Category Archives: Questions

The Origin of the Species: What is an English Teacher?

“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are.”

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

One of the first tasks undertaken by the English trainees during the first week of subject knowledge enhancement and professional development seminars at university was a character exploration of the thriving organism identified as English Teacher. We each asked two people for two words they thought described an English teacher. The words I collected were “nitpicker”, “creative”, “feminine” and “sweet”. The following morning, we drew around our colleagues and cut out the outline of their bodies to produce a paper representation of these collocated words. One body outline incorporated the public perception of English teachers and the other body outlines were words we, as student English teachers, had chosen to describe and represent ourselves, the attributes and the personae of those in our soon-to-be profession.

Public perceptions of an English teacher

Public perceptions of an English teacher


Cohort perceptions of an English teacher

Reflecting on the public perceptions of an English teacher is a fascinating activity. However, mentality attempting to arrange the adjectives and associated nouns in order along the ‘Adjective Garden of Good to Evil’ continuum, I find myself experiencing difficulty in the positioning of “leather elbow patches” and some others in this series. Perhaps this shows my maturity – and by maturity I mean my age and thus acknowledge that I have reached a point in my life where I secretly covet leather elbow patches when once I loathed them and considered them the aesthetic embodiment of dusty boredom and irrelevance. Opinions change given time and experience. I believe myself to be comfortably reconciled with this development, but this trivial example of a seemingly inconsequential preference makes me aware and uncertain of how perceptions of me might effect my ability, performance, and influence as an English teacher, my interactions with young people in my care, my colleagues in the English department, cross-curricula collaborations, school life, and the pedagogical preferences I employ.

There are big questions to contemplate. What do I consider my role to be? What do others (the government, the media, taxpayers, parents, young people, members of the community in the school’s location) consider my role to be? How might these preconceptions – or deeply established assumptions – effect or shape my training and development, my subject knowledge, my professional development? What is “English” as a subject? What is meant by the term “secondary English teaching“? Do I believe, as journalist Melanie Phillips asserts, that English¬† is “the subject at the heart of our definition of national cultural identity” and therefore¬† consider the teachers of English to be the “chief custodians” of that identity? Her words bestow upon every English teacher in the country a tremendous¬† power and weighty responsibility. However, further questions arise about the definition of “national cultural identity”, which naturally provoke comparisons with my own negotiation of cultural identity(/ies). We all bring with us, to any endeavour, our backgrounds and experiences that inform our thinking, choices made, critical analyses, and participation as members of communities. I believe sincerely that this is an enriching benefit, but perhaps there might be anxiety expressed by some if I were perceived as a “caretaker” of national culture…

So many questions. Some answers, but the answers provoke more questions and a desire to research further into the origins of our species, our subject, and our pedagogical preferences as English teachers.