Shaping the Image of an English Teacher

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The Pre-History of English Teaching

For how long has there been a separate, identifiable group that could be called English teachers? Not very long, certainly. Before the turn of the century, there was no subject ‘English’ (in the sense of an acknowledged, unified field of study) for them to teach. The regulations of the 1890s treated ‘English’ as concerned solely with parsing and analysis, quite separate from reading, composition and literature, which might all be in the hands of different teachers.Years later in London’s elementary schools what we should consider English was still being divided and timetabled as nine separate ‘subjects’. Even while the subject was gaining wider acceptance in the early years of this century (made compulsory in state schools by the 1904 Regulations; its ‘claim to a definite place in the curriculum of every secondary school’ asserted by the Board of Education report of 1910) it is clear that the various English activities were not seen as the responsibility of one teacher. Indeed, that report had to argue strongly that literature and composition were not really separate subjects, and that it was ‘eminently desirable’ that the same teacher should be responsible for both.
A decade later, the Historical Retrospect of the Newbolt Report opens by remarking that the subject has ‘scarcely any history’: ‘Of conscious and direct teaching of English the past affords little sign’. In the public and grammar schools, ‘English was not seriously considered as an educational subject’ (para. 105) and further up the educational hierarchy, ‘it is not too much to say that, till quite lately, English had no position at all in the Universities’ (191) and ‘the serious study of English Language and Literature is a comparatively new one’ (193).
Looking back, we can detect three overlapping phases resulting from universal compulsory education and the development of an increasingly specialised curriculum at secondary level. A concern for the discrete skills of English was slowly followed by the gradual establishing of English as a separate subject in the curriculum, and later still by the appointment of English teachers specifically responsible for it. As one significant study concluded, before the twentieth century ‘there were certainly very few teachers who could be called or would have called themselves teachers of English’. Even for the next twenty years, circumstances were such that very few would have chosen to describe themselves in such a way. ‘English’ activities had a low social status because over the centuries the teaching of functional literacy to the working class had been seen as unskilled labour, and the reading of English literature was only for girls (while their brothers studied the classics). More profoundly, though, who could have been given the title of English teacher? Teachers in elementary schools would not have thought of themselves in such a way, for they were to work as generalists across the whole curriculum. (In the same way today, although some primary teachers will have specialised in English and may have responsibility for curriculum leadership in that subject, few refer to themselves as English teachers.) The certificated teachers, who in any case made up less than a third of those in elementary schools, were trained in English grammar, reading, recitation, handwriting and English literature among the many other subjects to be ‘covered’ and examined, but there is no suggestion either of English as a single field of study or of teachers being specially trained for it. As late as 1929, English was just one of ten subjects to be included in training and when subject specialism did begin to appear, it was in other areas like physical education, music, art, woodwork and metalwork.
At secondary level also, when the training of teachers began to expand after the 1902 Act, English was seen as a necessary qualification for entrants, but not as a subject for specialist training. Because the university degree was thought an adequate preparation, and training was regarded as socially demeaning, the absence of degree courses in English ensured both the low status of that subject in schools and the lack of qualified teachers to teach it. Such an inevitable correlation between English literature as a university subject and the training of teachers had been pointed out in the 1880s. Arguing for the establishment of the subject at Oxford as a way of disseminating it more widely, John Churton Collins wrote that its ability to fulfil that function ‘depends obviously on the training of its teachers, and the training of its teachers depends as obviously on the willingness or the unwillingness of the Universities to provide that training’.
Because of the relative unwillingness of the universities to contemplate either English or education as academic subjects, it was not until the 1920s and later that graduate English teachers began to emerge in any numbers, and the subject was not regarded as a desirable or even necessary specialism in the public and grammar schools to which most graduates went. According to one headmaster, in 1918 English was viewed with ‘belittlement’, ‘distrust’ and ‘contempt’. The same author (lamenting the ‘few and fumbling’ attempts of classics teachers to work with English literature) anticipated a future in which English graduates might take their place in schools, develop-ing new methods, linking reading with writing ‘as the importance of their subject becomes more and more recognised’. But that still lay ahead.

