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It helps to be a masochist;Book of the week

THE REALITIES OF TEACHERS' WORK: Never a dull moment. By Sandra Acker. Cassell Teacher Development. pound;45 hbk, pound;16.99 pbk. What keeps teachers going? Michael Duffy reads a fly-on-the-wall account of creative, cramped chaos in an inner-city primary.

There have been many studies into what teachers do. Sandra Acker's question, though, was rather different. Her concern was the context within which teachers work - their occupational or workplace culture. "What is it," she asked a headteacher acquaintance, "that keeps them going?" The reply - "You'd better shadow one, and see" - led to this extended study of teachers at work in the classroom and outside it: a closely observed engagement with all the day-to-day preoccupations of an "ordinary" city centre primary school.

There is, of course, a health warning. Sandra Acker is an educational sociologist based at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Her story is the story of a research project, and we know what the senior chief inspector thinks of those. Educational research is irrelevant and distracting, he has told us. "Only masochists can read it."

But what if you have to be something of a masochist to be a teacher? In this account, certainly, you need a remarkable capacity to cope with the frustrations and deficiencies that seem to define a life in teaching.

Open almost any page here and you will come across them - the grimy windows and peeling walls, the weekly nightmare of buses for games that come late or not at all, the absence of privacy, the presence of disturbed and disruptive pupils, the constant lack of space. Here, for example, is one of the infant teachers acknowledging without surprise that there isn't actually room for all her charges to sit at once. "But in September," she cheerfully adds, "when the children are smaller, it's not really such a problem."

True, the research was carried out over the period 1987-1990, with fewer extensive follow-up visits between 1991 and 1997. Much has changed since then, and the course and effects of these changes are very much part of Sandra Acker's thesis.

Her argument is that in any primary school the workplace culture is critical to that school's success. At its best, she says, it is a culture characterised by openness, flexibility, participation and equality, caring and support, humour and collegiality. It is also a feminised culture: its values, its resilience and its emphasis on coping reflect what society expects of women. Change that does not recognise this culture, or that negates it, is likely to be damaging or ineffectual.

So how typical was "Hillview School" (the name she made up)? Physically it was cramped, crowded and unlovely. Its 200 children were socially and ethnically mixed. Their mothers trusted the school, and brought many of their problems to it. It had a reputation for helping difficult children - at the cost, sometimes, of a high level of classroom disruption. It had a charismatic head, deeply committed to a philosophy of meeting children's needs and warmly supportive of her staff. Its teachers had remarkable energy, patience and commitment. Its local education authority, on this evidence, was bureaucratic and unsupportive, and its caretaker spent most of his time watching teachers shift the furniture and paint the walls. It was desperately short of equipment and materials - especially pencils. In spite of everything, it generated laughter.

Hillview was a remarkably open school. There were always visitors to deal with, some of them unwanted, and there was none of the isolation said to be typical of teaching. There was, though, a fairly high level of disorganisation. Children "wandered about". Equipment broke down or went missing, ordering was haphazard, improvisation was the order of the day. Rehearsals for school events and festivals cut swathes through classroom time. As the deputy ruefully said, there was never a dull moment.

Yet there was a consistent emphasis on caring for children, building up their self-esteem, creating a culture of sharing rather than competing. Sandra Acker is very good on how this worked in action - on the amount of time, for instance, that two teachers together might spend investigating a bullying claim and talking to the culprits.

But we learn much less about the actual teaching. Most classes are "lively"; there is always "the comforting buzz of semi-chaos". The curriculum is described as "creative" and "haphazard". It's perfectly possible, one teacher says, to get through to Friday and then realise that the class has done no mathematics that week. There is no "testing" and no homework. Though the head and her teachers are adamant that the children's needs are paramount, there is no apparent mechanism for determining what those needs are. There is a school initiative to integrate children with special needs into a "middle junior unit", but there is no sign of diagnosis and no real evaluation. "Not till the national curriculum was introduced did teachers begin regularly to plan together," Acker reports.

She claims that this is part of the ecology of co-operation: that for all its faults, the system worked. She never tells us, though, what she means by "worked". The culture she describes is certainly "female, child-centred and highly conscientious", but it is also reactive, improvisational, and short on educational leadership. What is so fascinating is that she catches it just as the opposite forces of structure, measurement and control are starting to affect it.

This is, perhaps, a stereotyped portrayal. What is valuable about it, though, is that you can feel both the commitment and the exhaustion. These teachers have homes to run and families to care for, yet time after time in these pages they go home "too tired to eat". There is a lesson there. It is no bad thing, among the easy certainties of "Education, education, education", to be reminded that we need to ask the question, "What keeps them going?" - and listen to the answers.

Michael Duffy was formerly head of King Edward VI School, Morpeth, Northumberland

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