English in Australia
'Top Floor Please: Beginning Secondary English Teaching'
by Elise Batchelor - Korowa Anglican Girls' School, Melbourne
Motivation and Missionary Zeal
Ever fallen off a bike ? I nearly did, literally, the moment I realised I wanted to become a teacher. There I was . . .
- pedalling away furiously on a stationary exercise bike at the Monash University gym, contemplating for the zillionth time what the hell my life was all about, who I was, what I wanted to do, where I could put my skills, who would benefit from my talents, that a Master of Arts in English was really, somehow, useful, as was my love of text analysis, my passion for drama, music, the arts, art itself, and thinking, analysing, philosophising about life and the purposes of being in this universe, especially when I seemed to see people, increasingly younger, drifting further into the land of the infinite tributary, with so many directions to choose that all sense of direction dissolves -
When all of a sudden the jigsaw fell in place.
Years of study, futile attempts at fulfilling employment, lack of direction, belief that something was hidden, I just had to fit the pieces together. I just had. I clutched the handle bars. Stopped pedalling. Took deep breath. Surveyed suddenly complete jigsaw. Saw masterpiece. Listened to breathing. Listened to gut. Gut counts. Gut knew that not only had I found my 'calling', but I'd be one of those teachers who'd be . . . good.
Yes. You know when you know, and I knew.
Once in the real class . . .
To the teacher. Have you a memory of the first moment you stepped into a class on your teaching rounds? Mine is vivid, particularly because I remember the contents of my stomach deciding to disagree with my recent, zealous decision to become a teacher. On the outside - 'teacher clothes', chalk, duster, head high, eyes bright, smile wide, I was already the gun teacher. Can't wait, easy, I will inspire, I will divide and conquer if need be, but need will never be because my teaching will be so . . . 'good' from the start that students will beg for homework, in awe of my style and enthusiasm. (Well, I exaggerate somewhat, but this is the long way of saying that I looked confident and reckoned that would bluff them all.) On the inside, Year Nine hey, Year Nine was one of the worst years at school, Year Nines are rotten aren't they, in the archetypal sense, co-ed too, I went to a school with girls. But, I look good, I look confident, I can bluff them. I've been doing this for years really. I was born to be a teacher so give me that soap box and off I'll go.
To the student teacher who is about to begin a teaching Diploma or Degree, particularly those who are like me, believing that you have something worthwhile, positive, strong to offer and that the mere presence of this commitment within you will ensure you a fully attentive, appreciative and encouraging class, in no need of discipline or 'forced enthusiasm' manoeuvres:
Be prepared for 'slight' readjustment.
The class may really like you as an individual. But, ultimately, you are still THE TEACHER who needs to realise:
Jim will persistently come in late (unless you threaten him with the death penalty) and with an innocent smile on his face.
Claire will never do her homework and artfully blame it on something so ridiculous it has to be plausible (sick pet llamas and midnight encounters with extraterrestial life-forms aside).
Alex skips English, because he's got a clarinet lesson (it is only later that you realise that Alex's musical talents hardly extend beyond underarm farts and whistling at 15 year old 'babes').
Rachel just 'has to get this done before her next class or the teacher will kill her' (you must resist temptation to throw duster).
Max will definitely have it done next lesson (and your reply 'But it's just not good enough' is just not good enough to deal with the cheeky Max).
The 'cool' gang in the back row operates under a verbal 'Mexican Wave' system, where any vocalising invokes a melodious (?), rippling Sine graph of further discussion. (Don't think that standing at the end of the Waveline, in anticipation of halting proceedings, will change anything. The lucky last contributor just bounces off you with a 'Yes Miss' and the wave heads back in the opposite direction).
What can make these experiences all the more difficult to cope with is, not when you reach the end of your tether and just want to cry, but when all you want to do is laugh until you burst. These kids are really inventive, a show of their own, I have free entertainment.
