We can’t all be Miss Honey and maybe we shouldn’t even try.

I got a little bit cranky on Twitter tonight.

Oh, that’s nothing unusual. Twitter is kind of designed to make you cranky—indeed, that’s why many people, it seems to me, seek it out. Me, I usually retreat when I start to feel my blood pressure rise. Emotional equilibrium is pretty precious to me, and I’m not a great fan of conflict at the best of times.

But sometimes those cranky-making conversations are good for you. They get the old blood flowing to the head, and start to make you think about things, and why they get you cranky, and what you actually think about the topic beyond the initial instinctive reaction. And that’s brought me here.

The discussion was started by a tweeted report of a comment made at a conference where the speaker apparently said something about how schools kill off a love of reading, or make kids hate books, or something like that. It was a conference about YA literature, so presumably they were talking about teenagers, which means they were talking about high schools, which means, let’s face it, they were talking about English teachers.

So I hit the sarcasm hashtag and made a reply tweet about idiot English teachers whose ambition in life is to turn kids off reading, which in turn brought out all the (entirely anecdotal, of course, and so entirely unprovable of anything except themselves) comments about English Teachers Tweeps Have Known who don’t read. Apparently there’s a plague of them. Which of course proves the point that the main purpose of the English classroom is to make kids hate reading too.

What really stuck in my craw was that these tweets were mostly coming from teacher-librarians.* I made my own observation that I knew teacher librarians who didn’t like fiction OR students in equal measure. I was unlucky enough to teach in a school that had two such nightmares in rapid succession—well, one liked fiction OK but my GOD she hated the kids. Terrified of them, actually, which amounted to the same thing. Which anecdote is only useful insofar as it proves that there are probably, by extrapolation, at least some other TLs out there who similarly don’t see it as their job to even loan books to kids, much less turn them all into card-carrying members of the Puffin Club, but that doesn’t make them representative of the profession as a whole. Of course.

I mean, maybe it was just a bit of territorial pissing, but the fact is, I really find these kind of comments about fellow teachers, whoever they come from, and whatever the actual content of the criticism (work in a school long enough, ie five minutes, and you’ll hear every kind of cross-faculty bitching you can imagine) the educational equivalent of the Elaine Awards. You know—the award named for the late Elaine Nile for Comments Least Helpful to the Sisterhood.

I mean, really, teachers don’t have enough shit to put up with that we have to go on line and publically bag one another’s professionalism?

And I say ‘we’ even thought it’s well over 20 years since I taught full time, and ten since I spent any time ducking spitballs and fake names in roll call as a casual teacher, but the old adage is true—once a teacher, always a teacher. I am as passionate today about the profession as I ever was, perhaps in some ways even more so because I know how hard it is and how hard it is—especially when half of that is because of the criticism that is so freely and so frequently thrown at teachers—is why I left.

And another reason I left, although I don’t think I ever actually articulated it this way when I hung up my dust jacket (kidding—I never wore a dust jacket, although it is so long ago that I taught that I still used chalk)… One of the main reasons I left being an English teacher was because I realised that it was not my job to make kids love reading.

Let me say that again.

It is not an English teacher’s job to make kids love reading.

To think it is, is at best naïve innocence (the kind all first year out teachers should probably have to some degree); hubris at worst.

Ask yourself this: What other subject do we expect teachers to make kids love? Do we expect maths teachers to make kids want to race home and do a few algebraic equations for the fun of it? Do we expect geography teachers to inspire kids to go on walks on the weekend in order to map the topography of the local neighbourhood? Do we think history teachers have failed at their jobs if kids aren’t conducting archaeological digs in their back yard or dragging their parents off to a Historic Houses walking tour in their spare time?

And those of us who hated sport with a passionate hate—we bookish types who resent being shifted from our cosy position under a rug and a cat—how much did we loathe and despise the evangelist PE teacher who ran 1st double period on Friday like a compulsory exercise yard in a Beijing factory? Did they fail at their job because however many years or decades later, we’d rather poke ourselves in the eye (OK, not that—we need those eyes for reading) than go for a jog?

