Thursday, August 17, 2006

Zen and the Art of Playground Duty

The next book after How Not To Teach - any publishers out there?

Based on the reaction to How Not To Teach, in particular letters from teachers.

Holiday in USA
Last year we went to San Francisco, travelled in an RV for a week and spent 3 days in Las Vegas (hated that bit) – it was our 25th wedding anniversary – some humorous incidents along the way.


Welcome back - the council inform us we’re facing closure.

Literacy Training
How the training is organised by ‘consultants’, we’re marked down as an “intensive support” school. I feel like walking out.

School visitors
Some of the strange visitors we get - Mr Crabtree with his wildlife slides, Mr Cuddles who barely got out alive.

Ruth Kelly
Is she the worst Education Secretary ever? I might not have read the Da Vinci Code but something isn’t right. Why does she talk so slowly? Who is pulling the strings?

Teacher Training
Why do student teachers carry round such large files, what the hell are we trying to produce robots or teachers?

Visit to Germany
Two weeks on a British council visit to a primary school. How they organise their system. Germany efficiency? The windows get a good clean. Gifted and talented night at the secondary school I really put my foot in it – ‘beam me up Scotty’.

Closure meetings
We get the parents involved and give some of the council officials a hard time at a public meeting.

Parents’ Evening
Why every parent should turn up and teachers should try to chill out more.

Why is our country so crap at languages? Should we teach it in primary schools?

Dave and Me
Dave joins the enemy and gets a headship in another part of the country no more drinks after school.

Christmas Play
Where would primary schools be without them, the highlight of the year and what can go wrong?


I’m a celebrity
Some of the teachers who could appear.

General Teaching Council
What a waste of money! The organisation that is there to register and discipline teachers. It only makes headlines when teachers are sacked – cue tabloid headlines ‘Teacher Found Drunk in Charge’.

How observations of lessons are killing teaching – micro targets for each lesson. How peer review could work.

Writing with Stephen King
A good lesson using Stephen King’s book ‘How To Write’ the detective stories we produce.

SEN Panel
They refuse a statement for one of our children, how the system is failing SEN children.

Tesco vouchers
… and other vouchers, why I hate collecting them, cutting them out and all the free publicity.

Closure councillors
I nearly get thrown out of a meeting when I can’t use the overhead to show school numbers.

Dear Dairy
I organise a lesson about Anne Frank based on my visit to Amsterdam. All the children get a well-designed booklet to write in…Dear Dairy. Taxi!

Play ground duty
The job that most teachers can begin to hate, yes it’s Saving Private Ryan again as chaos reigns.

PE training day
An Ofsted inspector takes the training day with her silent friend.

Hightown Park
Our local secondary school in special measures for 4 years, as part of my MA I interview the teachers.

Larry Cuban
Why ICT is not an each way bet, the book that all ICT teachers should read.

School motto
Different mottoes that schools could use or not use


Staff meetings
The grind of ploughing through exam scripts, targets, assessments and government targets.

Victorians Film
We get £25,000 to make a film about Victorian times in our locality.

Faith Schools
Why should the Church of England that will close in 2050 (based on falling attendance figures) get millions of pounds for faith schools?

Closure averted
The council cave-in and we get a grudging reprieve.

How we could educate children.

Warrington Peace Centre
We host a visit for our Irish school and visit the Beatles Museum, the Mersey Ferry and Anfield.

The trials and tribulations of organising swimming and some of the children who just can’t swim.

Links with secondaries
How not to do it. Why is it that there is so little contact? My scheme to involve them comes to a grinding halt. I teach a lesson and the teacher doesn’t turn up.

Due another visit soon – the ‘light touch’?

How the LEAs have been reduced in effectiveness.

Comic Relief
Why I hate Comic Relief, being sworn at by mega-rich pop stars.

Blackpool Trip
We visit the Tower and the brilliant circus; shame the town doesn’t match up.


Trust teachers
The solution is to trust and invest in teachers.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Weblog – The proofs

I’m knackered! It’s the end of term and I’ve got the proofs to read through and correct. Not that I should be complaining because this term I’ve been the floating teacher, covering all the classes from Nursery to Year 6. If ever you need to rediscover your zest for teaching try foundation stage or infants – I’ve loved it! It’s really sad that only 3% of teachers there are men and yes, I’d happily sign the adoption forms.

