Holiday reading: Feel-good education books

For teachers wanting to bask in the warm glow of their profession – as well as the sun – Callum Jacobs has some reading suggestions

Callum Jacobs

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As the summer holidays get going, most teachers won’t need any help filling the days ahead. There’s sleeping in, hitting the beach or the pool, catching up on box sets, or just basking in the warm glow of not having to go to work.

But for those looking for something a little more cerebral to do with their time, here are a few suggestions for some education-themed reading to make us all feel good about being teachers. It might perhaps even give us a spring in our step for when (whisper it) we have to go back to school in September.

Summerhill, by AS Neill

Summerhill is the progressive and experimental school founded by visionary educator AS Neill in 1921, and still going strong today.

For those not familiar with it, Summerhill is the school where the kids get to make the rules and attendance in lessons is optional.

For many years this book, a collection of Neill’s thoughts on education, was the one I’d reread over the long summer break. It’s both deeply philosophical and highly practical.

It would be fair to say some parts of the book haven’t aged well (you could possibly give the chapter on sexual experimentation for young people a swerve), and parts of it are flat-out bonkers.

But the overriding and inspirational message is that kids are, for the most part, good people with a genuine hunger for learning, and that as teachers we get them at the crucial moment when they’re going to be moulded into the adults they’ll become.

The Jennings books, by Anthony Buckeridge

The series of 24 books about 12-year-old Jennings and his pals Venables and Darbishire, struggling through their days at boarding school in the 1950s, may have fallen out of favour and been replaced by the likes of Harry Potter and Tracy Beaker, but every book about school life today owes a great debt to Anthony Buckeridge.

The books are set in a gentler time, when the issues facing the hero are less about exam stress and cyberbullying, and more about how to smuggle a contraband jar of jam into the dorm, or get out of an extra hour of prep with dreaded master Old Wilkie.

Nonetheless, the books still resonate in many ways. They are a reminder that school is for some a continuous struggle for survival, whether it be against the other students or the system itself. And the books celebrate the endless resourcefulness of kids, faced with the perennial problems of school life.

It may not sound much like most people’s experience of school today, but they are funny and joyous and offer eternal truths about the ups and downs of the classroom.

The Blackboard Jungle, by Evan Hunter

Like the Jennings books, Blackboard Jungle is set in a school in the 1950s. But that’s where the similarities end.

This is a novel about a young teacher in an extremely tough New York City school, who has to battle his way through each day against a class of disaffected, violent and “unteachable” kids from the wrong side of the tracks. It’s full of reminders that teaching is a hugely important job, often done under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

It’s a gripping read, and should make any teacher proud of their career choice. If nothing else it will remind you that your awful Year 9 class could be a lot worse. Best line, on the preparation for becoming a teacher: “They taught him how to milk cows and now they expected him to tame lions.”

The Private Life of the Brain, by Susan Greenfield

Every trainee teacher is forced to read at least something by Piaget, helping us to recognise that the development of children’s brains is complex and happens over a long period of time.

Science has moved on in leaps and bounds since Piaget’s day. The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield offers some fascinating and important insights into how our brains operate (or fail to operate) under a variety of circumstances. There are chapters on the brain on drugs, and under emotional stress, as well as a chapter on the brains of children.

It’s an important reminder that sometimes when kids won’t do the things we ask them, it’s not because they’re being a pain in the arse – it’s because their brains just aren’t capable yet. Although sometimes, of course, they are just being a pain in the arse.

This Is Water, by David Foster Wallace

Any teacher or student – or indeed anyone at all – would benefit from taking 20 minutes to read American novelist and journalist David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech to the students of Kenyon College, in the US state of Ohio.

Without preaching or pontificating, Foster Wallace manages to summarise the difficulties we all face, young or old, in just getting through each day and coming out the other side without too much damage.

It is beautiful and thought-provoking and inspiring. And it’s only a 20-minute read, so come on – you’ve got six weeks to kill.

Callum Jacobs is a supply teacher in the UK

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