3. English Teacher

Despite my uncertain start as a teacher, I did after a while get the hang of the job. This enlightenment owed much to the good fortune that Vauxhall Manor School was an excellent school. It was a place where a good number of the teachers saw the students — almost all of whom had working-class backgrounds, and many of whom were the children of people who had come to Britain from the Caribbean — not as problems because of who they were and where they’d come from, but as people bringing a complex, diverse cultural and linguistic experience to the school, which could, if properly recognised, interact with and enrich the curriculum. I don’t wish to be retrospectively dewy-eyed; there were teachers at the school who had the worst, the most negative, the most cynical view of the children; but they were few. I embraced the school’s overall ethos, and especially the ethos of the English department which I’d joined, immediately and with enthusiasm, and I learnt quickly there because of the friendship and professional support of older colleagues who gave me a sense of the political purpose of what we were doing. We believed that children of whatever background might, with the right encouragement, do things that would amaze us and them. As my friend Stephen Eyers used to say, ‘Anyone may be capable of anything.’ I knew that this was a cause worth serving.

None of this might have happened to me. The woman at County Hall who sent me to Vauxhall Manor on that day in April 1974 might have sent me to many a school which could correctly if cruelly be described as a sink school; there were plenty of them in inner London at the time. If she had, I might not have lasted in teaching beyond a term. I’m grateful to her.

I rapidly discovered that my immediate colleagues at the school were part of a network of like-minded teachers in London and beyond. The ILEA English Centre, the National and the London Associations for the Teaching of English, and the English Department at the University of London Institute of Education were the organisational centres of this network of thought, and it was through the exchange of ideas and practices which they sponsored, through reading the books and articles which people there told me about, some of which they had written or were writing themselves, through hearing people talk at meetings and conferences and in pubs and restaurants, that I came to formulate and practise the approach to teaching which I shall try to set down theoretically here.

This approach takes as its starting point belief in and respect for the experience of the learner, an attitude which characterises the work of all the good and great teachers I have known, including my own two great teachers, Peter Hetherington, whom I mentioned in chapter 1 and who taught me when I was a teenager at Bedford Modern School, and Harold Rosen, Professor of English at the Institute of Education, who profoundly influenced me when I began to work in London schools. This belief is not of course to be confused with a sentimental admiration and tolerance for everything a child says and does, however insignificant, banal or destructive. (Children, as my colleague Terry Minker used to say, bear a remarkable resemblance to human beings, for good and ill.) However, I don’t believe that a person can be even a good teacher, let alone a great teacher, without it.

Belief in and respect for the experience of the learner is more or less the same thing as recognition of the connectedness and wholeness of the cognitive and emotional state and the linguistic competence of the learner. A child who is being bullied at school or who is living with a violent parent will learn less well than a child, similar in other respects, not suffering in that way. A child who is enjoying a book he or she is reading, at the same time as absorbing whatever factual or fictional content the book offers, is gaining insights into grammatical, orthographic and rhetorical structures of written language, whether or not he or she has the metalinguistic terminology to name those structures. A child who senses, even occasionally, the joy of discovery and success in learning at school is agreeing to that extent to give a teacher the benefit of the doubt next time he or she asks the child to undertake a task. The joy of discovery and success has stimulated an appetite for more of the same; has increased in the learner’s mind the probability that more pleasure is available where the first pleasure came from.

These general truths apply to all learners at all times and in all situations. As an English teacher in an urban secondary school, I came gradually to apprehend them, first implicitly and then with increasing analytical focus, by working the territory of children’s growing mastery of spoken and written language. This growing mastery was evidenced in their own stories and poems (oral or written), plays (written, improvised or both), talks, songs, letters, reports, critical essays; and in their developing enthusiasm for books — chiefly books of imaginative literature, whether high art or popular fiction — and, along the way, their admiration for particular authors. This is to put the matter optimistically. I could say the same thing in a more problematic tone, by admitting that I taught many children for whom the phrase ‘growing mastery’ as a description of their classroom work with me would be misleading; ‘struggle to overcome difficulties’ would be more apt. The important thing to recognise (and I was fortunate in being helped to recognise this from the beginning of my teaching career) is the unity and continuity of effective teaching, whether I am helping a 15-year-old girl, already a confident reader, to embark on a piece of serious and demanding adult literature for the first time, or giving an 11-year-old girl, who has entered secondary school barely able to write, the intense pleasure of reading out loud to the class a coherent, interesting, properly spelt and punctuated paragraph of her own, and being applauded for doing so. The unity and continuity of effective teaching, as applied to English teaching, has for me its own local set of principles, and they are these.

