L.P Hartley, The Go Between
This article was written as a contribution to the Jubilee edition of Idiom, the journal of VATE - the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English. I have been a member of VATE since the late 1960s, became a member of VATE council - its governing body - around 1973 or 1974, and served as President from 1978-80. I was made a Life Member of the organisation in 1990.
It is, and we did.
I began teaching in 1965, after completing an undistinguished BA and Dip Ed at Melbourne. I recall sitting in the auditorium of the Secondary Teachers’ Training College in late 1964, anxiously awaiting the announcement of my fate. Doug McDonnell, who was in charge of the college, was announcing the schools to which we had been appointed.
Stephen Cook, the creator of Porous Pasternak – a zany, ironic cartoon that Stephen created and that was published in Farrago – was a contemporary; we weren’t exactly friends, but we were on chatting terms, having first met four years earlier when we began our degrees, thrown together by the proximity of our names on the alphabetic list.
The truth is, I was in awe of Stephen. Midway through the Dip Ed year Stephen had thumbed his nose at the Dip Ed course and the Education Department and took a month or two off – to write a novel. Like me, Stephen was a bonded student. We’d both received studentships, which had paid our University tuition fees and had given us a small living allowance for our four years of university education; in return we were bonded - required to teach for three years in whatever school we were appointed to.
As with most things in my life at that time, I was ambivalent. Part of me desperately wanted to escape the shackles of my dependency on my mother; an appointment to a country school would have allowed me to move out of home without drama. The other part was not yet ready for independence; besides I had a girlfriend. If I were sent to the country...
So often the course of our lives is determined in the briefest of moments; our lives ‘turn on a breath’.
Doug McDonnell announced: “Barry Carozzi – Glenroy Technical School.”
And a few moments later: “Stephen Cook – Mallacoota Consolidated School.”
For Stephen, it was a cruel punishment. His life revolved around writing, around the emerging culture of Carlton and the University ... I wondered what would happen to him so far from the cultural milieu in which he had been thriving. But my fate was clear: I would be teaching at Glenroy Tech, where I had already completed a teaching round.
2009: Beginning secondary teaching (again)
In September, 2008, after fifteen years of teaching professional writing and editing in the TAFE system – initially at Chisholm in Frankston and Berwick, and then, from 2000, at NMIT Greensborough – I decided to return to Secondary teaching. I was no longer content with the TAFE dispensation; indeed, I felt ill-used by my TAFE employers, and could no longer stomach working for them.
I’d last taught full time in a school in 1984, when I’d taught English at Preston East Tech. – now Northland Secondary College. In the 25 or so years since I’d had two stints as a school principal (Broadmeadows Tech. – Broady - 1985-88; Alphington Grammar, 1992-94), spent three years at Waterdale School Support Centre, and taught writing in TAFE and taught in the Dip Ed and B Ed at Melbourne Uni.(Hawthorn campus).
I successfully applied for a Leading Teacher position at Warrandyte High School; when I began I was six months shy of my 66th birthday. Most of my friends and colleagues – the people I’d taught with over the years – had pulled the plug, had hung up their boots, had retired to quieter pastures. Many raised their eyebrows when they heard what I was intending. Some were more direct: “Do you think you’ll be able to cope?” Or “You must be mad!”
It was a concern for me, too. For 15 years I’d taught writing to adults who wanted to learn, who were – to use that old fashioned term “highly motivated”. I’d set a task – say, a non fiction piece on a topic of their own choosing; 500 words minimum. Few were at a loss for words. Some would hand in 5000 (!) words. They sought my advice, valued my opinion, responded to my suggestions and editorial comments. The four hour classes would slip by, almost painlessly. Often our conversations were engrossing, and would continue during our coffee break. It was – on reflection – very civilised.
During those years I remember feeling grateful that I was working with adults, and not battling with adolescents. Not trying to get blood out of a stone. Garth Boomer once described Secondary teaching as ‘being slowly pecked to death by ducks.’
In late January, 2009, I commenced my 45th year as a teacher, teaching English to 8.2, two year 10 classes and a year 12.