But English teachers, it seems, carry a particular burden. Despite the fact that’s the only compulsory subject right through to Year 12, so every single child who goes through school, be it in a bricks and mortar jobby, a home school or via correspondence or School of the Air, has to study English. Every child, regardless of intellect or inclination. And yet somehow it’s the English teacher’s job to make them all avid under-the-cover, couldn’t-think-of-anything-else-I’d-rather-be-doing, readers for pleasure.

Well, it’s not. For a start, it’s a ridiculous, unrealistic and again, arrogant goal to think that every single child could or should love to read for pleasure (by which, I should add, we almost always mean fiction). I’m not talking about being able to read, and at more than a simple able-to-decode standard; the necessary literacy skills to more-than-survive in a modern, complex world. I’m talking about reading for pleasure. It’s just not the English teacher’s job to make people love reading. And I can tell you that for those of us who think it is, that way frustration and disappointment lies.

I wanted it to be my job as an English teacher—to make kids love reading— although I didn’t consciously realise it at the time. I wanted it to be my job because that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make kids love reading the same way I loved reading. More than that, I wanted them to love literature in the way that I do. And sometimes I was successful—I was great at book talking, and I always had kids keen to take home the books I recommended to them, just as if you speak enthusiastically to a friend about a movie you’ve seen or a place you’ve been to, they’re likely to think they want to see it, or got there too. Doesn’t mean they will, of course, although they might wish they had in a kind of half-hearted, if-only-I-didn’t-have-something-better-to-do fashion.

Sometimes those kids did read the books I book-talked, and the memories of some of those kids and books remain my most vivid from my teaching years. But probably most of them, in the end, didn’t. Or maybe they did, and enjoyed them well enough, but not enough to come back to me after the weekend and demand ‘another one just like that’ (one of those treasured memories). In other words, I may have encourage them to read and enjoy the odd book, or at the very least think that reading for pleasure wasn’t just a completely oddball thing to do, but for most of them I daresay, if they weren’t already interested in reading as a leisure activity, I doubt my enthusiasm converted them. And that’s OK.

Because not everyone has to love reading. Everyone should be exposed to good books, so as to have the option, just as everyone should be exposed to science and maths and sport and cooking and woodwork and music, but not everyone can possibly ever hope, or be hoped, to love maths or music or making muffins.

But don’t I think people’s lives are better if they like to read? Well, no. I can’t in all honesty say I do. I think people’s lives are immeasurably worse off if they CAN’T read, of course, but it would be a huge disservice to the millions of people world wide who either by choice or by circumstance don’t read for pleasure, and live perfectly well-adjusted, fulfilling and meaningful lives. Who am I to say, oh, but you’d be so much better off if you just read this novel! Who am I? Some self-important English teacher, that’s who I’d be. And that’s why I’m not an English teacher any more—because I wanted to say that and It Wasn’t My Job.

And I’m always wary of the smugness that can sometimes go along with the “Hey! Reading is Great!” message. I invariably hate those books that have pro-reading messages in the title. (I hate books with messages anywhere, really, but the Reading Evangelism ones really annoy me.) They just all seem so clubby, so self-satisfied, so finger-pointery at those kids for whom reading was a bore, or worse, difficult. Way to make sure they never choose the option of reading for pleasure, in my view.

All of which brings me back to the non-reading English teacher. Or to be more accurate—because I believe the actual non-reading English teacher, despite all the many anecdotes we can all trot out with our hands clasped in horror, is in fact a rarity and where it does exist, doesn’t survive long in the wild—the English teacher whose entire personal library consisted of Jackie Collins (hey, it was the 80s!) or trashy-looking SF. Sure. I’ve met them. I’ve worked with them. Hell, I’ve scorned them and mocked them and derided their professionalism (not to their faces, mind you).

And I was wrong. Because some of them were among the best teachers I’ve ever known.