The Significance of The Newbolt Report

We owe the modern concept of an English teacher, symbolically at least, to the publication of the Newbolt Report, The Teaching of English in England, in 1921. By defining English in a quite new way, it created a climate in which English teaching as a specialised profession became inevitable. One simple way of suggesting its influence is to examine the number of texts published on English teaching at different periods. Whereas very few volumes with Teaching of English in their titles appeared in the first twenty years of this century, at least thirteen significant books so named were issued between 1921 and 1932.
In the report, ‘English’ was no longer used to describe a conglomerate of separate skills or a group of ‘English subjects’, but as a single, organic, all-embracing term for a unique, central school subject, requiring—by implication—special men and women to teach it. The particular concepts that animated the committee were by no means new, but the novelty lay in bringing together under the title of English, ‘taught as a fine art’, four separate concepts: the universal need for literacy as the core of the curriculum, the developmental importance of children’s self-expression, a belief in the power of English literature for moral and social improvement, and a concern for ‘the full development of mind and character’. The frontiers of the subject were thus pushed out to cover a whole range of mental, emotional, imaginative, moral and spiritual goals: ‘almost convertible with thought’, ‘a method’ as well as ‘a subject’ that ‘must have entry everywhere’ (para. 57).
This largely expedient and perhaps deliberately ambiguous map of the subject, colonising areas that had previously lain within other disciplines, has been enormously influential. After the sufferings and doubts of the First World War, English as a newly minted subject was invested with the resonance of ‘Englishness’, defined through the English language and supremely through the heritage of English literature. It was through a shared experience of English, said the report, drawing on Matthew Arnold, that the social class divisions of the country could be healed and a ‘national culture’ be established. The committee could hardly have foreseen that a series of debates and divisions lasting into the 1990s would centre on these interconnected definitions of English culture, of the literary heritage and of the teaching and learning of English. Henry Widdowson could justifiably complain in his note of reservation to the Kingman Report that ‘what English is on the curriculum for, is not really explored here with any rigour’.
The Newbolt Report is thin on practical details about the kinds of teaching that might achieve its aims, or about the kinds of English teacher that might be needed. In proposing a quite new curricular framework, the committee had no existing tradition to draw on. A new sort of subject would demand new kinds of teachers to remedy the failings of the past and present and to bring about the aspirations for the future. The section headings repeatedly use words like neglect, problem, lack, difficulties, and misapprehensions.
English should be ‘the only basis possible for a national education’ (para. 9), ‘the one indispensable preliminary and foundation of all the rest’ which must ‘take precedence of all other branches of learning’ (6), ‘the essential basis of a liberal education for all English people’ (13). By contrast with this ideal, however, the members of the committee said that what they found in actuality was ‘an altogether inadequate recognition of the place of English in an Englishman’s education’ (para. 191, echoing 1), caused by a failure to establish the subject as important in schools and universities and by the parallel failure to attract and train teachers for it.
The laudable ambitions for English as a subject depended—as the committee realised—on the provision of appropriately qualified teachers, but the report reveals a basic uncertainty about what those appropriate qualifications are, and indeed about what good English teaching might actually look like. The report admits that ‘the methods of teaching English have yet to be explored’ (para. 101), and adds that at secondary level, ‘probably the greatest obstacle to improvement hitherto has been the absence of a good tradition in the teaching of English’ (109). It quotes an Inspectors’ Memorandum on the ‘unfortunate’ truth that ‘methods of teaching English are so far little developed. They have been far less thought out than the methods of teaching some other subjects’ (117). Three years later, making the best of a bad job and referring vaguely to ‘the many difficult questions of method involved in the teaching of English’, the Board of Education remarked hopefully that at least ‘in developing his [sic] method the teacher of English has the advantage of being bound by no tradition’.
Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to see how several distinct but powerful strands of thinking came together in the 1920s to create a model of English teaching that was formative. In bold oversimplification we can detect three of these. First there was the missionary role of English, called on to confront the forces of industrialism and to counter the growing influence of the media. The recurrent images in the report were of people being starved while weeds flourished in the fields; of the power of literature to feed, to purify, to unify, to redeem. Margaret Mathieson has argued that in a time of crisis the functions traditionally attributed to religious faith were attached to a new and idealistic view of English teaching. This idea ran through the Newbolt Report, and was given celebrated expression in George Sampson’s claim that the purpose of education is ‘not to prepare children for their occupations, but to prepare children against their occupations’.
Second, there was the Dewey-inspired emphasis on learning by doing, the notion that English should develop creativity, foreshadowed in the 1910 recommendations about the importance of oral work and by the influence of men like Caldwell Cook. Third, in an age when the influence of the classics was waning, English was seen as the chief way of conveying a cultural tradition, developing sensitivity and moral awareness. For most children, literature would mean English literature. Such a view was pushed to its logical conclusion by F.R.Leavis, who in 1930 argued that teachers of English were ultimately responsible for the health of the language, for the growth of moral values and eventually for the whole quality of life itself.
At Cambridge in particular the ‘missionary’ emphasis of the Newbolt Report was reframed with specific attention to what should be taught and how. This, as Francis Mulhern has argued, emphasised the notion of a professional career in English centring on talent rather than on establishment values of birth and breeding. By contrast with an academic English hierarchy that had become inward looking in its obsession with establishing professional status, the Scrutiny group looked out to society, and particularly to the wider education system.
These three trends combined to give a seductively important role to English teachers. They were called to be the elite of the profession, concerned not simply with teaching a subject, but with the total personal and social development of pupils and with the health of society. By 1930 English was becoming a dominant university discipline. ‘In terms of its eventually achieved overall influence, at both institutional and symbolic levels, the success of English proved to be more dramatic than that of any other subject.

