How everyone can get the magic touch

6th June 2003 at 01:00
An old hand offers new teachers the next best thing to first-hand knowledge. Geoff Barton is impressed

Sue Cowley's Teaching Clinic

By Sue Cowley; Continuum pound;9.95

There's something of a Sue Cowley industry developing. This former drama teacher is a prolific writer, trainer, consultant (isn't everyone?) and now, in this book, she is presented as agony aunt. One of the appeals of her books - amid a welter of publications spouting educational theory - is the sheer common-sense practicality of her advice.

You won't find many books telling you how to call a class's bluff, telling us how boring most classrooms are, and suggesting that one approach to discipline might be to pretend to break down and cry.

The book is part of a tradition of guides aimed at new teachers, of which the most famous is Michael Marland's (still outstanding) The Craft of the Classroom. "Craft" is a key word within the genre because the best of these guides are built on the idea that great teachers are made rather than born.

That's where the practical guidance is so important: new teachers more than anyone need to feel that the apparent mysticism of the great teacher is attainable, that a set of learnable skills exists.

The author's credibility is therefore an essential ingredient in any such book, and I'd be wary of reading anything written on the topic by a university lecturer. We need to feel our guide has wrestled psychologically with 9B on a wet Thursday and earned her stripes.

There's no doubting Sue Cowley's credibility, and her personal tone throughout emphasises her feel for classroom realities. On first seeing the book, I was worried by the "clinic" notion and by the agony-aunt metaphor of the presentation. I expected a rather too anecdotal style, a tone that would be patronising rather than enlightening - something jaunty and trivial and silly.

In fact, this is classic Cowley. There's a minimalist introduction - not the usual obligatory history of research into behaviour management. Then follow 16 "problems", all drawn from the concerns of Cowley's readers and ranging from "the talkative class", to "the paperwork issue". Other topics include "the little fidgets", "too tired to teach" and, compellingly, "the class from hell".

Each chapter begins with a problem, such as: "What is it about some teachers? I'm an NQT, and the kids run rings about me, but there are one or two teachers at my school who seem to have a magic touch, who are simply naturals at the job ... How can I get the magic touch too?"

Cowley's response is infinitely reassuring. Her detailed answer reminds us of the power of being established in a school; that there are techniques and strategies that can create that magic; that much of the apparent mysticism of the best teachers comes from their management position, reputation, the pace and energy of their lessons and - crucially - their love for the job.

She dissects each element, demonstrating that while it's easy to assume gifted teaching is God-given, it's a talent that can be developed in the right circumstances. But the real strength of her book is that she doesn't diminish great teachers. Some teachers, as she admits, are simply "naturals". But it's easy, in the early days of teaching, to delude ourselves (as I did) that it's all hopelessly unattainable.

Not everyone will appreciate this book. Reading it is like listening to a confident, battle-worn teacher who is passing on practical techniques, some of which are unlikely to pass muster on a PGCE course. There's no hint of educational research, no reading list or glossary, just pure distilled experience. This is what we need at the start of our careers: the reassuring guidance of someone who clearly cuts it in the classroom. If someone you know is about to begin a PGCE course or a first job in teaching, rush them a copy of this book. You'll be guaranteed Christmas cards for life.

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

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