These weren’t the teachers who were ever going to—because they weren’t interested—teach 3 Unit English (as it was then). They left that to the girly-swat bookish types like me, with our weird interest in literary theory and Sydney Theatre Company subscriptions. They could more than competently take on the standard set texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, the Usual Shakespeare Subjects, The Silver Freaking Sword—I told you it was the 80s) and sometimes they indeed grumbled as loudly as the kids did about them, but they did their job and they did it with enormous integrity, skill, passion and compassion. They met basic curriculum requirements, of course, but more than that, they focused on the skills necessary for the kids to live fully engaged, safe and competent lives: literacy skills, critical thinking and writing, grammar and spelling, whatever the naysayers would have you believe—it was in my experience the non- or non-‘serious’ readers who were actually more assiduous about the building blocks of English than we literary types. (Now who’s generalising? OK, ME. I was slack at the stuff, because it bored me because I knew it without knowing how I knew it or how to name it and I just didn’t know how to teach it.)

These were the teachers who knew that for the vast majority of their students, the biggest achievement they could get out of school was to be properly skilled and even critical users of the language as they would need it in their lives; that they needed to pass standard exams to make it into those adult lives with jobs, or in some cases, further study prospects, and that the best service they as teachers could do was to focus on those pragmatic life and educational skills.

Not to convert them to what is, when all is said and done, for most people, a hobby.

And yes, I know that ‘pleasure’ is included in the desirable outcomes for students in the NSW 7-10 English syllabus—although it comes last on the list nearly every time, which if nothing else tells you where it stands in the Board of Studies’ list of priorities. (And how do you measure it anyway?)

Because, in reality, making your students love your subject**, particularly for those of us who love our subject, is at best a bonus. It’s just simply not core business.

I’m not for an instant suggesting that teaching shouldn’t at its best practice have at heart a delight in the subject matter. Teachers can and should strive to pass on an enthusiasm and enjoyment for their subject, even if that pleasure is transitory or occasional. I’m just saying that it’s a nonsense to say that it is the English teacher’s responsibility to make Matildas of us all.

And I should add here that I am excluding teachers of elective subjects, where the subject truly is an elective for the student and not just whatever was left with a free space in the class on a particular timetable line. A drama teacher who doesn’t care about enthusing their elective students about the theatre/acting/etc will fail, and will be miserable.**

And I know they will be miserable, because I was that thing. I was that English teacher who wanted her kids to all LOVE reading. And I was doomed to misery and failure, because

That Wasn’t My Job.

And so I left. And I found work where it still kind of isn’t my job, but at least it’s work that has been a closer approximation of that desire to work with kids who love to read, or just might come to love to read, given the opportunity, in a context free from the constraints of curriculum and NAPLAN and Objectives and Outcomes and bell curves and ATARs and so on. It’s not that I wasn’t a good teacher; certainly, I was a probably close to being a great teacher for kids who already loved books and were as fascinated by literature as an academic study as I was. But in the end, there weren’t enough of those where I wanted to teach (one of my personal eternal ironies) and that wasn’t enough for me to be satisfied—and therefore, ultimately, to do my real, actual job, and to do it well, and properly.

So lay off English teachers. They don’t ruin books, any more than Baz Luhrmann ruined The Great Gatsby*** and they are no more responsible for your or anyone else’s kid being an avid reader-for-pleasure than a home ec teacher is responsible for them playing Project Runway in Grandma’s sewing room.

And it’s hard enough without the carping coming from within.

Night, tweeps.


*Those tweeting teacher librarians are almost certain to read this post, so I expect a pile-on in the comments. That’s OK. Have at me. You have as many characters as you need 🙂

**Unless they just don’t give a crap about teaching and kids AT ALL and we’ve all met them too and sometimes they hang around in the profession for decades and crap know why, because not even the holidays are worth that job if you hate it. Some things will always remain a mystery. Like decaffeinated coffee. I mean, really. Why bother? Why do it to yourself? There’s got to be better ways to earn a living. I hear packing shelves in Coles can be very peaceful on the midnight to dawn shift.

***No, I haven’t seen it, and I have no idea whether or not I’ll like it as a movie. What I do know is it won’t ruin my pleasure of the book because it is not the book. The whole ‘English classes (by which people really mean English teachers) ruin books’ thing also makes my blood boil. But that’s another subject for another rant, another day. You Have Been Warned.