First, the learning of language is principally but not exclusively an unconscious process. If it were not so, our lives would not be long enough for us to gain even the most rudimentary grasp of the language of our culture and community. Take any department of the scientific study of language; take phonetics or syntax or rhetoric or punctuation. The analytical study of these complex areas exercises the minds of expert and interested adults, whether as writers or readers of books, articles and theses on these subjects, as conference-goers, as members of learned societies. It exercises their minds as a never-ending quest for more sophisticated, more accurate, more elegant ways of grouping and distinguishing like and unlike things in these areas. The quest has been going on for centuries, and rightly, since language is perhaps the greatest of human achievements. Sometimes there are huge revolutions in linguistic science, as in other sciences; sometimes modern linguists make discoveries which they realise are close to discoveries which excited mediaeval or classical scholars.

All this is good. But what about me, sitting on my father’s lap at the age of three, taking in — with his essential help — Amphibians of the British Isles? My father, educated man, scientist as he was and is, had no training as a linguist or a teacher. He would have hesitated if asked to name the grammatical functions of each of the words in the phrases and paragraphs he was reading, though he would have managed some. He could not have discussed with me the discourse structures which meant that the description of the habits and habitat of the natterjack toad was a satisfying, accumulating snowball of meaning as he read it, not simply a collection of disjointed, if true, facts about the beast. If, having read to me the sentence Natterjack toads hibernate in winter., he had stopped to point out that the i in hibernate is pronounced differently from the i in winter because, often but not always, i when followed by a consonant followed by another vowel is pronounced long (pine or mile, but be careful about pigeon, pivot or pity, something different is going on there, those second vowels [apart from the y in pity] are not concluding vowels, that’s the difference, remember that) and, often but not always, i when followed by a double consonant is pronounced short (pill or miss, but be careful about sign or might, something different is going on there, those silent consonants are there for etymological reasons, those are not straightforward sound/symbol correspondences, remember that); if he had been foolish or half-informed enough to do these things, my attention might have wandered.

The principle holds for all areas of language learning, at all stages. However, I said that the learning of language is principally but not exclusively an unconscious process. Of course there is conscious language learning too, in every learner’s experience, at least in literate societies with formal schooling systems. I remember consciously learning the letters of the alphabet, and then practising writing those letters, in long strings of as, bs and cs, down to zs, across the page. To take a few other examples at random, from different areas of language learning and different stages of development, we may consciously remember being taught what is the ballad form in poetry, the meaning of the terms transitive and intransitive verb, how to set out dialogue and stage directions in a play script, or how to gain the reader’s attention with an arresting first sentence in a ghost story. These random examples might well be small features of a planned curriculum; and I do believe that an organised programme of progressively more demanding encounters with language in a diversity of forms, and of opportunities to use language, spoken and written, in a diversity of forms and for a diversity of purposes, is the right of every school learner. I am not a romantic, in the sense that I don’t believe that any old rag-bag of language experiences, haphazardly provided, will serve the learner well, however respectful the teacher may be of the experience the learner brings into the classroom. Every school subject must have its planned curriculum; in the case of English, deciding the content of that curriculum has been contentious, as I shall mention again below.

But once the need for a consciously planned curriculum has been fully acknowledged, it remains true that all conscious learning and teaching of language within that curriculum, if it is to be effective, must draw on the immense store of unconscious learning which has already occurred, without which there would be no further conscious learning, no analytical ordering of and detailed focussing on parts of that great reality which the immensely powerful human brain, operating the big gears of unconscious apprehension and then generalisation, has already been tangling with.

