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Hoarders anonymous

A man squeezes through his front door and then climbs, slithers and crawls through towers of magazines, newspapers and countless other items crammed into his bungalow. Stuff reaches right up to the ceiling, forcing him to navigate a bizarre set of tunnels.

Yes, I'm watching one of those shows about compulsive hoarders, and I'm fascinated, horrified and a little ashamed. I usually avoid this type of reality television because it feels like the modern equivalent of staring at the inmates of Bedlam, but I'm hooked.

What is this compulsion to hold on to items in the belief that they are too important, useful or sentimentally significant to throw away? Is it a response to a society where we no longer mend our broken objects but just get new ones? Or perhaps it's that everything moves so fast and we feel the need to cling on to special moments.

Hoarding is a malady to which teachers are particularly prone; a "this might come in useful one day" sort of attitude. You have only to look at the offices across our school to realise this is true. Our head of department recently put a large box of old textbooks on the central table in our office with a note asking us to decide which ones should be kept; it was no surprise when nearly all of them were placed in the "keep" pile.

Last term, I spent much of my time writing programmes to fit the new Australian Curriculum for English. I became acutely aware of how much work had gone into previous programmes and yet how quickly they had dated. We have been teaching Shakespeare and To Kill a Mockingbird for ever, and I felt trapped between the alternating views of "everything has already been done" and "everything that has been done is hopelessly outdated and irrelevant".

Have education policymakers and textbook writers made a secret pact to fuel a kind of pedagogical consumerism? Grammar and punctuation don't change but our national testing does. One curriculum framework is cast aside for another; the language teaching versus phonics debate goes back and forth; countless gurus present us with the new "most effective" teaching strategies. So we buy the latest books, DVDs, software programs - egged on by a media that continually reports on the sorry state of literacy and teaching in general.

The recent announcement of yet another curriculum review was enraging but not surprising. The task has been assigned to notorious educational conservatives, who will no doubt argue for a form of "back to basics" reminiscent of the recent changes in England. It's a good job we didn't bin the old books.

New governments love to leave their political mark on education, and everyone in the media seems to be an expert on schools. This is surely what forces teachers into a bipolar state of compulsive hoarding and frantic discarding.

Maybe one day we will crawl through our tunnels of paperwork and textbooks and emerge into a clean, uncluttered space where we can make our own decisions on what works best in the classroom.

Ellie Ward teaches English at a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia.

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