Some teachers choose to tweet and blog anonymously. I accept – and often understand – their reasons. I do read anonymous anecdotes with some caution, but there’s a stark honesty from some anonymous bloggers; I recognise their stories and I’ve sometimes felt relieved that somebody has had the shield of anonymity to bring an important issue to light. What I don’t accept, though, is that it’s okay to submit a piece to a national newspaper with a monthly online readership of 7.7 million – and misrepresent the professional approach of English teachers on a national scale. I have no problem with somebody using the Secret Teacher to comment on their own context. These make for fascinating reads. There are difficult people, events and structures in every sector and education is no exception. This particular article, though, purports to speak from a position of authority to include all of us: ‘Teachers only read the bits of books they have to teach.’ Teachers. Not ‘some teachers’ or ‘the teachers I know’ or ’1678 teachers who responded to my survey.’ All of us.
I have worked full-time in two Bristol schools – seven years at the first and I am now in my sixth year at my second school. I completed two placements for my PGCE and had worked unqualified at a sixth-form college before starting my training. In 2009 I qualified as an AST, while retaining my Head of Faculty role. I have supported six schools in this role, in teaching, planning and leadership support capacities. Across this time and these contexts, I do not recognise the Secret Teacher’s representation of English teachers and their approach to reading. I am cross and definitely on the defensive. This blog might disappear tomorrow – respond, don’t react and all that – but I’m putting it out there now. Not for the first time, this blog serves as catharsis.
The Secret Teacher claims that ‘if there’s a bit of a text they [teachers] don’t understand or think is boring, they just remove it from the photocopied version before class.’ Ignoring the badly-veiled insult – not so veiled to the teachers who often believe that if something is ‘boring’ then it’s actually just not understood – this is categorically not my experience. I have never taught a novel from a photocopy and I have never worked in or with a school that does this. Extracts for annotation and analysis, yes. Photocopying in bulk? Never. It’s also not allowed. Schools are subject to copyright laws as much as any other institution. We had our Copyright Licensing Agency inspection this year. It lasted for 9 weeks and every single text we copied was logged, including the number of pages and the ISBN number. This was monitored in both the reprographics department with bulk copies and at individual machine level. Our printing was recorded too. Clearly this post has got me on the defensive and I feel the need to prove this is true. Here’s one of the email reminders we had about this audit:
The Secret Teacher also claims that we ‘mourn’ Of Mice and Men as it’s ‘one that every English teacher could teach standing on their head… its removal revealed the gap in our subject knowledge.’ Speak. For. Yourself. I don’t mourn this novel at GCSE level. I love Steinbeck (I have read all of his fiction and also Journal of a Novel). I could probably recite Of Mice and Men, having taught it so many times. For this reason, I waved goodbye to Slim and the boys with a light heart. I have read every text on the new AQA list, except for Julius Caesar, Sign of Four and A Taste of Honey. ‘God help us if the government ever removes An Inspector Calls or Animal Farm’ is the final sting in the tail of that paragraph. No, Secret Teacher. God help you. Most of us will be all right. We read – loads. I’m in a book group. My faculty members are too. We read, we talk about reading and we read with our students.
‘While English teachers must be graduates, they don’t necessarily need a degree in English literature. Journalism, media studies, drama and American studies are now widely accepted as a higher level qualifications (sic) for PGCE applicants to teach English.’ This is true. Except, I don’t think that this statement carries any weight when it comes to being ‘good enough’ to teach English. I speak as somebody with a non-Literature undergraduate degree. I’m not bothered by the (overtly denied) implication that other degrees are ‘less worthy.’ What concerns me is the notion that the only thing of worth that we teach is the literature curriculum and that all else – presumably including English Language, is just, well, dust and fluff. It’s the now that does it (‘…now widely accepted…’), hinting at better times of yesteryear, when only English Literature graduates could teach English. Two of my long-standing friends wrote a research paper on this very topic in 2008. It makes for fascinating reading – who does teach English?
The Secret Teacher then turns on the pupils. They are partly to blame for the Secret Teacher’s photocopy splurges: ‘This hesitancy to invest in new books is partly due to the way the students treat them. They throw them, draw in them, tear pages out.’ Again, this is not my experience, nor the experience of my friends in #TeamEnglish – from Cumbria, to Norfolk, to Bristol, to Essex. All anecdotal, of course. I just needed to clarify that not all students behave in the manner that is being claimed here. [Spoiler alert!] The regular ‘George shoots Lennie’ graffiti resurfaced each year. I found ‘Eddie snitches!’ in A View from the Bridge once. Our books are well-worn. The spines are cracking and they’re dog-eared. However, they are not defaced and when we need new editions, there is enough funding in capitation to make well-considered purchases.
The Secret Teacher finishes with a rather rushed and slightly odd merger of generalised educational principles, some literacy comments and some teacher-wellbeing ideas. S/he points out that ‘…reading is important. It increases our vocabulary, helps us reflect, builds our empathy, and improves concentration, focus and memory.’ Given that the audience for this piece will be teachers or Guardian readers, this revelation will come as no surprise. What bothers me is that this confession seeks to blame the kids, the government and all English teachers, yet does little to address the crux of the problem – s/he is swamped in marking. This is a leadership issue (as is the destructive behaviour towards books, in my opinion) and yet the target of this piece is everybody else in between.
I was relieved to learn in the conclusion that ‘teachers have been shown to have a big impact on children and thus it is imperative that they model the behaviours they want to encourage.’ I hope that I model openness and transparency to my students. I aim to teach them to identify bias and sweeping generalisations in writing they find online and to be careful to avoid making such poor judgements in their own writing. Some of us could do with a lesson in that.
The image at the top is taken from The Bear who Stared by Duncan Beedie. You can buy the book here. In this image, the bear is looking down a badger sett. The badger is not very impressed. I won’t tell you what happens next.