Yes. Slight readjustment. When I embarked on rounds I quickly moved from my missionary stance and recognised that I couldn't just merely inspire students to tackle the wonder of life and growing up and learning, I had to teach and somehow enable them to learn something which would allow them to pass Year 9, or Year 7, or Year 10, or Common Assessment Task 2.
spelling tests, grammar, basic comprehension, how to present a talk, the structure of a debate, themes, understanding Shakespearian language, poetic form, essay structure and terminology, persuasive essay, issue response, analysis, symbols, imagery, film language.
In Years 7 and 8 students need to develop strong grammar and spelling ability which will enable them to cope with later years where these skills will be increasingly assumed pre- requisites. Projects are much more fun, but spelling must be done.
In Years 9 and 10 the nuts and bolts of essay writing - forms and structures - need to be learnt. It's one thing for the teacher to encourage students' ideas and see them passionately arguing, or holding great debates covering far-reaching ideas and opinions. It's another thing to spend classes explaining and confirming student understanding of topic sentence, paragraph, body, conclusion, evidence, opinion versus argument and the structure of persuasive language.
In years 11 and 12 these skills need to be consolidated and strengthened. A complex task given the extreme time limitations on the set assessment tasks and the range of texts to be covered. Genre understanding is a priority, film language is, in some ways, like Shakespeare, like French. As a new teacher I found that, before the students are able to discern the imagery and mise-en-scene vital to film study, the teacher must be fluent in the language. I'm glad that I pick up new languages quite well.
First Floor: Curriculum Standards Framework
Levels of ability: Level 5 - Years 7- 8. Level 6 - Years 9-10. Level 7 - Years 11-12. Text, Contextual Understanding, Linguistic Structures and Features, and Strategies criteria, all covering speaking, listening, reading and writing. Curriculum planning, fulfilment of work requirements, abilities within boundaries, due dates for work, due dates for development according to the CSF commandments:
'By the end of Year 8 thou shalt be able to control the linguistic structures and features necessary to communicate ideas and information clearly in written texts of some length and complexity.'
The CSF is being taken on board by all Victorian schools, to varying extents, as a curriculum planning and student learning development guide. Its contents are both thorough and slightly generalised. It accounts for a wide range of development within a two year span, but does not allow for the year 7 student who is working at a level 7 capacity, the year 12 student who struggles to write without numerous grammatical deficiencies, for whatever reason. Or the student who is working through a range of levels in each of the different criteria sub-sections. The CSF is a comprehensive tour guide which defines, enables and limits all at once.
As a student teacher I initially read the English Curriculum Standards Framework with dyslexic eyes and began to wonder where my hopes of inspiring the millions of 'encouragable' students had gone. All of 'this' had to be done first. So what did I do? I taught my classes, from year 7 to year 12. We did spelling (including at Year 12), we read together, we created colourful projects, we answered questions, we wrote questions, we performed, we spoke, we studied characters and stories and other lives and other opinions and how to make informed opinions and how to write informed essays and .... and the proverbial 'we' hoped to God that somewhere amidst all this, we were adhering to school curriculum and CSF guidelines.
To the passionate English teacher. End result: We were.
One doesn't often know how students have responded to your teaching until you leave. This is a most moving moment, when, after all the hard work has been completed and you hope that you might have inspired at least one student in a naturally restless, teenage class of twenty five students, you receive brightly coloured cards with messages of thanks or hope for your return or you are stabbed in the heart with five glorious blocks of chocolates, from the chatty bunch of students up the back.
But they never told me they enjoyed the class . . Late work, the occasional whinge, the priorities of holidays and weekends.
And I realised something very simple. 'Stuff' has to be learnt. But it's not what you teach. It's how you approach it. I looked back and remembered the amused shock on the faces of my year 12s when they realised I was 'for real' with my spelling test. It resulted in being the funniest, most fabulous and productive lesson I believe we had.
Don't tell, show.
Show Shakespeare - stand on the desk and be Romeo.
Show adjectives - create your own restaurant with vivid descriptions of weird and wonderful food.