Nursery I enjoyed the best, I got the chance to crawl round on the floor and play with construction games and re-enact the story of Goldilocks and the three bears.
In Year 1 the student teachers did a lesson on the moon landing, I could see they’d have some time to kill before playtime so I went round school on a fruitless search for a spacesuit. In an inspired moment of lunacy I told the children that they had a special visitor, the second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin! However, Buzz was so top secret they wouldn’t be able to see him. They closed their eyes and then I tiptoed out the back and crept in with a giant piece of cardboard to hide behind. When they turned round ‘Buzz’ was ready to answer questions. I think my American accent faltered slightly and when I crept out at the end some of them peeked and spotted my black shoes…

Year 6 hasn’t been such a joy, this year it’s the girls and I’m left wondering what happened to those quiet, polite children I taught in Year 3. They spent play times winding the younger children up, spoiling games and being rude, cheeky and insolent to teachers and welfare staff. They “can’t wait” to leave school, I know it’s bravado, they’re terrified of moving up to the Comp.

I saw a TV programme about a tribe in the Amazon, when the hormones started to kick in they took them to an isolated spot in the jungle and left them with one of the village elders (this job was done on a strict rotational basis). When he was satisfied that they’d got over stropping around and exclaiming loudly, “I ‘ate this jungle!” he would bring them back to the village as responsible adults. Now I’m not necessarily recommending this, but…

Altering the proofs is more of a mechanical task, you can’t edit or re-write vast chunks of text as tempting as it is. There’s no chance to expand on points or to pose them differently. Reading through the proofs it’s back to the anally retentive, I’ve found about thirty mistakes and you notice the curse of the spellchecker i.e., ‘none’ instead of ‘nine’. After I’ve altered them a freelance proofreader goes through them again.

I’m just starting to view myself as a writer, thinking through different projects. It was hard at first a bit like ‘coming out’, admitting to being an alcoholic or pregnant. You can feel a bit ridiculous at first, what happens if I never get anything printed? Even when you get your first piece in print uncertainty gnaws away, there’s that continual state of insecurity.

Am I a good writer? Every author asks that question and continues to ask it. Zadie Smith had an international hit with ‘White Teeth’, but when ‘The Autograph Man’ was savaged by some critics she thought of quitting, happily for her ‘On Beauty’ has received critical acclaim.

The best advice I read about writing was to try and find your own style and write about what you know. One of my inspirations for writing was from Julie Birchill when she had a column in ‘The Guardian’. She was never consistent, some of her pieces about people fighting for compensation due to asbestos were brilliant (her father died from the effects) and then she’d write rubbish about Iraq, but you always read her pieces and boy, could she do savage! Half the letters in the paper were from people threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Now if only I could a ‘Julie’ on Ofsted!

Books about primary schools are still dominated by nostalgia for a lost utopia, there are interminable re-prints of Miss Read’s ‘Village School’. Despite being an overwhelmingly urban society there’s that English myth that John Major recycled with a warmed up quote from George Orwell, ‘old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning… warm beer and cricket on the green.’ The closure of Redlynch Primary School, which was written about in a TES blog by the former headteacher, was closer to the truth.

I had an e-mail from the Sales Rep, he’s visiting bookshops in August, but in one hour he has to push 150 titles! He’s recommended that I contact the bookshops in the local area closer to the publishing date in September, so I’ll spend the summer chilling out, writing my second book and visiting the Roman and Greek ruins in Turkey.

On the last day of term we had a bouncy castle for the children, one of the mothers beckoned me over, ‘You won’t recognise our Gemma now, will you?” I blinked, that skinny little whippet had undergone metamorphosis and changed into a young woman. In Year 6 she’d constantly been in trouble and would declaim at full volume ‘I ‘ATE THIS SCHOOL!’ Gemma tells me she can’t wait to leave secondary school and she wants to train to be a midwife. ‘Sir, I loved it here, the best days of my life. I ‘ated the Comp’. Yeah, never give up on them.


Promoting the book

As a columnist you have to suffer the slings and arrows of attacks from outrageous bloggers. ‘Nervously_waiting’ has accused me of being a tad obsessive about maintaining authority over my writing. I’ll be absolutely up-front, in this aspect of my life I’m a fully paid-up, 100%, anally retentive control freak. But pray dear reader consider the following mitigating circumstances that have contributed towards this horrendous affliction:
  • Most articles or book proposals disappear into the ether without even a cursory ‘thanks, but no thanks’
  • You get a standard rejection letter that prompts the reaction, ‘have they actually read it?’
  • They print your article as a “letter” ie, you don’t get paid for it
  • Some faceless editor hacks it to bits and leaves out key phrases and ideas
  • They take ages to pay up and only respond to a threatening letter
  • You get a gushing reply, “super, wonderful piece, must include it”, you wait, and wait… and wait, finally in response they admit they can’t remember the piece anyway
  • Then there’s the magazine that will remain nameless, that printed an excerpt, used my real name and didn’t even mention How Not To Teach…

Yes, editors and publishers they really xxxx you up.

