Changing Views of the Good English Teacher

Notes from The Preachers of Culture by Margaret Mathieson (1975)

Chapter 11 – Changing Views of the Good English Teacher

This chapter considers the different qualities which have been demanded of English teachers. Mathieson argues that the development of English teaching from basic skills into Literature, creativity, growth through linguistic competence and socio-linguistic engagement with personal and social problems the definition of a “good” English teacher has turned towards individual personality.

  • Mathieson: “This book has tried to show that specially high optimism has been invested in English as the subject most likely to achieve desirable results. It has, throughout its history, been believed to contribute to pupils’ personal and social development. Supporters of English, according to the nature of their dissatisfaction with the education system and wider society, have proposed that teachers involve chil­dren in the experiences of literature, creativity, discrimination and classroom talk. They have been deeply convinced about the special power of these activities to promote pupils’ development in worth­ while ways.
  • In his Report for 1871, Matthew Arnold called literature “the greatest power available in education”.
  • 1921 Newbolt Report’s conviction in the spiritual salvation of Literature.
  • Progressives’ views on creativity argued that changed approaches to learning will reform a wide range of attitudes and behaviour.
  • Cambridge School expected cultural catastrophe if their recommendations were ignored. Peter Abbs‘ English for Diversity argues that good teaching can counteratct the sythetic culture of modern society. Good English teaching can promote “awareness of freedom” and “honest introspection”; it encourages the development of the “imaginative, inventive and original man”, capable most importantly, of “tenderness and love”.
  • New Language teaching and interdisciplinary approaches transfers interest from spiritual to social effects. Quotes Halliday: “it is the teachers who exert the most influence on the social environment … by playing a major role in the process whereby a human being becomes a social man”.
  • James Britton urges English teachers to think about themselves as “missionaries in a new way”.
  • Contributors to Newbolt argued that Literature cannot be taught but it can be communicated.
  • In English for Diversity Abbs recommends non-interference with children’s writing, and in The Exploring Word David Holbrook suggests a more ‘creative’ approach to teacher education in the colleges and university departments.
  • Leavis’ followers – Holbrook, Whitehead, Inglis, Abbs – responded sympathetically to progressive child-centred theories and anxiety about average and below-average pupils.
  • Quotes Frank Whitehead: “…we have to be prepared to engage ourselves with the real feelings, the real concerns, real problems of our pupils, exploring with them the issues which excite, perplex or distress them. Whatever these issues may be.
  • Quotes Norman MacMann (1914): the teacher “will be at once the modest, patient, scientific observer and the sympathetic friend of his pupils; he will know how to be silent when there is no need to speak; he will be a natural (never a hypocritical) diplomat, with an instinct for saying with sincerity that which is psychologically apt; he will be profoundly an optimist with regard to individuals and to the mass; from the goodness of his heart he will make each boy feel that no boy is honoured nor more trusted than the boy before him.
  • Quotes M.F. AndrewsAesthetic Form and Education – on good teaching:
  • Mathieson: “Whether supporters are interested in their encouragement of literature or creativity, they demand outstanding personalities for this work in the classroom…Educators who value literature highly and are, at the same time, concerned about less-able children, tend to make heavy demands upon teachers’ intellectual and personal qualities alike.
  • More radical proponents of the New Language teching argue that the teacher’s role should be as a guide or fellow-learner.
  • Mathieson reflecting on New Language teachers: “Per­haps what we have arrived at is yet another paradox, as suggestive as the others of how very good, as a person, the good English teacher needs to be as defined by the subject’s supporters. He must be an attractive personality who refrains from exploiting his power; he must encourage the creative ability in every child while leading him to appreciation of high art; among working-class children he must accept generously everything which is offered to him, mature and sufficiently confident in himself to resist feeling threatened by an alien culture without the support of his traditional teacher’s authority.
  • Interdisciplinary teacher should be “open-minded”, “permit and protect divergence and maintain individual opinion” (they renounce authority in content in values). Renounces position of teacher as an expert.
  • Mathieson (on the need for personality as the defining quality of the English teacher): “It draws together, by implication, the hopes and anxieties which have been associated with English teaching since it was first recommended as the humane centre of a liberal education. In addition, it anticipates some of the major problems within the subject’s current ideology… What has been noticeable through­ out the preceding argument is that supporters have all turned, finally, to the teacher’s personality as being the crucial element in English in schools. When literature was the most highly valued experience, the ‘personality’ needed for success was confidently demanded to be that of a missionary or an ambassador. When interest shifted to the child, and confidence in the old certainties weakened, calls were made for more subtle, gentle and self-effacing figures.
  • Stanley Hall uses analogy of the prospector and gold miner.
  • Mathieson: “The missionary, ambassador and warrior have been re­ placed by the artist, psycho-analyst and chairman, figures who exercise control without external authority.
  • Mathieson: “Ever since its development from basic skills into literature, creativity, growth through linguistic competence and engagement with personal and social problems, requirements of the good teacher have turned, finally, upon the individual personality.