Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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3.1 Teachers demonstrate commitment

1.1 Teachers know their students

How does the teacher demonstrate care and concern for students in a context of fostering their linguistic competence?

How does the teacher sustain and renew commitment to students, teaching and professional life?

  Finding the right moment (and nearly missing it)
Years 10 - 12
Sarah Rutherford

I awake in a desperate state of mind the morning of the last day of term two. I just can't go in today. I just can't face it, I think, staring mindlessly through the dim light at my bedroom's ghastly orange-bubble-glass 70s lampshade. Laboured sigh. My partner gently encourages me to get out of bed. I grunt abuse in his general direction. He resorts to heftier measures. He knows what to do on days like this. His feet find and wedge their way under my hip and into the small of my back. He pushes relentlessly. I take the doona with me, in an attempt to resist his actions. I am borne into a day I want no part of. I am so tired. But I know that I have to go.

I told Year 12s they can have their Text SAC marks today - nameless, vagrant pieces of work need to be returned to rightful owners (whoever wants to claim them) - and I need to be sure that I really have made it through yet another system of computerised reporting. And I still need to have a teaching experience that I think is valid enough to reconstruct in a narrative. Maybe, just maybe&this might be the day. I've had months to write one. I can't think of a time that I actually demonstrated good teaching practice and fear that I will never have one.

Five periods on. 11C first. Love them. I take one step inside the door to the classroom and already I know they hate the new book (Tell Me I'm Here). Yesterday we began background work on it. A whole period of discussing mental illness and schizophrenia; explaining why Down's Syndrome and mental retardation are not mental illnesses. We have read the introduction together. I stop, still standing, captured by the energy in the classroom. (Beautiful) Oliver speaks for them all. 'I can't believe you're MAKING us read this book! It's so depressing! AND it's got swear words!' he exclaims. 'Really?' I inquire.

He misses my tone. 'Yes! Haven't you read the book yet?'

'Oliver.' My inflexion lowers and I look at him, pointedly. He gets it.

'Oh. Yeah. Okay then. Of course you have - you're the teacher. But don't you think it's just awful!?'

'Which bit? And do you mean the swearing in it - or that it's depressing?'

'Both! It's just horrific! In the first chapter he (Jonathan) calls his mother a "fucking Mars Bar"! You can't do that!'

I love his reaction. I shuffle my chronicle and pencil box to my left side, and place my weight on my right. My eyes narrow, my head tilts slightly to the right (my 'critical engagement with student' stance). Among other comments, I respond with: 'But he's having a psychotic episode. If you're shocked, how d'y' reckon Anne Deveson felt?' Eyes like saucers, Oliver shakes his head energetically in disbelief. 'I know!' he cries. And I love him all the more. Simon 'I-loathe-reading' Pech picks up his book, looks suspiciously from Oliver to me, and is momentarily engaged. 'Does this book really have swearing?' And I love him, too.

I move towards 'my desk' (a table selected at random). An A5 yellow envelope, belonging to a Year 10 student, threatens to escape from the sleeve of my chronicle. It contains one of the most deeply personal pieces of writing I have ever read. I am shocked - rapt - delighted - honoured, that its author trusted me to read it. But I don't know what to do with it. I don't know how to respond to it adequately, even though I have discussed the content with the student concerned. I have been carrying it around with me for weeks. It wavers, but I catch it before it falls to the floor. For what must be the hundredth time, I glance at the writing on the front of it:

I return it to the sleeve of my chronicle, and hope that I can get away without returning it to its author - again. My attention returns to 11C for the rest of the period.

(Second period is uneventful.)

Third period: Year 12. We're doing 'this is weird shit' Medea. Everyone is on time (miracle). They work hard, take detailed notes and ask good questions. They are on their best behaviour for fear that I will not return their Text SAC marks. They have been trying to prise these out of me for weeks. I notice each one of them stealing surreptitious looks at the clock and their watches. They scan through their text, trying to predict where I'm going to stop for the day. I pretend not to notice, and almost delight in playing at being languid and relaxed (this is an act I am still trying to perfect with Year 12). They are delighted with their results. They even happily agree to complete all their holiday homework. I overhear Melissa 'DON'T come to me - I'll come to you' O'Hare comment to a classmate that she's 'glad she marked us so hard in the practice SACs. It really taught me how to do it. It wasn't as hard for us as the other classes, I don't reckon.' That comment&came from Melissa?