Matilda. Illustration by Quentin Blake.

8 thoughts on “We can’t all be Miss Honey and maybe we shouldn’t even try.

  1. I agree with this 100 per cent, Jude. I still teach senior English one day a week as well as running a business and writing. I have never been able to make my own son love reading once he reached High School never mind feel responsible for doing that to any other parent’s kids. What I can hope to do is teach him and my students to think about the set texts they do have to read, beginning with a ‘suck it up we all have to do stuff we don’t want to in life’ gee up that does not indulge their complaints and statements that it’s no wonder they hate reading when they are being forced to read stuff they don’t choose. Poor babies! And then it is my job to explicitly teach them the skills to write academically about the material using knowledge, understanding, analysis and evaluation, with confident expression of the metalanguage of the subject. And most of my colleagues do the same. That would be why my non reading teen has just blitzed his extension one exam on East of Eden compared with Heart of Darkness ( both hated apparently) and his Advanced English exam on Mocking Bird and Life is Beautiful ( not as boring as he thought). Any argument that we English teachers -who have hands tied always by successive changes to curriculums – switch kids off reading are based on very short term evidence. My husband didn’t read a single book in high school. He was smart enough to skim and get good marks. He left school in year ten. Returned to study as an adult but even then his reading was confined to finance industry texts. Finally at the age of 40 I bought him a kindle. The first book he bought was one his old English teacher had raved about. Now he reads fiction every night before sleep. It would do the critics of teachers well to remember that kids grow up and influence can lie dormant until the adult mind is ready to process it.

  2. I agree, but I think this might be an issue of framing. Instead of being responsible for making kids LOVE books, how about being a responsible teacher and try not to make students HATE novels.
    And yes, teachers are getting a bunch of got crap ladled on them but that does not mean we have to circle the wagons and pretend that ALL teachers are doing everything great in the class.
    Instead, teachers (like students) have strengths and weaknesses and need to play to the strengths and deal with the weaknesses. I know in my own teaching that I cannot stand 99% of the poetry in the world (for a lot of reasons). How do I deal with this? I ask experts who LIKE/LOVE/Write and read poetry to come in and teach my class.

  3. Thank you for pointing out that math teachers who don’t successfully spread the love of solving numbers to students are never blamed for the student hating the subject! Or even the PE teacher who can’t get the sedentary bookworm to find that runner’s high

    On your note about how pretentious books with the message of reading is great, I thought of the example of tv or movies – on screens one never watches the characters watch tv or movies, they’re almost always depicted doing something else (save for one episode of South Park where the kids kept trying to watch a commercial but they couldn’t find a tv to watch it on until the end)

    Lastly, your note about how we all can’t be miss honeys and make Matildas out of our students, didn’t Matilda already love to read it was just her family who was abhorred by her love and tried to squash it out of her? The love of reading I believe is a personality trait, just like the athlete who loves to swim or play tennis or the student who finds the human history a fascinating subject

  4. This is a brave post, and there’s so much in it.

    We need all kinds of teachers. I remember fondly the teachers who got me excited about books. But I also remember with such gratitude the teachers who cracked the whip, and failed my papers for sloppy punctuation. The teachers who taught me to be a respectful compassionate human, and the ones who got me to SHUT UP FOR A MINUTE AND LISTEN TO SOMEONE ELSE.

    I’ll admit I do think it’s confusing when English teachers aren’t really readers, because I wonder how they chose the subject. (the billions of dollars? fear of geometry?) But I don’t expect English teachers to be booktalkers, or to stay current on the Newbery contenders, or whatever….

    It’s wonderful when they are! But I don’t expect that.

    My mom is a high school English teacher. More than that, she’s the teacher the kids fear, hate, avoid. She has never read a YA novel in her life. She’s the old school hard line Chaucer-reciting grammarian type. She lowers the academic bar for NO STUDENT. Though she can break up a fistfight with one hand while diagramming a sentence with the other.

