Self-help books for teachers have found a growing market as pressures and demands increase but, asks Michael Duffy, do they leave enough room for reflection?
Educational publishers always liked class texts. They sold in sets of 30 and, with a shrewd eye for the market, a little luck and the sort of wear and tear that schools could reliably be expected to deliver, replacement orders could be anticipated. Books for teachers, though, were a very different matter. Conventional judgment in the trade was that teachers did not buy books - especially books on teaching.
If that was ever true - and there was always a list of optimistic titles to disprove it - it is certainly not true now. Even a casual glance at this year's lists suggests that teachers as practitioners are now a booming market. Alison Archer, education editor at Kogan Page and publisher of at least two dozen of this year's crop of titles, summed up the mood. "Teachers can't get enough of what they need. They're desperate for it."
There is no mystery about the reasons. The pace of educational change has added hugely to the pressures on teachers. They have been on a roller-coaster learning curve. In every school the demands of the national curriculum and its assessment on the one hand, and of inspection on the other, have generated a new emphasis on classroom pedagogy. Add school-based teacher training, appraisal, a new and welcome emphasis on the management of learning and the universal recognition that issues such as under-achievement, gender, race and violence still need to be addressed, and you have a lot of teachers looking for know-how and support.
It is not the easiest market to supply. Marianne Lagrange, who handles education for Paul Chapman Publishing, says: "The market is fragmenting. Across the whole field the demand now is for highly specific topic-based advice: teachers in training working on particular modules of their courses, experienced teachers with new responsibilities or a focused Inset [in-service training] need. As publishers we're looking for a niche."
Helen Fairlie, education editor for Routledge, agrees, citing her firm's commitment to special needs ("definitely selling the fastest - but remember that good special needs practice is good practice for every teacher") and its primary-oriented series, edited by Ted Wragg and Neville Bennett, on Classroom Skills.
All the publishers agree that the style is changing. Teachers want down-to-earth advice from practitioners who can say, "look, we tried this, and it worked". It's got to be quick to read and digest and easy to share - a reflection of the role that the staff development co-ordinator is beginning to play in schools.
"Remember that we're selling to people," says Marianne Lagrange, "who have at best two or three hours a week for reading. Our books have to be realistic: they have to be user-friendly." No big chunks of text, in other words, and no self-indulgent introductions and learned footnotes. Significantly, its well established Effective School Management (Everard and Morris) comes out this year in a redesigned edition.
The message, as David Fulton from David Fulton Publishers sees it, is: "Teachers don't have time to think. They want words they can understand. " In design terms this means a larger format and plenty of space on pages. Aids to reading - bullet points, check lists and summaries - handy hints and case studies are almost universal. Shading and frames are used, often with different fonts, to identify different sections, and there is a growing interest in ring binding to facilitate greater flexibility of use.
In terms of content, there is more diversity. No one doubts the need for practical help, but there is an argument, especially in firms with a traditional market in teacher education, as to how far that should go.
"We're not in the business of 'tips for teachers'," Helen Fairlie says. "Teachers don't want 'cookbooks'," says David Fulton, quoting the sucess of Mary Jane Drummond's Assessing Children's Learning. "They want practical advice underpinned by theory."
Marianne Lagrange is not so sure. "They say they don't want cookbooks - but if you publish them, they always sell well."
At Kogan Page, Alison Archer is more positive. "Some of our books are extremely practical: 500 Tips for Teachers, for instance, sells very well. And in our series Professional Skills for Teachers, it's precisely that emphasis on tried and tested workability that draws the reader."
There is certainly a market for workability. It's the basis, for instance, of the Framework Press self-study modules, and the list of titles in that series (Develop your Classroom ManagementControl and DisciplineTeacher-Pupil Relationship Skills, Prepare Yourself for Inspection, Stress Management for the Individual Teacher) is an eloquent indication of the priorities as teachers see them.
Daniels Publishing offers a new "quick guide" series, covering issues such as drugs and sex education, working with parents, safety on educational visits, and grief, loss and bereavement, in a brisk, 40-page format. The Educational Guidance Organisation goes one better, and offers a pocket-sized series: 101 Tips for Classroom Display, 101 Tips for the Teaching of Reading, 101 Tips for School Assemblies ("Send it me!" my primary teacher daughter said), 101 Management Thoughts for the Headteacher, and so on.
Such titles recognise the pressures that primary teachers especially have been under. However, it does raise the question of the role that thinking and reflecting ought to play in teacher education and development.
John Eggleston, co-director of Trentham Books, makes that point. "Of course, we aim to offer teachers practical and accessible advice. But we also aim to help them to explore the underlying public and professional issues."
Like Helen Fairlie, he suspects that in the long term, "tips for teachers" don't really help. "Our books are practical, but they aim to make schools and classrooms better places - especially for the pupils such as the ethnic minority children who are often the least well served. What we are saying is, 'look, if you think about what you're doing, your performance is going to be enhanced'."
This year's Anti-Racism, Culture and Social Justice in Education is a case in point. The essays are research-based papers, but their relevance to the realities of inner-city schools is sharply pointed.
But if there is a grain of concern that teachers are being pushed by practicality and inspection into a barren "this is the way to do it" mindset, the big publishers don't share it. The best-selling titles, they say, are the books that recognise that it is teachers, of all people, who most need to go on learning - and that give them room to work out their own solutions.
"We don't underestimate the teacher market, especially, if I may say so, the primary teachers who figure so prominently in it," says Shona Mullen, education editor at the Open University Press, citing the success of Michael Fullan's What's Worth Fighting For In Your School. "We find that primary teachers are more likely to be enthusiastic, more willing to invest in their careers perhaps than secondary teachers, who tend to be more subject oriented, more committed to 'being a good teacher'."
She tries to reflect this in the books she commissions, and quotes Janet Moyles' compilation Beginnning Teaching, Beginning Learning, as an exemplar. "Enthusiasm is essential. It's got to come across to you, off the page. "
John Eggleston concurs. "We look for authors who have ideas that we think are valid and that teachers should know about - and authors who can encourage teachers, and amuse them, and just occasionally - as Robin Richardson did in Daring to be a Teacher and last year's Fortunes and Fables - inspire them too. We think they're there."
If he's right, the current booming market is not only good for publishers - it's good for education, too.