Fourth period. The classroom is empty, briefly, and I take the time to just sit and stare at the hordes passing outside my classroom windows. Yawn. Amanda, the Year 10 owner of the aforementioned A5 yellow envelope arrives first, breathless, the best grin consuming her whole face. She is ruled by her heart. Her passion drives her every action. Nothing is ever tepid with her. She loves intensely and hates with equal vehemence. I think I relate so well to her because I see myself in that behaviour. 'I've been dying to get here! Have you got it? Did you mark it? Can I have it back?' I hesitate to respond and look at her. She places her bag gently on the desk between us. Her face falls flat and she gives me a considered gaze. Then she throws her arms up in the air.

The 'performance' has begun. 'You haven't, have you? GOD! Why not? What's so hard about it? I've talked about it with you, already! You don't have to write anything! I just want it back so that I can know what kind of mark it got, and then burn it, so that nobody ever finds out about it - ever. Did you know that after I wrote it, I put it under my mattress and slept on it, just in case my parents came into my room while I was asleep and found it? I just want it gone.' I tell her that I have marked it. 'But, I've focussed on it as a piece of writing. I really need to be sure you understand that before I give it back to you. I have to be really confident that you're not going to look at the mark and feel that I think less of you because you wrote about&what you did.'

She is dumbfounded. 'Miss Rutherford, do you think I'm stupid? I mean, do you really honestly believe that I can't tell the difference between what you think of me as a person, and what you think of my writing? Geez, you must not respect me at all!' (Who is dumbfounded?) I procure her work, and take her through its strengths and weaknesses. 'Oh, yeah. I see. I know what you mean. But, I'm still happy with a B+. Thanks.' Abbey, her friend, arrives and they chat noisily while the rest of the class fills up.

Paul galumphs in, throws his bag across the classroom, jumps onto a desk, literally swings from the rafter and lands quite smoothly on a chair. He yells some obscenities at a female classmate, and turns to face me. He is laughing loudly and provocatively. Does he have my attention? I want to kill him for killing my classes. But I smile at him gently and ask him how he is. He's 'pretty bloody good now that it's nearly holidays'. He's satisfied. For now. I have time for Paul, outside the classroom. But he is a challenge to tolerate in these surrounds. I will not miss him next semester.

I silently chant my 'signature-Paul McIntosh-mantra': 'I am a vessel of love and light.' I crack myself up. My own private joke. Breathe slowly and deeply while he's settling himself. Don't strangle him - yet. Don't threaten to send him out - yet. Remember he told the Head of Senior School that he has hated English until this year. For the first time in four years of high school, he has legitimately passed a semester of English. Slowly exhale. I am a vessel of love and light. I laugh out loud to myself.

The period takes an eternity. When the bell does go, my eyes are smarting. I want nothing more than to go to the Year 12 English meeting and sit in a big, soft chair and pretend to listen to what we're doing about SACs over the holidays. Amanda and Abbey hang back. Please, girls, please go. Please don't want to talk to me. I'm too tired. Please go to lunch. Please don't have a problem that you want to talk about. Please? 'Miss?' Abbey has such a gentle voice. 'Are you alright?'

I smile with as much gusto as I can muster. 'Of course! How could I not be great when it's just on holiday time? What are you guys up to these holidays? No moonlighting, I hope?' They laugh&and ask what I mean. They tell me what they're doing for the holidays. Usual teenage girl stuff. I don't stay in my classroom. I gather my books.

I still haven't had a moment of good teaching practice. It is weighing on my mind and I am dejected. The girls are still chatting to me. I alter the register of my voice and signal that my part of the conversation is closing. They look quickly at each other. Abbey starts. 'Before you go, Miss, I just want to say that having you this semester has been, like, really good. I didn't think there were any good English teachers. But you, you really showed me that I can be good at English. And you make it all so simple and easy. I've learned so much from you.' (Am I dreaming?) My heartbeat begins to thud. 'What do you mean?' Amanda takes over. 'Just what she said. You're a really good English teacher and we'll miss you. I hope I get you in Year 11.'

I am blown away. When did this happen? 'What do you mean by 'good'?' 'Miss Rutherford. You know. Just the stuff you do. The little stuff. And the big stuff. But we've gotta go. We've got hot lunch orders. See ya!' How did that happen? I was so close to having my narrative content spread before me! In detail! And now my sources are gone! I can't believe this.

I explain the dilemma of my narrative to a colleague. 'Moments of good teaching practice?' she inquires. 'You have those every day. Most of us do.'

'When?' I lean closer to her, over my soyaccino.

'Sarah. In the little things. When you stop and listen to a student. The encouragement you give when you don't even know you're giving it. Good teaching practice is just caring about the kids and having them know that you care.'

Yes, I guess I think that's part of it.

