REFLECTIONS ON TEACHING POETRY / ELIZABETH CAMPBELL
I am a poet and a secondary school teacher. For me, one of the most funnest – as the kids might say – things in the world, is working with senior secondary students who care, to read poetry. I have been immensely lucky in working at a school where a large proportion of the students care very much indeed. I also work as a freelance presenter of poetry workshops and – my most favouritest thing – professional development for teachers on teaching poetry.
But, after six years, I am on my way out of teaching, at least for the moment. There are various reasons for this, but the fundamental reason is that it is simply very difficult for a single person to live on a teacher’s part time wage. And working full time as a teacher, particularly an English teacher, is incompatible with sanity, let alone the writing of poetry (not that the two necessarily go together).
I feel sad about this, because I love working with kids and with the dynamic and committed colleagues I have had the privilege to know. But I’m making a different plan. I know that I can earn more, and work less, in another job. Does that sound selfish and mercenary? Our culture expects teachers to be martyrs. The job is hard, but the ‘rewards’ are supposed to be enough. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that most teachers are women. Women are conditioned to put others first and even for me, there’s a sense of revolution when a woman or a teacher says ‘no’ to the needs of children. No, I am no longer prepared to give up my weekends, my evenings, my writing time, to marking and planning, or the avoidance of marking and planning. No, most of all, I’m not prepared to keep living with the guilt and anxiety that comes from a sense that I am not doing enough – that my daily human capacity does not match the vision of educational excellence which I hold in my mind. I’m no longer prepared to compromise my health, and watch my colleagues suffer from stress and illness. And I am one of the lucky ones. I work an excellent school, and never had to languish on a short-term contract or in a school with low standards or endemically low morale.
English teachers work particularly hard. In English, there is no textbook that can cover all the outcomes satisfactorily – you write the curriculum yourself, continuously, and you change it as you go along, according to how it goes down in the classroom. I’m not complaining. Writing curriculum is one of the most stimulating parts of the job: it’s glorious! Any model of teaching that doesn’t allow time for it bores me senseless and frustrates the will to excellence and precision which is the mark of all good teachers. But it’s damned time-consuming. And it makes governments nervous, because it highlights again the fundamental idea that they can’t handle: teaching is done by individual humans, with personalities and values.
Teaching and learning can be measured by various imprecise, imperfect and intersectional yardsticks, but when you legislate to remove the human, you end up with the narrowness and mind-numbing prescription of National Curriculums like that of the UK. Let’s hope the Australian National Curriculum is better – from what I gather, it will be.
I did my teacher training in 2005 at the University of Melbourne. I went there by default rather than any particular belief in the excellence or otherwise of the course: it was the university at which I had done my undergraduate degree. Still, you would expect that what is meant to be a prestigious institution would attract and select an elite cohort in a graduate education course. In fact, I was rather shocked at the low levels of literacy among my fellow graduates.
The overwhelming, almost universal majority of the people I encountered were fired with enthusiasm, compassion for students and a general vocational zeal. Those politicians who like to make continuous insinuations about teachers being lazy, should get down to an education faculty or a school and get a load of the idealism and enthusiasm of young teachers. However, many in the English and History streams – particularly English, had an alarmingly loose grip on the discipline, the content, and the skills. Poetry, in particular, was daunting for the English graduates – few felt comfortable to teach it, and though many were interested, many were not. They never learned it at school, and they never learned it at university. They don’t read it.
At school couple of years ago, I enquired of a student English teacher, how he was enjoying his course. It was ok, he said, except that they had to read, like, ‘literature,’ and stuff. My blood ran cold. He was an extreme example, but he probably has a job somewhere.
Let me be very clear: I don’t not believe that there was a golden age, in which teachers were cleverer. I am sure we all remember our own experience at school as very mixed. And I do not believe that all good teachers must be intellectuals. We need lots of different kinds of teachers, with different strengths and different expertise to offer. There are vast hectares of human experience and wisdom which teachers need which have nothing to do with content knowledge or academic brilliance. Knowing the content is not enough. But in every school, in every faculty, you need a number of people who know the content well enough to guide and mentor others, to write the courses, the curriculum and the assessments, particularly at the senior levels.
The older generation of my colleagues had commonwealth scholarships. I have a HECS debt. They had a starting salary that allowed them to obtain home loans, buy houses. I struggle to pay the rent on my small flat. They were often the best graduates, particularly the women, who at that time, had fewer alternative career options. Teaching was a ‘good job’. One colleague who recently retired assured me that ‘back then, teaching was fun!’. It still is – kind of – for about five years.
People often ask me if I would gain better money and conditions at a private school. Very likely, but I believe in equal access for all to education. I probably can’t beat the government-driven exodus of middle class families from public schools, but I’m not going to join them, either.
It worries me that people like me leave the system. It worries me that many like me don’t enter it. Just anecdotally, I can think of several of my friends, outstanding professionals in the performing arts, in literature and film, with postgraduate qualifications, who have seriously considered becoming teachers and decided against it, at least partially through watching me. These are the people who bring academic rigour and broad professional and cultural vision into schools, and into the education system. Except that they don’t. Of my own young colleagues, many of the best teachers I know are working on their exit strategy, simply exhausted by workload and systemic pressures.
Governments, state and federal, like to whine on about teachers. Conservative commentators like to moan about declining standards, and political bias in the curriculum. The government responses are always punitive, suspicious and politicising. Initiatives like the suggested performance pay, and the recent registration hurdles for teachers reflect this anxiety. Silly stunts like the MySchool website are a symptom of a government and departmental attitude that the last people who should be trusted with the educational wellbeing of our kids are teachers – even those remarkably enthusiastic young teachers with whom I studied and work.
The most obvious solution, least popular among politicians, is making teaching a profession which could attract and retain excellent candidates. They should increase the pay, raise the entry requirements for teaching degrees and, most crucially, improve conditions, so that the workload is sustainable beyond five years of burnout. There are plenty of models for this approach, particularly in Scandinavia and the spectacularly successful Finland, where schools have freedom and autonomy in their curricula, and teachers are well paid, respected and encouraged to pursue further study.
The situation of our education system presents a terribly complex set of problems. One of the things that six years at a public school has taught me is to pronounce less, and less definitely. My views on education are far more flexible now than they were when I started, because I have been forced to experience the complexity of the issues firsthand. But I will confidently assert this simple equation: when teachers’ pay and conditions improve, better candidates will apply for teaching degrees, and poetry will be taught better and more often. A new generation of readers will be given at least the opportunity to develop an interest. A cohort of students will enter the universities, demanding, on their ubiquitous feedback forms, that poetry is taught, and the cycle will renew the readership of poetry, a least a little.
So if you care about poetry, you should care about teachers.
Teachers will be negotiating their industrial agreement with the state government this year, fighting to make pay and conditions decent and sustainable. Please support us.