What Sort of Animal Is An English Teacher?

The emergence of English as a coherent subject demanded the creation of a quite new kind of teacher, shaped in ways that had not previously been considered. The recommendations of the Newbolt Report implied that such a person would require a literary training (though hardly of the kind then offered by English degree courses), a range of personal qualities (sensitivity, understanding), an ability to unlock the creative potential of children (then the province of educational psychology), a social concern for all kinds of children, and some (largely undefined) expertise in language. English teachers were not to be concerned with vocational or utilitarian training (‘commercial English is objectionable’ because ‘the needs of business are best met by a liberal education’-recommendation 30). Nor was their chief concern the imparting of knowledge, but the changing of lives. This depended on establishing a special relationship between teacher and taught (‘there is no lesson like the poetry lesson forproducing that intimacy between teacher and class which makes school a happy place’-para. 92).
In this crucial respect George Sampson was at one with the official report: both were clear that English was unlike many other school subjects, in that it required essential personal qualities that could not be guaranteed by formal academic qualifications. Sampson said that the English teacher’s chief concern was ‘not the minds he [sic] can measure but the souls he can save’. This concern for personal qualities was to become a recurrent note from 1921 onwards. Quotations above have indicated the committee’s desire to ground an English teacher’s abilities in ‘necessary insight and enthusiasm’ (para. 11), ‘knowledge, interest, and the gift of communicating their own enthusiasm’ (130), rather than in any particular specialism. Indeed they quote the celebrated (or notorious) judgement that ‘the ideal teacher is born, not made’ (129).
Sampson made the comparison with other subjects specific: ‘University qualifications are a safe enough guide when you are looking for acquirements-when you want a science master or a history master; but not when you are choosing someone to be a medium for the transmission of the spirit.’ In his conclusion he laments that: ‘We have never insisted that the chief and crowning qualification of an English teacher is ability to teach English’-an early expression of the idea that pedagogic not academic qualities are of most importance. (He does, of course, agree that the two may coexist; they are not alternatives.) His view, which must have seemed insanely idealistic at the time, has turned out to be true and prophetic. The only reason that the right sort of English teachers did not exist, he writes, is that society had never asked for them. ‘Let the paramount claim of English be admitted and teachers will shape themselves and be shaped for the task of teaching it.’
To teach a subject that in many ways is more than a subject and that has major repercussions outside the classroom walls, has imposed a special responsibility on English teachers, and helps to explain why they are so vulnerable to criticism. Administrators are more comfortable with subjects that have clearly defined specialist knowledge with firm academic boundaries and that are remote from what is learned within the home and the community. A head of department told us of an occasion when she was seeking an additional member of staff. The Head produced a recent advertisement, and suggested that this would do, with another word substituted for ‘historian’. ‘What word do you use for someone who teaches English?’ he asked, and was not satisfied with the answer, ‘English teacher’. Proper subjects are taught by people called historians, geographers, physicists and modern linguists, he implied; knowledge of the subject rather than the teaching of it is primary.
By contrast, new definitions of English, new ranking of objectives, new styles of teaching, take on additional significance that is not limited to the subject classroom, because ‘changing English is changing schooling’ -and potentially even more than that. What James Donald has called ‘the intractable problem’ of English teaching is that ‘it remains trapped within its sense of being called to a social and cultural mission—whether healing the State or empowering people to escape its oppressions’. Arguments about what should, or should not, be read in school, about ‘correctness’ in talk or writing, about assessment and so on, are actually arguments about shaping young people’s views of the world. Reflecting on his Working Group’s report, Professor Brian Cox has said that ‘a National Curriculum in English is intimately involved with questions about our national identity, indeed with the whole future ethos of British society. The teaching of English…affects the individual and social identity of us all.’
English has a special power to challenge conventions, institutions, governments, business interests-any established system. This resides in the fact that English is concerned with the uncontrollable power of a shared language that we all speak and the uncontrollable responses to what we read. The work of English teaching involves continual pressing for the expression of alternative ideas, inviting challenge to received opinions, seeking strong personal responses, establishing debate. The teacher’s special relationship with students depends on democratie openness, not on knowing the answers. The subject matter of English lessons is likely to draw on the actual interests and experiences of pupils, where they may be more informed than those who teach them. It is often said that English teachers are more in tune with youth culture than those who work in other subjects.