Show poetry - Have a team 'round robin' of poetic styles and within an hour the students have provided themselves forty amazing, creative and inspired poems which they can share and appreciate.
And, most importantly -
Show some of yourself all along the way. English is all of spelling, grammar, literature, writing, reading, speaking, but it is also a living, breathing entity which can be taught through the most obvious context of all - the individual. 'You teach who you are', we might have heard. You also teach with who you are. People who get up, have to come to school, like it or hate it for one reason or another, struggle, have new ideas, have experiences to reflect on - all have their own, individual personalities.
I am a teacher. I also learn. And learning about teaching during the year of my Diploma in Education taught me that through the many small but magical successes - with the work and enthusiasm of individual young people - I'd been on the top floor all along and the foundations were building themselves under me.
One year later....
I obtained a position teaching junior secondary English and Year 12 Literature at Korowa Anglican Girls' school in November 1995. I cannot embark upon 2000 words on the joys and horrors of my first year experience. And I cannot speak for my Dip. Ed. peers and their experiences.
I can only recall my experience on the bike at Monash uni gym. It seems to me, as the new kid on the curriculum block, that I've fallen off that bike quite a few times this year. Little falls - they won't be quiet, I'm boring them, there are 27 of them, we're running behind, I didn't like Year 9 myself (excuses excuses!), everyone in my superb department is . . . superb, damn it, perhaps my superbly creative unit ain't so . . . good. She wants an extension, take off the nailpolish, Mum and Dad are a bit worried (oh yes, Parent Teacher Evenings ... ). Then the scary falls - look at this pile of Heart of Darkness essays. Yes, they look nice. What am I meant to do with them? Wallpaper ? Coasters? ... Mark them???
Ironically, that which I thought would be my greatest fall - marking the ominous, all important, analytical Literature views and values essay - became my greatest source of fulfilment as the year progressed. I knew that my ability to mark the students' writing would significantly determine their success in their final assessment, that I needed to comment in appropriate detail to help them stay on the complex topic track they had chosen to follow. With superb guidance from my mentors at the school, and faith in my own intelligence, I did not stumble at all.
I enjoyed watching the learning all come together through my students' intense and intensely rewarding study of Literature in Year 12 Bigtime. Not that 7,8,and 9 haven't offered me significant learning experiences this first year. But it has been a privilege, in a supportive department atmosphere, and with excellent mentor guidance to have a Literature class. The mountains of hours of detailed correction, my improved reflections upon student work, my observations of class enthusiasm and writing development, have lead me to one conclusion: Whilst a huge chunk of me is still grappling with the insecurities and the fear of the impending '6 on day' and various 'new kid' dilemmas, in my heart of hearts, what I know is what I know - I'm still on the top floor and those foundations are going to keep growing - until I know I've put them into place. And that's the joy of learning, as a teacher: Those foundation blocks - they'll never all be there, so there will always be new success to anticipate.
In September, 1996, I invited my Lit. students over to my place for dinner - a 'Literary Feast' - to celebrate their year's achievements, the arrival of Spring and each other. My fellow English colleagues joined in enthusiastically. Now, this wasn't some 'La-dee-dah' entree, main course and dessert with fine chocolates deal. No, nono. We had theme food. In whatever order it landed on the front door step (with the students!) and in whatever manner it landed on our plates! You name a Literature text, and we had the appropriate food. Never did I believe we'd be creating Literature menus as exam preparation! We ate, we ate, we ate and we drank. Our bellies revolved in both uncertainty and a tirade of text knowledge!
That's only some of the food. Bear in mind the menu gives no indication, whatsoever, of the order in which we partook of the feast!
by text and according to student and teacher ingenuity
'Quik' milkshakes with icecream from Oriel's counter
Heart of Darkness
peanuts - 'the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze . . . '
Adrienne Rich's poetry
'Rich', dark chocolate mud cake
marshmallows and chips from Sylvie's journey with Ruth to find 'the children'
Whilst we convinced ourselves that this was the most 'fulfilling' way in which to revise before the big exam, I also supplemented the eating with a 'Feast of Literary Trivia' quiz to test the girls' detailed knowledge and give the evening an air of literary authenticity. Whilst some questions were deliberately contextual, others were brain-benders and others still, sent some girls into a torrent of panic. 'Name the person who submitted their final draft for internal assessment, stapled together backwards?' Poor Helen nearly died when I announced the winner!! We had musical questions, food questions, questions which would allow all the girls to win. The stapling episode even allowed me to win my own strawberry n' cream!
