In brief

18th June 2004 at 01:00
The Essential 55: discover the successful student in every child

By Ron Clark

Piatkus pound;9.99

With many education books, you reach for a highlighter pen as you read.

With this one, you initially crave a sick bag: "Mom and Dad, you are the wisest people I have ever met. Thank you so much for teaching me how to laugh and for showing me how people should be treated."

It comes as little surprise that Ron Clark was Disney Teacher of the Year for 2001. There's more than a whiff of the Magic Kingdom about his book, a collection of 55 rules for becoming an extraordinary teacher.

Many books have noted the transformational power of great teachers - even when popular culture and literature has undermined the message. Aimed at teachers, such books can hold out hope. The classic of the genre was Michael Marland's Craft of the Classroom (Heinemann), which carried the reassuring message that apparently mystical skills of great teachers can often be learned.

I expected Clark's book to do the same: to provide a list of rules on body language, voice control and whiteboard technique. What you get is quite different. The rules he proffers are for the pupils; an unlikely mix of guidance on manners and life skills. Here are some examples. Rule 1: When responding to any adult, you must answer politely. Just nodding your head or simply saying yes or no is not acceptable. Rule 9: Always say thank you when I give you something. If you do not say it within three seconds after receiving the item, I will take it back. Rule 19: When I assign homework, there is to be no moaning or complaining. This will result in a doubled assignment. Rule 24: Flush the toilet and wash your hands after using the rest room. Rule 28: If you have a question about your homework, you may call me. If I am not there to answer, please leave a message in the following manner: "Hi Mr Clark this isI " All of this is easy to lampoon, and encouraging students to phone teachers at home when they get stuck with their homework seems reckless. But the book reminds us that it's the relationships in schools that make the biggest impact. Adults modelling acts of courtesy and respect, and having high expectations of how students should conduct themselves, are features of successful schools.

My concern about Clark's 55 rules is that they don't go beyond interpersonal skills and they almost never relate directly to learning.

Surely the biggest lesson we can teach our students is how to become better learners. While that will involve helping them to know about their brains and bodies and building their self-esteem, this is more comfortably the teacher's role than teaching courtesy and social interaction for their own sake. Nevertheless, Ron Clark is a man with a mission and his undoubted talent as a teacher comes through. The problem is that, like many naturally gifted teachers, he achieves it through force of personality, which is not easily distilled into 55 rules.

Watch Out for Jamie Joel

By Mike Dumbleton

Allen amp; Unwin pound;5.99

Mike Dumbleton's first novel for young adults isn't recommended as a relaxing weekend read for teachers, but then it isn't aimed at us. It belongs to the pool of popular contemporary fiction and soap operas of which the writers have, I suspect, been taught that the essence of all drama is conflict.

The conflict at the heart of Watch Out for Jamie Joel is between Jamie and the school system, her ever-arguing parents, and her friends. Jamie is a tough kid in a tough school. She's run away from home. She answers back, swears and - like the argumentative Vicky Pollard in that inspired sketch from Little Britain - feels the world is out to get her. Other students groan when she's put into their class.

What makes this story stand out among other post-Grange Hill accounts of school life for adolescents is the unusual narrative structure. The point of view alternates between Jamie and Craig Eliot, the beleaguered but well-meaning new deputy principal (the book's set in Australia). I'm not sure that this reveals the "uncomfortable truths about parents, students and teachers" claimed by the publishers. But it does give an interesting perspective on the tensions of adolescence, and a richer one than that presented by many books about adolescents aimed at adults.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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