The second local principle is an extrapolation of the first, and is more briefly put. The most effective way to teach is to show, not tell; or to show, then tell, not the other way round. The learner proceeds from accessible and pleasing models, in everything from early handwriting to composing essays which will be acceptable to A-Level examiners, by seeing and internalising how other people have done it, and then doing it for herself or himself, not as an exact copy of others’ achievements, but as a production carrying her or his own signature within the tradition which he or she has joined. Although, as I said in the description of my childhood, my overall experience of schooling was one of success and ease, there were within it some acute moments of difficulty, as for example in the first term of my first year in the sixth form, trying and failing to write essays about King Lear or A Passage to India, getting grades E and F with depressing regularity, because I had not grasped the curious compositional conventions which were — and to a large extent still are — regarded as the proper way to write about literature. Essentially, these involve the writer assuming a spoof objectivity about the work being discussed, so that he or she actually expresses opinions while appearing to convey received fact. Once my teacher showed me some examples of how it should be done, the E and F grades were transformed immediately into As and Bs. When, a few years later, I came to be teaching A-Level English myself, it took me some time with my struggling students to remember to do the same thing myself. When I did remember, the benefit was immediate.

The third local principle concerns learners who are having difficulty, particularly as readers and/or writers. There has in recent decades been an explosion of interest in and concern for children with what we now call special educational needs. This interest and concern is in itself humane and good. However, with it has come, from some quarters, the desire to pathologise all learners’ difficulties, and — to extend the medical metaphor — to pseudo-scientifically announce a diagnosis and prescribe a treatment, say for any child who has difficulty reading. I willingly and immediately acknowledge that there is a small group of children, intellectually damaged, disabled or unusual in a variety of ways, whose needs are so extreme or specific that the teacher’s approach to their learning will need to be specialist. But there is a much larger group of children who, for reasons likely to be socio-psychological rather than medico-psychological, have not so far in their lives experienced pleasure, success and confidence as readers and/or writers. This lack causes them to resist further encounters with written language, which only bring them despondency, embarrassment and frustration. Children of this kind do not need exceptional, arcane teaching routines, in which elements of language (learned holistically and unconsciously by more successful readers and writers) are first decontextualised and then presented to the struggling learner as repetitive sets, to be apprehended and learned slowly and painfully in the low gears of conscious learning. Children of this kind need more privileged access to the same range of experiences of written language which successful readers and writers have had, in which the high gears are at work, in which the affective, the cognitive and the linguistic areas of the mind are in interactive and mutually supportive operation, engaging with real language and getting the rewards — small to begin with, perhaps, but felt and accumulating — which encounters with real language bring.

This is why, when 11-year-olds supposed not to be readers, having scored abysmally on any of the standardised reading tests which they had attempted, were offered in my and my colleagues’ classes the opportunity to write their own stories, taped or scribed or written themselves and corrected, then typed up and stapled into booklets which became part of the whole class’s reading repertoire, they suddenly showed themselves capable of reading their own booklets at levels far beyond their given ‘reading age’. This is why they then went on to read similar booklets written by others in the class or by children in other classes. This is why they then, first with help from a teacher or a classmate who was a more confident reader and later independently, began to read printed books, so that before too long, as they said themselves, ‘they could read’.

Mary Warnock, in her famous report on children with special educational needs, estimated that my small group of children with extreme or specific needs constituted about 2% of the total school population, and that my larger group constituted about 18%. I believe these percentages still to be broadly right. Returning finally to the 2%, the specialist approach which I acknowledged to be necessary is likely to consist in the nature of a teacher’s address to the learner, or in the use of technology which is now available to help children with such difficulties; when we come to the actual encounter between a learner’s brain, however damaged, disabled or unusual, and knowledge mediated through language, spoken or written, the 2% is still part of the 100%, not in a universe of its own. Those children need to gain pleasure, to grasp and make meaning, in and from whole, real language, just like the rest of us.

Those were and are my three key principles of English teaching. I came to understand them, and then to be able to articulate them, over a period of perhaps three years from my first hapless encounters with children in the summer of 1974. I did this, as I have said, because of the supportive, collegiate, exploratory culture of which I had become a member. I was beginning to apply those principles in the context of the political idea that all children had the right to the same opportunities and experiences which I and my colleagues, most of us products of a selective and sometimes a privileged education, had had ourselves. When one understands the political context in which one’s day-to-day work takes place, the understanding provokes a desire for action across a wider sphere of influence than one can achieve solely in one’s own classroom. I joined that wider effort.