The hardest part of writing is being your own critic, developing your own style, what works for you, is it any good? I’ll return to that in another blog.

I’ve read some advice about promoting books and one salient point is not to peak too early, the most important work is around the launch date, but I’m still trying to prepare for the day. I’ve had some business cards printed with the details of the book to hand out to family, friends and acquaintances.

My wife gave some out in her local playgroup, but they couldn’t quite get their heads round the anonymity bit, who the hell was ‘Mr Read’ and was she having an affair with him?

In the summer holidays I’m also going to visit some bookshops in the area with the Continuum rep. On the internet I’ve got pieces on the

Socialist Teachers Alliance and Indymedia web sites. I’m still debating whether to set up a web site to promote the book, any ideas?

‘Nervously_waiting’ also advises me to be ‘grateful’ that I’ve managed to get a book published. Grateful? I’m sure that when writing was first discovered 5,000 years ago during the Indus civilisation there was an editorial committee, on one side were the idealists who recognised that it was a tremendous breakthrough for humanity, would raise the cultural level and promote ideas and intellectual enquiry.

Lurking in the shadows there would be a budding Rupert Murdoch calculating the glass beads he could make and if only they would spice it up a bit with some drawings of scantily clad slave girl. No prizes for guessing which side won, or what today’s deals tell us about the publishing industry – Celebrity Big Brother winner Chantelle’s £350,000 contract and Wayne Rooney’s £12 million over 5 years. Let’s not get all sentimental. Like every other industry, the bottom line is the bottom line.

Promoting a book like How Not To Teach is tough. I had an e-mail from a leading education charity that said they were considering offering the book as one of the prizes in an online competition, a few days later I received another e-mail that basically said, “I’ve asked the bosses about this and er… we don’t want to offend our sponsors, can we read it first?”

Great, so Ofsted rampage through schools and without over-dramatising I know of instances of nervous breakdowns, failed marriages and forced early retirement, but when a teacher writes a “controversial” book everyone is running for cover. Maybe it just confirmed my opinion about charities.

On a more positive note How Not To Teach is also available in America and Australia, wonder if Continuum would consider a tour out there?


Writing the blurb

An important part of selling a book is ‘the blurb’ - promoting your book in a few sentences. When I read Continuum’s it just didn’t leap off the page, it was the John Major of blurbs – safe, boring and non-descript. No offence but what had the copywriter been working on before – the Horlicks account?

So I wrote my own…

‘If you thought reading Gervaise Phinn was like drinking a warm cup of tea, this book will knock you over with the force of a vodka slammer. Mr Read survives the nightmare of planning, Ofsted and an incompetent head...He also takes the class to Ireland, the House of Commons and wins a film award. We guarantee "Christmas Lights", "The School Trip" and "Stressbusters" will make you laugh out loud. A searing indictment of our joyless, exam ridden primary curriculum...'it will take a bare-knuckle fight to save its soul.' Down-to-earth and outrageously funny, this guide will prove essential reading for all teachers everywhere.’

I’ll have to admit that ‘down-to-earth’ got left in from the previous one, somehow it just brings up images of that Hovis commercial with the lad wheeling his bike up that steep hill, but at least ‘the blurb’ does now encapsulate the logic behind the book.

The next task is to make sure the art work will sell the book. It needs something irreverent and eye-catching. One thing I’ve learnt is while not being OCD or a control freak when it comes to your own material always check what they’re doing to it.

I read an interesting interview in The Guardian with author Malorie Blackman, when she started writing she accumulated 60-70 rejection letters. In her first year as a full time writer she only earned £800 and that was for film rights, when she saw the script the girls had become boys and the black characters transformed to white. Welcome to Hollywood! Her first seven books were all produced by different publishers because they weren’t confident her books would sell.

I’m grateful to Continuum for taking a chance with How Not To Teach but after initial enthusiasm about a second book they now want to see how ‘sales and reviews’ progress before taking a decision. I had to smile, reviews? I’ll probably be lucky (apart from the TES) if it’s reviewed anywhere and I'm sure that isolated phrases will be used to savage the book.

In our culture criticism is not tolerated, look at Ken Loach’s film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, some of the so-called commentators rubbished the film without even seeing it – incredible.

