Heard the one about the teachers who reckon school's a good laugh?;Book of the week

21st May 1999 at 01:00
A CLASS ACT. By David Parker and Jonny Zucker. Sapphire pound;5.99.

Stand-up comic Jonny Zucker and his partner in prose, David Parker, use their teaching experience to merciless effect in a wry survival guide. Geraldine Brennan meets the classroom clowns

Few comics kick off with "Are there any teachers here?", but colleagues, children and parents are all fair game in Jonny Zucker's act, which he is polishing in his time off from West Acton primary in London. David Parker, his long-standing friend from teacher-training days, also has potential for headlining at the Hackney Empire. Meeting them together is like watching a classic comedy double act: echoes of Reeves and Mortimer (their heroes) rather than Morecambe and Wise.

To write A Class Act, they used a sitcom team's technique - bouncing ideas off each other, face-to-face or by e-mail. It's a no-holds-barred guide for would-be teachers and a survival manual for the more experienced, applying a sense of proportion to OFSTED, class control, teacher recruitment campaigns, pushy parents and staffroom politics, which all get the Parker and Zucker treatment. Arguments over whether their statement: "Not all caretakers are called Jim, drive a Ford Escort and collect old pieces of wood," constitutes a stereotype will run and run.

"We wanted to put some dynamite under teachers - to force them to have a laugh," says David Parker, who recently ran the London Marathon in his own bid to "get a life".

He says: "We've been in the classroom for five or six years, which isn't long enough to become ground down, but long enough to feel how you can get exhausted and overwhelmed. You can't stop it happening but you can bounce back." When they started work on the book, he was at another west London primary, Strand-on-the-Green in Chiswick. Last year he took up a research post at King's College, University of London, looking at links between animation and literacy in primary schools. "But," he says, "I see myself back in the classroom full time eventually - I miss it."

The teachers of west London are currently nervously scanning A Class Act, expecting to spot themselves in the figures of Nelson Rosario, Yolanda Monteith and other semi-fictional creations that form the cast of the set pieces in the book, such as "Display Defilers: London Borough of Havering 92-93". Parker says: "Everything is rooted in life, however dodgily. We know them, even if we haven't met them." Early drafts of some sketches can be traced to the PGCE course at Roehampton Institute, where the collaboration began in 1993, with merciless parodies of fellow students.

Only four real people (sort of real, anyway) appear - chief inspector Chris Woodhead, his chief critic Tim Brighouse and the union leaders Doug McAvoy and Nigel de Gruchy. Parker and Zucker supply verbatim transcripts of interviews with these key figures, featuring "the questions every teacher wants to ask".

In retrospect, the Woodhead interview seems remarkable for more than the "extremely soft sofas" recalled longingly by Parker. The authors are convinced that it was during this audience in his office at Alexandra House that the magic figure of 15,000 (as in "incompetent teachers") was first whispered, as the chief inspector released a trailer for his next annual report. Frustratingly, the interviews are not dated (one of many organisational flaws in the book) but they were recorded between one and two years ago. There are no startling revelations, but they will update readers new to the profession on the various standpoints of education leaders.

This "doorstepping" element (in fact, all the interviewees willingly gave appointments or phone time) helps to raise A Class Act above other books in the wry-sidelong-glance-at-the-chalk-face category based on individuals' classroom experiences. About half-a-dozen appear each year, almost invariably written by men (perhaps women have no time for sidelong glances, wry or otherwise) who are approaching, or past, retirement age.

Parker, 30, and Zucker, 32, expect to be teaching for another three decades. Their book also has a serious side, focused on their (partisan) view of life in schools today and the flux that has been a factor throughout their relatively short careers: they hit the classroom at the same time as the national curriculum. "Every year we've been teaching there have been major curriculum changes to adopt, one new strategy following another, so it's actually what teachers our age are used to," says Parker. "We're perhaps not as shell-shocked as people who have been around for 15 or 20 years longer."

They have both chosen teaching over other options (Parker was doing research at the British Film Institute before his PGCE; Zucker has studied radio journalism), are bemused by the profession's poor public image and hope the book will boost teachers' self-esteem. "People think you're weird or feel sorry for you - you can't afford to feel sorry for yourself," says Zucker.

Books of the wry-sidelong-glance genre are usually self-published. Zucker and Parker didn't bother looking for a mainstream publisher ("We were in a hurry"), but recruited a graphic designer friend and did it themselves. They should have made friends with a copy editor who might have spotted the hundreds of typing errors, and the occasional nonsensical sentence, and reined in the convoluted prose of the non-interview sections.

There is a lighter touch than is found in many allegedly funny books, and some stray one-liners worthy of Tommy Cooper, but the rest of the rambling narratives are only just funny enough for only some of the time. In a comedy club, you wouldn't ask for your money back but you might wander off to the bar. However, it's not surprising that BBC radio is interested: the authors' delivery will make the arch tone of the text easier to listen to than to read.

The main compensation for the lack of an index and proper contents page, the dire jacket illustration, the misused "exclusive" tag on the back and all the other annoyances lies in the authors' affection for schools and children, which shines out of even the less readable passages.

"I love teaching - I see comedy as something to do alongside it rather than a potential way out," says Zucker. He signed up for his PGCE after the kind of road-to-Damascus moment that A Class Act sends up in one chapter, "The Call". "Seriously, I dreamed I was coaching a football session in a primary school."

Is he the staffroom clown at West Acton? "No, everyone's funny there." He is full of praise for his headteacher, Wendy Dixon, and "her unstinting support for teachers". And he says: "She lets me jobshare, so we were able to work on the book flat out one day a week."

Do they see themselves as future heads? "Puh-leese!" (Zucker). "No way!" (Parker). "Well, perhaps if it was really well paid - and if you didn't have to be a deputy first!" (Both).

TES readers can order 'A Class Act' at the discounted price of pound;4.99 plus pound;1.20 pamp;p. Send a cheque payable to "Sapphire Publishers Ltd" to PO Box 22715, London N22 7WH. It can also be ordered through amazon.co.uk, but the discount may not apply

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