The 1970s and 1980s were years of optimism in the English teaching circles in which I moved. We were determined to make the curriculum more relevant to children’s lives; classrooms would be places where children’s own experience would be valued and made a part of that curriculum; children’s spoken language would be encouraged as a mode of learning; both talk and writing would be practised in a rich diversity of forms; we would show our students literature which previous generations of teachers had thought them too stupid to understand; under our guidance, children would become makers and shapers of language, and therefore of their lives. The purpose always was to raise standards, to include the traditional English teacher’s concerns about correctness in writing and about teaching a canon of literature within a new excitement in broadening and diversifying students’ experience and mastery of language, in particular making sure that working-class and black and ethnic-minority children, who constituted the overwhelming majority of those we taught, were given the opportunity to share in that experience and gain that mastery.

The major institutional obstacle to the fulfilment of such thinking in secondary schools was the examination system. So we set about trying to change examinations, so that spoken as well as written language was assessed, a wider range of texts was studied, and children produced a far greater diversity of kinds of writing than previously.

In 1989, the Thatcher government introduced a national curriculum. I supported and support this reform in principle, on the grounds of equality of entitlement of all children to the same range of experience and knowledge. Those of our way of thinking chosen to be members of drafting committees, or those who worked informally with committee members who then took drafts to the committees, did our best to see to it that the national curriculum for English manifested at least something of the vision I’ve described. This work needed stamina and some political cunning, for the Thatcher government’s vision of a national curriculum for the subject English was, from the outset, the opposite of ours. It wished to impose on the country a version of English teaching based on the sentimental public-school or grammar-school memories of some ministers and their advisers, in which — to caricature only slightly — rows of silent-until-spoken-to children would be shown the mysteries and beauties of a small number of pieces of great literature, would write neat essays on subjects such as ‘A Day in the Life of a Penny’ or ‘Travel Broadens the Mind’, would learn how to parse a sentence according to a Latinate model of grammar (a model discredited for the analysis of living languages by the most influential contemporary linguists), and would confine their use of continuous spoken language to formal debates on propositions such as ‘This House would Welcome the Return of Capital Punishment’.

It was here, in the narrower, cruder associations of the word political, that I realised what a political arena English teaching had become. I had for 15 years been expending my energies, as had scores and hundreds of like-minded colleagues, trying to produce more success in English classrooms across the country by applying and promoting methods which would work for the majority of children; methods which were in some respects extensions of, and in other respects sharply different from, the methods which had for the previous century served the minority well enough and lamentably failed the majority. We were hauling the children of our nation away from the state of affairs which had prevailed in the early 1960s, when eight out of 10 children left school with no paper qualification whatever. What could be more admirable than that? Who would not recognise the worth of that endeavour, whatever their political allegiance?

My naivety was short-lived. Effective English teaching is in fact a whole, complex set of practices which, when I was a classroom teacher, included: the good sense to say nothing, to draw no lessons, as a child wept gently in the corner of the room when I read aloud how Billy Casper discovered his hawk, dead, towards the end of Barry Hines’s novel Kes; and the skill of showing children how to punctuate speech in written stories. Despite this fact, it was convenient for the Thatcher government, its advisers and its supporters in the right-wing newspapers, to invent for the public a fictional image of my friends and me as a kind of fifth column, an enemy within, a group whose secret mission was to use the classroom to promote leftist ideologies, and who were in the process bringing about a catastrophic decline in standards of language, literacy, culture and even manners in the young. By a curious twist of political language, the phrase it coined to deride us was ‘the educational establishment’.

But the difficulty for any government wishing to bring about change in as detailed an area as the curriculum of a school subject is that it is obliged in the end to rely on the knowledge and experience of those who are actually expert in that area. The great majority of those actually expert in the area of language, literacy and English teaching knew that the Thatcher government’s regretfully retrospective vision for the nation’s classrooms was unworkable. Advanced democracies need populations of broadly informed, enquiring, confidently literate citizens, and need particularly to pay attention to the educational achievement of the children of its socio-economically poorer families. Our democracy was and is far more likely to achieve that desirable end by embracing the vision of classrooms which I first encountered in 1974, a vision which still holds good in thousands of schools throughout the land, despite reverses which the use of power for reactionary purposes in Conservative and Labour administrations since then has brought about in some aspects of curriculum and examinations. In the long revolution, our vision is winning.

