Meet The Team: Dr Chris Black, Senior English Teacher

Posted on January 4, 2016 by Christopher Black

Chris Black completed his PhD in English literature at the University of Sydney in August 2014. His research focussed on Scandinavian elements in James Joyce’s novel ‘Finnegans Wake.’ Chris has taught in the Department of English at the University of Sydney, and has been teaching at Matrix Education since 2013. His research interests are in comparative literature (English, Norwegian and Modern Hebrew) and literary theory.

I started with a Bachelor of Arts undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, majoring in English and Philosophy, and then elected to complete an honours year. I took a year off after honours – I always recommend taking a year off after traumatic experiences – then returned write a PhD.

I first gained teaching experience when I was offered a position tutoring students at USYD by a member of the English department. The course I tutored is an introduction to theoretical and analytical approaches to language, and covered things like syntax, phonetics, and the history of English. I taught this course a few times, and found I enjoyed teaching. In 2013, near the end of my PhD, I started teaching at Matrix Education. I wanted to gain some experience outside of university for a few reasons. First, I was becoming interested in the relationship between research and teaching, and wanted a broader perspective on the topic. More importantly, I am concerned with the theory of language and literary studies – why we do it, what is our method, and so on. I wanted to try to answer these questions in different contexts. So far I have learned a lot. Working with a broad range of students has been interesting, and I’m still learning.

Teaching at Matrix has been rewarding as it’s a vastly different environment to teaching at university. My interest is in assisting students to develop to the fullest extent according to their natural inclination. That’s what I think education should be about.

My Top Tips

I have a few essential tips for English. Firstly, find a way to make a subject work for you. Don’t resist or resent the subject. Find a way to empower yourself and enjoy what you are doing. If you’re studying Shakespeare, for example, identify themes that you can relate to. If you’re studying poetry, push yourself to understand the technical aspects.

Secondly, avoid passive learning. Start engaging in the act of active learning now. If you don’t, you will particularly struggle when you reach university. A student is not a vessel to be filled with information. Rather, the teacher should be developing the student’s ability to create ideas. To assist students with this, I try to create an active environment, one where students feel engaged and comfortable to engage dialogue, to develop ideas from the information I provide and to use their existing knowledge of a topic. One way I do this is by completing questions together. I show the student how they can answer a question or I will give them the structure of an answer or part of the answer and will allow them to complete it/create an answer. I help students create responses rather than repeat memorised information, which is what they will need to do if they want to be successful students in high school, or university.

Thirdly, create a life outside of school. Cultivate a life that’s your own and not someone else’s. I won’t suggest a structure or purpose for this, since this seems contrary to the notion of truly free time. It seems to me essential that people have a degree of freedom in their lives, and this is especially important for young people forming themselves.

In terms of an exam tip, it’s really important to manage your anxiety before and in an exam. One strategy you can try if you are feeling anxious during exam time is measured breathing. This involves breathing in slowly through your nose to a count of 4, holding the breath for a brief moment and releasing the breath to a count of 7. Also, try your best not to catastrophise (considering only the worst outcome) situations. Use rational thinking to negate catastrophic thinking. At the same time, take your moods seriously. If, for example, you become bored with study one evening, don’t ignore the mood. Respond appropriately and change the task you’re working on.

Finally, you need to understand the rules of assessment. That is one of our main focusses at Matrix. The exams you sit should never be a surprise. The content and the skills tested are quite well-outlined. You can systematically prepare yourself, and I work hard to do this with my students.

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