The most delightful upshot of this evening occurred when our dinner gained publicity. Yes, with a photo of our merry group, and a write-up of our bizarre culinary evening, I submitted our 'Literary Feast' to the editors of the Melbourne Weekly magazine. We were published in the December 3rd issue, in their social column 'Table Talk', and the girls were truly thrilled.
The Lit. feast evening proved both intellectually and intestinally stimulating, for my students, for my colleagues and myself. Still relatively new to the profession, I was most overwhelmed by one fact - not how much fun I had had during my Literature year, but how immensely I loved seeing the enjoyment and love of Literature my students were experiencing, living.
Another small but equally moving occasion (as she gets back on the bike again). My discovery that students of all levels are able to recognise their intellectual and personal growth potential became potently clear in the middle of winter 1996. My year nine group and I were studying Looking for Alibrandi. During one lesson of group activity and writing, I suggested to one of my students, prone to the odd giggle and 'brain-wandering', to look up the words she needed by using her dictionary. She set about this new task and, five minutes later, as the class was happily working, Elina (she happily knows who she is) called out, truly surprised with her discovery: 'Wow, this is exciting, I'm learning'.
My own learning last year was extraordinary. I think I passed! Let me recount one more vivid recollection of student potential that I observed. Picture this. Year 8 class. Late November. Holidays soon. Learning to write poetry and examining the potential of using punctuation and form to create tangible images from intangible emotions and perceptions ... Oh yes, and it's hot and Michael Jackson's in town! I was suitably impressed when one student, a vivacious, bubbly ... 'typically talkative teenager' took less than a glance in time to respond with total assurance to my question 'What technical structure we've briefly discussed, would be appropriate when used in conjunction with alliteration?' with - 'Enjambment Ms B. Easy ...'
In truth, my first year was not easy. It took repeated reassurance from countless colleagues that 'the first year out was definitely the hardest', for me to plough on, up and over this massive rollercoaster learning curve. All praise to brilliantly supportive colleagues! Even that phrase, 'the first year out . . . blah, blah, blah', which often echoed, often seemed a perfect fib, as I would count four piles of year 9 correction, plus year 7 projects, year 8 analytical assignments and 'Ms B, Ms B, I've written a draft for my writing assignment' ... in between the staff meeting, grappling with the challenge of classroom management and form teacher administration. Then there was that day in my first term of teaching I fainted in front of my year 9s ... No, actually, that was in my first week of teaching. Hmmm ... another story.
Yes, I've passed. And as I proceed with my second year of teaching, all I'll have to do to reassure myself that there is immeasurable value in taking the time and effort to foster students' learning capabilities is to picture Grace's face. Grace in Year Nine. Said she couldn't write a poem. Couldn't write the first word ... Until, after consistent, gentle reassurance that her ideas were valuable and all there, buried in her head and heart, Grace began. She began her plunge into the imagination, sitting on the floor, recollecting emotions 'in tranquillity'. It was a beaming, glowing, widely grinning face which, forty minutes later, proclaimed aloud, 'Ms B. Ms B., my sonnet, my sonnet, I've done it!'
And I've done it too.
Thank you to all those Graces. For finding the courage to do it. And often with a smile.
Elise Batchelor completed her Bachelor of Arts with Honours in English at Monash University, Clayton. She has a Master of Arts; the topic of her thesis was on the novels and short stories of Tim Winton. Elise is currently in her second year at Korowa Anglican Girls' School in Glen Iris, Melbourne, teaching English and Year 12 Literature.