The first year of teaching in a new school is always tough – maybe not quite as tough as your first year of teaching, but very tough nonetheless. I’d started anew at Glenroy Tech, Lalor Tech, Preston East Tech – and now, Warrandyte High. You are a stranger in a strange land; you are entering a complex social landscape blindfolded and naked; they play the game by their own rules; it’s confusing, demoralising. And the ducks have a field day. You’d think it would get easier, but it doesn’t.
The foreign country - where we did things differently
Were today’s first-year-out teachers to climb aboard the Tardis and travel back those almost 50 years to a place like Glenroy Tech., they would find a very different educational landscape...
So much has changed. Let me count the ways... in no particular order.
Two (or so) systems
An obvious difference was that in the 1960s there were two systems of secondary education: Technical schools for students who were ‘good with their hands’; and High schools, the chief function of which was to sort the truly academic sheep from the lesser goats. Those who survived to year 12 could go on to University; around 10% of children actually attended uni.
Technical schools were mostly for boys whose aim was to work in the trades.
[It was much more complex, actually: there were Central Schools, Girls Schools, Consolidated schools, the Catholic system, the denominational schools ... ]
Another very obvious difference would be the size of classes. Our English classes at Glenroy contained 48 students. They would line up in rows in the corridor – or outside the portable. I taught 3GH (Year 9s in today’s parlance) in a green portable, in a muddy paddock, beside the Woodwork Department’s sawdust extractor. The students sat in rows, two to a desk, and teachers practiced the art of crowd control.
[Teachers of Trade subjects taught groups of 24. Often they taught in 2 period blocks, so they taught 14 or 15 different classes. They taught 300 or more different students a week! In the early 70s, written reports replaced the % mark system. A Woodwork teacher got around the problem of not actually knowing his students by name by giving every boy the same comment: “Good boy, work well.”]
A third obvious thing is the ‘naming of the parts’. The name “3GH” had a special significance. When students entered secondary schools and technical schools in the early 1960s, they were required to complete a ‘battery’ of tests. These were called ‘intake tests’- tests of Vocabulary, Reading for Meaning and Arithmetic. In some schools there was also an IQ test. The students were then “streamed”. The ‘top’ 48 students were assigned to the AB stream; the next group was CD and so on.
Three GH was the bottom stream at GTS – it contained the 48 boys who, according to the intake tests, were least able in terms of literacy and numeracy skills and general intelligence. Most were just waiting for the day they turned 15 and could leave. Fresh from Ian Hansen’s 8 lectures on English Method, and from three years of University English, I thought The Rime of the Ancient Mariner would be the place to start my Year 9 English program – that, and Active and Passive voice.
Three GH was full of slow learners. Ronnie Scouller was one. Ron Geddes was another. I was a third. Ronnie could barely write his name; he couldn’t even read Ridout & McGregor, Book 3, let alone answer the grammar questions. The simplest of texts were beyond Ronnie. I pushed on with Coleridge ...
By thy long grey beard and glittering eye now wherefore stopst thou me ...
The guests are met, the feast is set, mayst hear the merry din ...
For anyone walking through the mud behind the Woodwork room, the din was indeed merry!
It took me a whole term to realise that 3GH couldn’t understand a word of The Rime.
I love God an my country / Take your hands out of your pocket when you are talking to me, son / Put your hand out, boy, and take your punishment like a man!
Today’s young teachers would notice the authoritarianism and traditionalism of schools. Every school had uniforms. Each Monday morning we swore allegiance to the Queen, sang the national anthem, saluted the flag. Teachers were required to sign on and off each day, in the school timebook. Male teachers were required to wear suits; no one wore shorts. Slacks were unheard of; women wore dresses. And in the salary award female teachers earned much less than male teachers, even though they did exactly the same work. [Equal pay wasn’t introduced until the 1970s.]