However, I think that it is also much more than that. I think it is also facilitating independent and self-directed learning. It is all the stuff we read about in khaki coloured textbooks with titles like, 'Teaching and Learning: A Professional Growth Curve'. But in my search for the perfect example of good teaching practice, these vignettes are what constantly came to my mind. The moments I have selected are not moments when I am facilitating learning within some rigorously theorised pedagogical framework. They capture something different and more personal than that: Melissa's satisfaction with her SAC result after really harsh results in term one; Paul's simple satisfaction that he gained some special attention; Amanda's B+, in addition to feeling comfortable enough to write something really personal in an essay; and the 'easy' connection with Oliver that ultimately aroused Simon's interest.

To provide a full account of the context that produced these moments of 'good' teaching' is, frankly, difficult, for these moments were unexpected. The contexts are often no more that a feeling of 'the right time and place'. Amanda and Abbey could have spoken to me at the beginning of the period. But they didn't. Thanks to that conversation with Oliver, Simon Pech (I hope) is conducting an expletive wordsearch in Tell Me I'm Here - and maybe picking up some of the storyline in the process. My Year 12s just aren't the types to express gratitude. But I'm glad I overheard Melissa's comment. It makes all those grunted and mumbled disparaging comments about my 'hard marking' in term one seem quite insignificant.

Ultimately, I think that good teaching practice is a combination of personal and professional teaching skills that enable a teacher to give students a basis for personal and academic development. Sometimes one succeeds more than the other. Sometimes both succeed. And sometimes we don't succeed with some students at all. Although I teach in the Catholic system, I don't think that would differ too much from the State or Independent systems. I think we all have mornings like the one I have described here. And I think, too, that we need to acknowledge that good teaching is as dependent on effective teaching and learning strategies as it is on the type of person facilitating it in the classroom.


Response to Sarah Rutherford's narrative

By Bella Illesca

To me, Sarah's narrative captures the way in which teaching can be fraught with contradictions as well as coherence and unity. She writes of being '...borne into a day she wants no part of', and of being 'tired'. She spends most of her time in search of 'a moment of good teaching', only to realise finally that they were there in multiples right under her nose. Yet even when she 'finds' them, nobody can really say what they are.

Sarah writes, 'to provide a full account of the context that produced these moments of "good" teaching' is, frankly, difficult, for these moments were unexpected. The contexts are often no more than a feeling of "the right time and place'''.

Sarah's student finds it just as difficult to say what she means by 'good' teaching.

'...Miss, I just want to say that having you this semester has been, like, really good. I didn't think that there were any good English teachers.

'What do you mean by 'good'?' asks Sarah.

'Miss Rutherford. You know. Just the stuff you do. The little stuff. And the big stuff.'

Perhaps we need new ways of talking about 'good' teaching practice. 'Big stuff. Little stuff'. These are interesting words to describe 'good teaching'. Instead of focussing on 'good' or 'best', which can too easily lead us down the path of obscure ideals or empty benchmarks, maybe we need to focus on the contradictions and challenges, the little things and big things, which teachers experience, and explore ways of dealing with them.

If as a profession we were to examine the political realities of the classroom and try to understand the power relations in which teachers work, then perhaps the professional standards we're aiming for might become clearer.

Sarah is not alone in her weariness of 'teaching' and her inability to think of a 'valid' teaching experience. I don't think it is the students or the classroom that weary her. Her weariness stems from the constant struggle against those within and outside the profession who want to have a say about 'good' English teaching. Against those who want to gauge 'good' teaching in terms of productivity and narrow understandings of competency and accountability. But also - perhaps paradoxically - against those who see teaching as a 'heroic' profession, as a 'calling' that some have and others don't. It's no wonder teachers are confused and tired. By idealising teachers as super heroes or heroines who enable children to realise their dreams (as in Hollywood fantasies like Dead Poets' Society or Dangerous Minds or Mr Holland's Opus), we romanticise and obscure what goes on in the classroom and depoliticise the teaching profession.

It's important that we don't obscure or romanticise the classroom further and for this reason it's significant that debate about professional standards for English teachers should be shaped by teachers themselves.

The narrative form allowed Sarah to write frankly about her teaching experiences. The result is a candid account that illustrates the daily contradictions and challenges she faces. Through writing her story, Sarah is able to explore the tensions between her personal and public identities.

The standards debate needs to be informed by as many perspectives as possible. To my mind, the STELLA narratives should not be seen as definitive accounts of 'good' teaching, but as stories about 'teaching practices'. Writing stories about teaching reminds us that our personal or subjective experiences are valuable. The STELLA stories have also caused me to examine the assumptions underpinning the ways we think about subject English, and to question whether such assumptions really accommodate the different experiences or voices that currently exist.

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