 – Resourcing the Curriculum Reflection on Module 1 – definitions of “Collection management”

Well, it is time to get back on the wagon for my studies to be a Teacher Librarian after a semester-long hiatus.

After completing the previous unit ETL401 ‘Teacher Librarianship’ I developed a sense of the scope of the TL role. In particular, I began my journey of ‘thinking like a librarian’, something which does not come naturally to me. Despite my immersion in literacy practices as a High School English teacher, I have not had a lot of exposure to the kinds of policy-driven and taxonomic types of learning that Librarianship entails. The focus in the TL course on Information Literacy, however, is intriguing, and gives me a lot to ponder as I move on in my studies…I expect a lot of puzzling on my part over definitions and usage as I move through this next unit of study. I also expect quite a bit of exploration and wrangling with new digital technologies for collecting, managing, communicating and synthesising information. So many platforms, so little time …

So – into ETL503 “Resourcing the Curriculum” which is the unit I am doing over the summer semester.

Some consideration of definitions:

‘Collection development’ in Kennedy’s glossary definition (Kennedy 2006) does seem to imply a growth-orientated approach that the term carries from its early use from academic libraries in the United States during the post-war rapid expansion of Higher Education and the boom in resource funding for higher learning that went with it.

“Collection development: term used to encompass interrelated activities concerned with building and maintaining library collections of resources to serve the wants and needs of clients. …” (Kennedy, 2006).

‘Collection management’, on the other hand, seems to be more encompassing of all the activities involved in resourcing the curriculum – not just selecting and acquiring the resources. In Kennedy, ‘Collection development’ does seem to have a degree of overlap with ‘Collection management’. However, there does seem to be slightly more emphasis on what happens to the resources after they have been acquired.

“Collection management: …set of interrelated activities involved in building and maintaining a collection of library resources to serve the wants and needs of clients. These activities include matters relating to selection, evaluation, deselection and preservation of materials. Acquisition is frequently also considered as aspect of collection management, though sometimes regarded as distinct, particularly in North America” (Kennedy, 2006).

The implication in Kennedy’s glossary definition also seems to be that any management of the resources of the library has to be done with a view to the learning needs of the school community and the budget constraints that are a more pressing reality for schools now than in the era of expansion in the 1960s.

In other discussions of resourcing the curriculum, it is clear that the activities of selection, acquisition, evaluation, preservation and deselection need to have a distinct rationale that ties the school library’s work to the learning and teaching needs of the school community.

ALIA’s submission to the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) on the resourcing needs for implementing the Australian Curriculum makes this clear. Kennedy’s definition of collection management underscores the needs and wants of “clients”. In a school community that is defined by the demands of the curriculum, assessment and reporting structures in place. The professional development needs of school staff would be included in this, as would, to a certain extent, the free independent reading of the student population. In broader terms, ALIA also notes that the library’s role in resourcing the curriculum is part of a core rationale for a liberal education to effectively prepare young people to participate and contribute to an open, pluralistic society:

“The primary function of a school library is to underpin the school’s mission statement by providing services, resources and programmes that foster opportunities for lifelong learning, literacy, reading and the love of literature. The school library also offers all members of its community the opportunity to develop as informed and responsible citizens and to contribute to the Australian democracy, culture, society and economy” (ALIA, 2010).

This gives collection management in schools a fairly broad remit, which can be hard to meet in the context of competing priorities and limited budgets.

The Australian School Library Association (ASLA) has also made a statement about curriculum resourcing that implies a client and needs-focussed approach to collection management in its “Statement on school library resource provision”:

“Resourcing the curriculum is an ongoing process of selection and evaluation guided by policy and budget planning. Effective resourcing of the curriculum requires a collaboratively developed and agreed policy on collection development prepared as part of the school’s ongoing planning and review process.

Effective resourcing of a curriculum ensures:

  • every learner has equitable access to a variety of quality, relevant, accurate and current information resources;
  • adequate resources at appropriate levels for all curricula and to meet personal and recreational needs are provided;
  • new ways of teaching and learning are reflected in Information and Communication Technologies and resources;
  • teachers’ effectiveness is enhanced by access to recent curricular and professional development material” (ASLA, 2009).

It seems to me that collection management in the context of the school library is a balancing act between the various needs of the school community and the realities of budgetary constraints. There may be issues with competing agendas, too, especially in schools working within a religious charter where the object of a free flow of information may be at odds with the school community’s definition of acceptable material. A teacher librarian would be making decisions about collection management within an implied or fully-worked-out matrix of factors to consider when selecting, acquiring, evaluating and weeding resources.


Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) (2010). Submission from the Australian Library and Information Association  to the ACARA consultation on the draft K-10 Australian Curriculum: English, mathematics, science and history. http://www.alia.org.au/advocacy/submissions/ALIA.submission.on.the.Australian.curriculum.draft.K-10.pdf

Australian School Library Association (ASLA). (2009) Statement on school library resource provision. http://www.asla.org.au/policy/school-library-resource-provision.aspx

Kennedy, John. (2006). Collection management: a concise introduction. Centre for Information Studies. Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga.