Monday, August 14, 2006
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.