What Does An English Teacher Teach?

Only a small part of the teaching of English is carried out by English teachers; children arrive at school with a wealth of existing language experience; the goals of English are not simply subject-specific ones, but are concerned with all aspects of learning and living. English teaches the abilities that underlie the learning of all other subjects. English lessons are concerned with all aspects of the individual; thoughts and feelings are inseparable; students’ responses are an essential element of what is being studied; individual differences are often more significant than universal truths. Because there is no generally agreed body of subject matter, the boundaries of the subject are notoriously unclear and cannot be neatly defined.
It is significant that during the upheavals of the 1980s there has been such a flood of books posing basic theoretical questions about what English is or should be. Simply to consider the many titles is enough, with their emphasis on rereading, rewriting or reordering the tradition, on changes, new directions or perspectives, on widening, extending or even exploding the subject. People have talked so much of the ‘crisis’ in English studies that the prophecy has become self-fulfilling. As different models (or paradigms) of English teaching have successively come under attack, it has become plain both that there is no return to some ‘innocent’ English and also that there is little prospect of replacing English with some agreed alternative, whatever it might be called (Cultural Studies or Textual Studies, according to some). As Francis Mulhern has argued, ‘we face a situation in which a maximum of intellectual attack, a maximum of desire to reconstruct the subject, coincide with a near-minimum of institutional opportunity’.
It is hardly surprising, then, in a survey we conducted of over 110 English teachers, younger teachers expressed uncertainty about the nature of their subject: ‘English has emerged as a much wider subject than I had anticipated’. Even the most experienced are still tentative, saying ‘there are no certainties’ or ‘I think it is more complex now than I thought (and I thought it “the hardest subject to teach” then)’. Examining the terminology, the underlying images, used by our sample of English teachers helps to define their sense of subject identity, to establish the hidden curriculum which affects the way in which they make sense of the world, or initiate students and new teachers into the community. Their comments illustrate the validity of the Cox Report’s judgement about different, coexisting models of the subject:
“It is possible to identify within the English teaching profession a number of different views of the subject…. We stress that they are not the only possible views, they are not sharply distinguishable, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive…. Teachers of English will differ in the weight they give to each of these views of the subject”.
Many teachers offered views of the subject that fit neatly enough into one or another of the five generalized models put forward in the report.
1. A personal growth view. ‘The basis of our work is (or should be) human growth and development’; ‘nurturing individual development’; ‘aware of the centrality of the pupil’; ‘our “subject” is so close to the learner—is the learner and the process of learning’; ‘growth of the whole person through expressive explorations’.
2. A cross-curricular view. ‘I see it now as being part of the whole curriculum, and see much more how things should link’; ‘English will have to become less introverted and accept the cross-curricular development’; ‘language is central to all learning so English teachers have a great responsibility’; ‘they bear a significant responsibility for the development of language skills and thus help to determine how “accessible” the school curriculum is for pupils in all areas’.
3. An adult needs view. ‘I see English more as a tool to develop social skills and preparation for the world of work’; ‘our subject is a service subject’; ‘more need to justify its value in a vocation-orientated curriculum’; ‘inner resources and an external structure to deal with the world outside school’.
4. A cultural heritage view. ‘It consists in maximum exposure to literature’; ‘saving literature from being marginalised’; ‘I believed in bringing great literature to children’; ‘as a product of Use of English teachers and taught by Leavis sympathisers at university, I went into teaching with those assumptions’.
5. A cultural analysis view. ‘I’ve realised its situation within cultural and political frameworks’; ‘I see English…in terms of developing autonomy and critical awareness—skills and attitudes’; ‘cultural development model’; ‘a need to assimilate the conceptual revolution of poststructuralist thought’; ‘root English in a social view of language’; ‘need to reflect multi-racial society’.
Brindley, Susan. (1994). Teaching English. London and New York: Routledge.

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