    And you know what? Year after year, people have trooped up to her front door, interrupted us at dinner, and asked for my mom. Because after 5 or 10 or 20 years, they remembered her, and wanted to tell her that they owed her a lot, that they felt bad for fighting her as students, that she’d changed their lives.

    Not because they loved her. Or because she was fun. Or turned them on to their new favorite thing. But because she TAUGHT THEM. On many levels.

    It’s funny, writing about this tonight, because I’ve never brought it up online before. But I’ve thought about it. My mom is baffled by the online world I live in. She doesn’t go to conferences, or read blogs, or do mock clubs. All the things I love in this twitter world, she finds confusing. She thinks they’re interesting, but they just aren’t her way of being a teacher. She doesn’t have time for them, because on any given Tuesday night, when I’m at #kidlitchat, my mom is sitting at her kitchen table, tutoring some failing high school junior seated across from her, so they can pass her class, because she refuses to grade on a curve or allow kids to do extra credit.

    We had a talk one day, recently, about how she’s never had an author come to her class. I said, “But you’re missing out on such an cool thing, Mom.”

    She said something like, “I’m doing other things, Laurel. There’s a lot of things of things to do in a year.”

    So. Yeah.

  5. I do credit my primary school teacher librarian with helping me catch “the reading bug”, but the class teachers certainly helped, too. And I still remember the sheer joy of reading aloud my first unseen picture book cover-to-cover, all by myself, and with expression. My grandfather made me read it to every adult in the house (ie. four).

    Writing those ubiquitous essays (and “personal conflict reports”, as one English teacher decided to call them) on classic novels in junior high school really scared “the reading bug” out of me, and it was a few years before I started enjoying recreational reading again. But it did come back! Thanks to my French teacher challenging me to read “The Hobbit” and “Watership Down” when an English teacher introduced us to a “wide reading program” (which had essentially involved her bringing in novels from her own collection, including Philip Roth’s wonderful “Our Gang”, when she was unable to locate “Watership Down” for me.) I’m sure the solid groundwork of my primary days helped when my love for fiction *was* rekindled.

    By the way. if educators seem extra tetchy at the moment, it’s report card time. Tensions have been high at the coal face the last fortnight, and tempers quick to fray.

    I wish I could get excited about Tweeting, but so far the purpose has eluded me.

  6. Good news, Judith. With only about four teacher-librarianship courses left in the country you will soon no longer have to put up with those bespectacled, bun-wearing, child-hating women forever. Of course, you will also lose those who give up their time to run book clubs, match kids with just-right books, celebrate Book Week, work on curriculum, teach research skills, take kids to writers’s festivals, arrange book launches and a million other things, all on a budget that would be petty cash for anyone else, and even more good news: the average principal absolutely agrees with your sentiments and is busy getting rid of them for you, replacing them with technicians if you’re lucky or unqualified people if you’re not, because it’s cheaper. My own school is on the point of getting rid of the senior campus library altogether, not because there’s anything wrong with the TL who runs it but because he wants to save money.
    But guess what? When the dust settles, it really will be the English teachers’ job to make kids love reading.

    • Wow, Sue, way to misread my post! I was making the point that we have all met the odd useless teacher and/or teacher librarian, and that the odd anecdotal example makes absolutely no argument for their profession as a whole. I had thought you’d know me well enough to know that I am a huge champion of the role of the teacher-librarian, and I don’t see anything I wrote in this post to justify either your sarcasm or your implication that I don’t think teacher-librarians are critically important to every school. But you know what? even if, god forbid, every teacher librarian disappeared overnight, it still wouldn’t be the English teacher’s job to make kids love reading. Which is why we should all continue to fight for the survival of the T-L position and the library as a centre for books, not a glorified internet cafe.

  7. Such a great post! My parents taught me to read, and love books, and I have taught my children to read and love books. In between, I had some fabulous, unforgettable and inspiring English, lit and library teachers. I’m sure my children will too, but their love of reading will not be affected by one good or bad teacher here or there, it’s a lifetime addiction, fostered by all the good books out there.
    Never could like the silver sword though….

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