Our time travelling young teachers would most likely be appalled at the amount of violence, even brutality, that was an everyday part of school life. The strap was a commonplace punishment in schools – especially in schools like Glenroy Tech. For many teachers, hitting children was a routine method of control. School yard violence was ugly, and it was common. You’d see kids running full pelt out to the oval, where a growing circle of jostling boys chanted “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Prescribed Curriculum and HM Inspectors
In theory all schools followed the same prescribed syllabus. It was written by University academics. Grammar was the core of the 7 – 10 curriculum, along with the other mechanics of English – spelling and punctuation. Composition was there too. And literature.
Students were ‘expected to learn , among other things, about the case of nouns – nominative, nominative of address, possessive, objective; transitive and intransitive verbs; and the function of the infinitive and the past participle.’
When I arrived at Glenroy Tech. In February 1965 to teach English and Social Studies. Gerry Tickell, who was Head of the English/Social Studies department, handed me a copy of Ridout and McGregor’s English for Australian Schools, a traditional and dreary textbook, full of grammar exercises and dull writing tasks:
• A Day in the Life of a Shilling
• Write a letter to a Washing Machine manufacturer complaining of a faulty part.
English was pretty dull. As Garth Boomer observed of that time: “Grammar marches on. Give us each day our well-worn chains.”
Each year schools were inspected by the Inspectors. They would come into your classroom, observe your teaching, check your lesson plans, ask questions of your students, and decide whether you were Outstanding, Very Good, Good or Not satisfactory. We lived in fear of the inspectors – they had the power to promote us (to a higher salary) or to have us transferred.
At GTS there were 16 people teaching English and Social Studies. Of the 16, perhaps 4 were trained secondary teachers. Norm, Judy and Peter were trained primary teachers. The remainder brought a range of academic skills: some had completed a year or less of a university degree. Some had even studied in the Arts faculty – albeit briefly.
Getting high on the smell of metho: the Roneo machine
No Xerox machine, no photocopiers. How would we cope, now that we are so dependent on that technology? We had roneo machines, manually operated, fuelled by methylated spirits. Ah, the memory of those intoxicating fumes.
The more things change
I’ve ridden the Tardis in the other direction – I’ve been around for 45 years - and I’m taken by how little some aspects of schools have changed. Teachers still moan about extras; kids are still distrustful of new teachers and give them a hard time. Subjects still dominate the landscape. The territorial remains an imperative.
There are differences , not least the massive changes in the day-to-day lives of kids.
I was amazed at how dependent today’s kids are on iPods and mobile phones, how some spend every lunch and recess texting friends, listening to music. Even in tough working class schools in the 60s binge drinking wasn’t the problem it s today among adolescents. Nor were families as fragmented. Even in the 80s, kids in Lalor would get out into the paddocks and try their hand at catching rabbits.
So much has changed, but the essence of teaching is what it has always been.
‘Relationship’ lies at heart of what we do as English teachers – always did, probably always will. Achieving it is a ‘problem’ we face with each new year, with each new class we take on. But that problem intensifies exponentially when we change schools. I faced this ‘exponential challenge’ at Glenroy in 1965, at Lalor in 1977, at Preston East in 1983, at Warrandyte in 2009 was: how am I to create working relationships with the kids in this school?
In some ways how we think of our work as teachers has changed. As a first year teacher, my question was (and remains): How am I to survive? Which used to slide easily in to: How can I control this class? Maybe there has been a shift in our collective understanding; that slide seems now to be to: How can I more effectively engage the kids I’m teaching? Or as Jimmy Britton put it: How do we ‘harness the intentions’ of our students?
Which brings me to what I want to say about VATE.
Ian Hansen, lecturer in English Method in Dip Ed at Melbourne, encouraged us to join up to VATE. At Glenroy Tech., Gerry Tickell, who was Head of English, and became my mentor and friend, and who was – and is - one of Australia’s great educational thinkers and practitioners – also encouraged me to join VATE. It was a fledging organisation then – barely 5 years old.
The early issues of Idiom were produced on an ink printer, called a Gestetner. They were foolscap sized and had green covers. I may still have some hoarded away somewhere.
The VATE Council was largely composed of University English and English Method academics and private school teachers. My recollection – admittedly vague and therefore suspect – is that during the late 1960s VATE was preoccupied with Senior English and with supporting the status quo. But changes were in the wind.