Could anyone out there give me any advice on getting your book reviewed? I’ve mailed the dailies and some of the education press and I’m still waiting for replies. Of course reviewing is a bit of an incestuous, mutual back-scratching and luvvie air kissing activity. A writes a review about B’s book, “An absolute joy that would grace any bookshelf.” B then writes a review of A’s book, “An absolute joy… (see review above)”. I’m trying to break into the magic circle here and not wanting to overdo the Uriah Heep humility touch but I don’t have Professor at the start of my name and I haven’t been in the Downing Street Enforcement Unit for years.

Some teachers have ventured into print, recently we had, Everything You Need to Survive Teaching by ‘The Ranting Teacher’, it sounded promising but it was another ‘down-to-earth endurance guide’ that didn’t ask many questions about why everyone is writing survival guides or what impact Ofsted and league tables have had on education.

Another was I’m a Teacher Get Me Out of Here by ‘Francis Gilbert’, which seemed to take as its premise that our main problems are feckless parents and hormonal teenagers. It came over to me as a toff slumming it in the state system.

My way of promoting How Not To Teach is to use the internet and in lieu of getting recommended by ‘Richard and Judy’s Book Club’ I’m going to have to rely on that tried and tested system - word of mouth. Maybe the book will become a sort of underground success, dog-eared copies surreptitiously passing around staff rooms. A similar thing happened in the Soviet Union where rebellious magazines called ‘Samizdats’ were an alternative to the official press.

An important element of writing is always to review your work. I’ve looked again at the blurb, ‘a bare-knuckle fight’ - ever since the testosterone levels began to decline I’ve become more of a pacifist. ‘Bare-knuckle fight’? Ged ouda here! It’s just too macho, you see this in politics where erstwhile Education Secretary Charles Clarke was a self-styled ‘bruiser’. What the hell does that say about the man? So I’ll replace it and finish the blurb with my final paragraph from the other week…

‘I want everyone to imagine primary schools without SATs, league tables, Ofsted, strategies, wall-to-wall planning….Imagine – you may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.’



Why I wrote the book

How Not To Teach by Mr Read will be published by Continuum on September 15. The aim of this blog is to give teachers an idea of the publishing process and how to promote a book. As a first time author I’m looking for advice and help myself, too!

Why write? Reading books, newspapers and magazines on schools so few of the articles seemed to speak to me. I couldn’t relate to them, they weren’t about my reality. There’s plenty of bland, insipid, non-controversial journalism out there. Or failing that there’s pieces by worthy academics, motivational head teachers, government ministers or the great and the good, but where oh where is the voice of the ordinary teacher (no longer at the chalk face but staring into the glare of the whiteboard projector)?

In some sections of education there’s a familiar terrain that you can navigate around, a certain written tradition or record that’s been laid down. For secondary schools you have ‘Kes’, ‘Blackboard Jungle’ and most recently the TV series ‘Teachers’. For the public schools, ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, ‘Jennings’ and ‘Harry Potter’. When it comes to primary schools all I could find was ‘Miss Read’ – a twee account of a small village school in the 1950s (that was her reality - but not just another planet, another universe away for me) and Gervaise Phinn with his whimsical accounts of schools in the Yorkshire Dales he visited as an HMI then Ofsted inspector.

Could I find anyone out there listening to teachers? The General Teaching Council is the self-styled ‘voice of teachers’. I sent in an article for their magazine that sporadically appears through our doors, only to be informed that it wasn’t their policy to print articles from teachers. Apparently they were worried they wouldn’t be ‘objective’.

So ignoring the fact that many teachers become full time writers, once again we have a teacher-free zone. Reading the GTC magazine there are some well written professional articles, but where is the hope, elation, joy or bleakness, cynicism and despair? There’s nothing about the smell of the paint pots, the sound of children’s laughter on the playground or the taste of Jamie Oliver’s chicken nuggets, just a safe ‘house style’ with no cutting edge.

There’s also that risible journal Teachers produced by the DfES or as I call it ‘North Korea Today’ because there’s always pictures and articles of the joyous peasantry celebrating the latest 5 year plan as the Great Leader endows the masses with his beneficence… meanwhile half the country is starving. Never a word of criticism seems to stray into its pages, it’s chock full of inspiring case studies by teachers working every available hour of the day. Sorry, but the usual reaction to this type of material is either, ‘we are not worthy’ or outright scepticism from teachers who want to see their families.

