Who do we think we are?

9th February 2001 at 00:00
ENGLISH TEACHERS - The Unofficial Guide: Researching the Philosophies of English Teachers. By Bethan Marshall. Routledge Falmer pound;12.99

What is it about English teachers that makes us go all brooding and reflective? Perhaps it is all the times we have taught texts such as Hamlet and Wuthering Heights that prompts the introspection; or the long line of commentators on English studies who have so frequently portrayed us as distinctive from teachers of other subjects, as special.

From Matthew Arnold's "preachers of culture" to David Holbrook's "warriors" of the classroom, writers on the subject have imbued the humble English teacher with almost mystical qualities. Robin Williams - the wayward, provocative worshipper of dead poets - captured something of that spirit.

It makes you wonder whether it is arrogance, self-delusion, wilful optimism or fact. Margaret Mathieson's ground-breaking survey of English teachers concluded "the teacher's personality (is) the crucial element in English in schools" (The Preachers of Culture, Allen amp; Unwin 1975). Do our colleagues - banging on about quadratic equations, photosynthesis and the rise of the Nazis - have a body of literature that so systematically documents the history of their subject and so strongly implies that who you are is inextricably linked to how you teach? Could a book like this have been written about teachers of, say, geography or PSHE?

Bethan Marshall's English Teachers - The Unofficial Guide is striking for the approach it takes. It is a clever mix of literary criticism and theory. The author presents groups of teachers with lengthy prose descriptions of types of English teachers. She gives them five labels: Old Grammarians; Pragmatists; Liberals; Technicians; Critical Dissenters. This is an updating of categories of prevailing philosophies defined in the Cox Report (Department for Employment and Education, 1988): personal growth, cross-curricular, adult needs, and cultural analysis.

Old Grammarians, she says, believe in the improving and civilising qualities of literature.

Pragmatists are modernisers, busily preparing students for the brave new worldof national tests and levels.

The Liberals use literature to illuminate the world, building schemes of work around themes and promoting the sympathetic, supportive role of the English teacher in humanising a degrading education system.

The Technicians give special emphasis to skills - grammar, spelling, comprehension. They value efficiency.

Critical dissenters are left-of-centre, interested in the links between literature and culture and often influenced by theorists.

To me this had the potential interest of one of those self-assessment questionnaires you find in teenage magazines: How attractive are you? What does your dress sense say about who you are? How can I tell if it is really love?

The idea of learning more about what we are like as English teachers is similarly appealing. But I am not convinced by the approach. I spend much of my time teaching students to guard against stereotypes, and here I am faced with five codified views of what English teachers are like. Just as the OXO family reflected odd truisms of family life, I certainly recognised aspects of my colleagues and myself. But I am not sure that the insights are hugely enlightening.

This unofficial guide to English teachers is an interesting read, but the bold attempt to pin down, categorise and then dissect our delicate souls does seem limiting and just a bit old-fashioned. Although I enjoyed the early canter through the history of English teaching, I felt irritation at the end of the book when the literacy hour was associated with Mr Gradgrind, a cliche unworthy of the author, and a polarised view I thought we had left behind.

The book holds a mirror up to English teachers, but what it reflects, I suspect, is what some of us used to be like, with old battles still raging in the background (100 per cent coursework, key stage3 testing, prescribed set texts). Look deeper and a more interesting picture opensup, a continuing vibrant tradition of great English teachers inspiring andenthusing a new generation of pupils - with a talent that defies dissection.

Geoff Barton teaches English at Thurston Community College, Suffolk

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