AD Hope, the patron of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, came out publicly and opposed the teaching of grammar, which he described as ‘a diverting and amusing game ... (However) the time might be better spent playing chess or scrabble.’ His views were supported by research findings that a knowledge of grammar correlated more closely with skill in algebra, and that – despite the ideology that had prevailed for 60 years – knowledge of grammar did not seem to correlate at all with the ability to write.
The change came with amazing rapidity. In February 1965 Gerry Tickell handed me Ridout & McGregor as the English textbook of choice. Within 12 months he was working with Tony Delves on a book that was to bring revolutionary changes to the teaching of English in Australia: Themes and Responses.
Garth Boomer described the years 1968-72 as ‘The Great Adventure’. We went from a prescribed course that ‘largely (followed) the pattern laid down at a time when English meant the literature and language of the educated classes in England’ (Hope, 1967), to an era when the leaders of the Education Department in Victoria established as policy that ‘each school is responsible for developing its own curriculum in response to the characteristics and needs of its students.’
In my version of the history of that era (mid-60s to mid 80s) VATE shifted from being a conservative organisation that upheld the traditionalist status quo to being at the forefront of change in the teaching of English.
VATE hosted the visits of a range of major thinkers, people whose ideas were powerfully reinterpreting the English teachers’ role. David Holbrook, who wrote the highly influential English for the Rejected, spent several weeks in Melbourne, and spoke to teachers around the state. It was Holbrook’s thinking that most influenced my teaching practice and that prompted me to write the Patchwork books, which came to be widely used in the 70s.
I remember John Dixon, author of Growth through English, speaking at a VATE conference in the early 70s, and introducing us to Ronald Blyth’s Akenfield. The American linguist Roger Shuy and the gentle English academic, James Britton brought powerful ideas and new perspectives. Douglas Barnes, the writer of Language Across the curriculum, also spent time here. They were exciting days, when new ideas were being tried everywhere.
Idiom became a vehicle for teachers to discuss their innovative practice.
I’d been working in the Curriculum & Research Branch in the early 70s, but then became coordinator of the Little School at Lalor Tech. By 1977. I’d been a member of the VATE Council for several years, with the likes of Bernie Newsome, who had worked in England with Barnes and Britton, Mike Hamerston, Neil Fuller, Marie Brennan, Lena Perlman and others. We attempted to generate greater teacher participation in VATE activities. One of the most satisfying of these ventures was the creation of the Narrative Working Party, a group that met over a three year period, and discussed and wrote about narrative and its role in thinking.
Bernie was keen to see the focus of VATE shift away from its traditional past. He began arguing for a symbolic change. The role of president of VATE had previously been filled by University academics; Bernie argued that a teacher should fill the role.
I was president of VATE for three years, and a member of its Council for almost a decade. They were great years, during which VATE played a central role in bringing teachers and theorists together as we sought to rethink how English might best be taught.
English swing like a pendulum do
I’ve not had a lot to do with VATE over the past 20 years. I went down the cul de sac of being a school principal, and then, as I said, taught writing in TAFE. I was deeply honoured – and moved - when, back in the early 1990s, I was offered Life Membership of the organisation.
Now I’m back working as a secondary teacher of English I’m taking more notice of what’s going on. The formal teaching of Grammar, which had been ‘sent packing’ 30 years ago, is well and truly back, and has been resurrected in the National curriculum. It’s there with something called ‘Addressivity”. (Neither my spell checker nor I recognise the term.) So I daresay there’ll be some interesting conversations/debates/arguments about such matters.
It’s not much of a climate for intellectual debate really. As I write, the Commonwealth Government has just threatened to fine individual teachers at a rate of $6000 a day if they don’t administer the Naplan. Spin and coercion, rather than open and vigorous debate, dominate the scene.
I’m enjoying Warrandyte High. I feel like I’ve returned to the place I first started ... and while I don’t quite know the place ‘for the first time’, I feel comfortable – at home here. In fact, I am really enjoying my teaching! So I think I’ll hang about for a while yet.