So… I’ve felt the compulsion to write, that need to express the human condition, to communicate and to indulge in therapy. The book is a highly personal account from a school in an “economically challenged” area – aka poor. Each school is different, one may be run by an inspiring head who values all the teachers and consequently morale is high, and another might be on the verge of mutiny in imminent peril of special measures. There are different pressures, some schools face parental indifference, in others parents want permanent coaching and testing so that their children can pass public school exams.

As for the general background the most extensive survey on morale was undertaken by the GTC in 2002 in which 70,011 teachers participated. One in three expected to leave teaching within five years in protest at the workload, government interference and poor pupil behaviour. More than half said their morale was lower than when they joined the profession and a third would not go into teaching if they had their time again. There’s also the toll among NQTs where up to half of them leave within five years.

I’ve tried to include some of the gallows humour that helps teachers to survive, but with the knowledge that humour is very subjective, one person’s belly laugh is another’s assault on moral rectitude. It’s partly a view from the trenches but I’ve tried not to just limit it to my own particular school (the danger is that it becomes trite, corny or hackneyed) I’ve raised the periscope and surveyed the battlefield to look at Ofsted, strategies, SATs and league tables. In other words the aftermath of the blitzkrieg that has reduced so much of education to a crater filled wasteland.

There are some case studies about successful practise but not the Stepford Wives type of material from the perfect world of the DfES. Included is our film project where we were short listed with the local museum for a national award, the journey we made across Ireland to the outer reaches of County Mayo to meet our partner school and the trip we made to the House of Commons to pick up a Highly Commended Award in the TES Newsday competition… and Barry ate six slices of that cake with the thick icing – let’s not go there!

I’ve written the book anonymously because in our culture it’s hard to be a whistle blower. The book is very critical of the ex-head, the LEA and Ofsted to name a few. There’s the thought of still paying the mortgage and getting the kids through university. Also the 6% royalties from the book aren’t exactly in the JK Rowling league – first rule of writing, Don’t Give Up Your Day Job. The school has also moved on since I wrote most of the material and I wouldn’t want to see it branded by the media. But what does absolve my conscience is the way teachers and schools have been vilified, slandered and dumped on from a great height by Ofsted, now as never before is the time for teachers to speak out.

After a few unsuccessful attempts I managed to get some articles in the TES for a first time writer there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your piece in print but another rule is to develop a thick skin – ther’ll be plenty of rejections. Above all my belief is - Keep Writing, Keep Trying. I built up a portfolio of articles and posted them off to Continuum, the largest educational publishers, and forgot about it over the summer. The first day back in September was a JFK, death of Lady Di moment, just when reality is biting after that long break there’s an e-mail saying they’re interested in publishing my book. There was that element of luck, they’d already agreed a title How Not To Teach but the author had let them down. Luckily my book fitted the bill.

Continuum specialise in what you might call light academic titles ‘101 Ways To…’ and ‘Getting the Buggers to…’ as worthy as they are my book is different because I’m not trying to write a survival guide (it's depressing that the demand is for books that promote endurance not pedagogy). The logic behind the book is – close the bloody thing down! What the hell are they doing to our kids!

I’m passionate about the success of the book, not just for egotistical reasons, but because I believe that teachers have lost control of the curriculum. have become deprofessionalised, deskilled and have lost their autonomy, become slaves to the machine, have been subsumed by the waves of the national strategies, inspections and centrally imposed planning.

It’s not just the long hours - studies on stress highlight the lack of control as the key factor, that’s why in most organisations people lower down the pecking order are more prone to stress because they don’t feel valued. The result of constant stress is that workers become disengaged, disenchanted and demoralised. In schools we’ve had the discourse of derision for decades and if you tell people they are crap for long enough some of them will begin to believe it. We’ve lost that spontaneity the joy of teaching, there’s a tendency to settle for grey mediocrity to keep Ofsted happy, don’t innovate or try something different, there’s a set way of teaching. I’ll be interested in the critical reaction to the book from my peer group. Is it too bleak, too pessimistic, just a disillusioned teacher tilting at windmills? But above all I want teachers to be heard, to make their own views known.

I also write for the Everton fanzine When Skies Are Grey, one of the fanzines developed as a response to the corporate takeover of clubs and the unhealthy relationship between the clubs and local journalists who were scared to criticise in case their access to the club was withdrawn. The fanzines have been an outlet for fans to rage, rant and bluster. I’m hoping to make a breach in the dyke with this book so that other teachers will be able to follow. I want everyone to imagine primary schools without SATs, league tables, Ofsted, strategies, wall-to-wall planning….Imagine – you may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.


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