I was for seven years a classroom English teacher (five at Vauxhall Manor School and two at Hackney Downs School). During the next eleven years, in various capacities, I was an adviser of teachers, in inner London, in the county of Shropshire, and on two national curriculum development projects. I helped to run courses and conferences, I gave talks, I wrote, edited and contributed to books and articles about English teaching and the role of language in learning. In 1992 I joined Channel 4’s schools broadcasting service (see chapter 5).

Harold Rosen, one of my two great teachers, died in 2008. This is what I said about him at an event held in March 2009 at the University of London Institute of Education to celebrate his life.

‘I knew Harold for the last 32 years of his life. I was never formally his student, and yet he was — as I told him not long before he died — one of my great teachers, for this reason: he showed how to combine intellectual effort with political purpose. Harold knew that a person’s achievement is only meaningful to the extent that it changes the lives of other people, the lives of organisations (like schools) and the life of society as a whole, for the better: a principle which holds for even as great a talent and as significant a contribution as his own. I never met anyone who more completely lived the idea that the point is not simply to interpret the world, but to change it.

Harold’s life in education exemplified his conviction that theory and practice, thinking and doing, are interpenetrating. He understood and taught that education is a supremely practical business, not a ‘pure’ science. In the years that I knew him, by which time he had already gained the eminence and reputation he so richly deserved, he was constant in his insistence that those whose job it is to help teachers teach better should apply their mental effort to that task, and not go off on academic frolics of their own.

One small outcome of this clarity of Harold’s vision was a visit he made with Tony Burgess to Vauxhall Manor School in south London, some time I think in 1976. A group of us at the school — teachers of several curriculum subjects — had begun to publish home-made papers describing research we had been doing into aspects of language and learning in our classrooms. Harold and Tony were excited at what we were doing. Youngsters as we teachers were, we were pleased and perhaps understandably flattered by this support. But Harold being Harold, this wasn’t just a pat on the head from the great. He took a detailed interest in the progress of the work, reading and commenting on every paper as it came out. He tried his hardest to get the papers published commercially by Ward Lock, and when that didn’t work out he wrote to the Schools Council about us. Partly as a result of his efforts, the Council advanced us a loan which enabled us to publish the papers in 1982 as a book called Becoming our own Experts.

Around 1980, Harold and some of his colleagues proposed that the Institute should host twice-yearly conferences for teachers, which would be opportunities for the exchange of research, theory and practice in language education so dear to his heart. These conferences came to be known as ‘Language in Inner-City Schools’. They were organised by a group of people inside and outside the Institute, of whom I was one. They turned into very large affairs; at their peak, around 500 people attended every January and June. More diligent archivists than I will know exactly how many conferences there were in total, but it was certainly more than 20, so they ran for more than 10 years. They covered every conceivable topic within urban language education. The summer 1984 conference, which coincided with Harold’s official though not of course actual retirement, was one of the best, and best attended. We called it ‘A Telling Exchange’. Harold’s keynote address to that conference was a magnificent fusion of his political beliefs with his lifetime’s accumulation of educational understanding; it was simply inspirational.

Harold’s lived principle — that those who have been raised up within any social structure, in his case the structure of the British education system, must use their advancement to support the efforts of those who work within the structure — came from his socialist understanding of a possible just society, and his work towards that goal. One of his favourite poems was Brecht’s Questions from a Worker who Reads. Most people in the room will know the poem well; I’ll just read out the first few lines.

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, so many times demolished,
who raised it up again so many times?
In what houses of gold-glittering Lima
did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China
was finished, did the masons go?

Harold validated, challenged and empowered the working lives of thousands of teachers, the builders of the structure of which he was a master mason. Many years ago I was one of those builders myself, and on behalf of thousands of us I salute his achievement and honour his memory.’

My other great teacher, Peter Hetherington, is still vigorously alive. We meet often, and continue to educate each other.