Recipes for success or survival

30th June 2006 at 01:00
Geoff Barton evaluates books that aim to help the new teacher

101 Essential Lists for Secondary Teachers. By Susan Elkin

101 Essential Lists on Assessment. By Tabatha Rayment

100 Ideas for Surviving Your First Year in Teaching. By Laura-Jane Fisher

How to be a Successful Secondary Teacher. By Sue Leach. Continuum pound;8.99 each

The Naked Teacher: how to survive your first five years in teaching. By Louisa Leaman. Continuum pound;9.99

Teachers' lives often seem to be measured out in lists. My flashier colleagues frequently whip out electronic organisers, but I still rely on a battered old notebook in which I list the main tasks I inevitably end up not completing each day: a life reduced to bullet points. From registers to learning objectives, it's hard to imagine a teacher's life as listless. So why pay good money to a publisher to give us more lists?

I've been suspicious of other people's lists ever since my favourite cookery writer filled a 2,000-word column with a list of everything he'd eaten and drunk over the previous year. That seemed like lazy writing to me. However, the word "essential" in the title of one of the two Continuum "list" series is enticing. How useful will they be to you in your first job, if you've just got one or hope to soon?

I'm not sure how useful many of Susan Elkin's lists are. Perhaps it's useful to have to hand a list of teacher union addresses; a list of essential items for cover lessons is certainly relevant in the nitty-gritty of school life. But I'm less convinced I need a list of holiday ideas ("camp or caravan with the children in France") or ways of generating moonlighting money ("maker of quiches for the local health food shop"). I agree that a list of six short stories might, in adversity, be useful for the cover lesson where no work has been left, but the list in this book ought to be headed "short and old stories": all are in anthologies that have been around for at least 20 years.

Tabatha Rayment's lists of assessment ideas are more interesting and unexpected, reminding us of the variety of ways in which students might be assessed and taking a surprisingly broad view. List 9 lists ways of motivating students, while List 97 ("what makes a good teacher") includes "a genuine interest in helping their students". It's not ground breaking material, but there are plenty of useful tips and reassuring advice.

Best of the straightforward list bunch is Laura-Jane Fisher's 100 Ideas for Surviving Your First Year in Teaching. She frequently clambers on to the moral high ground, telling us to beware of drinking too much midweek and making sure to use Sundays for something productive rather than succumbing too early in the day to Sunday evening blues. You might well shrink in anticipation of being patronised, but Fisher's style is one of reassurance rather than finger-wagging, and much of her advice is eminently sensible. I liked the reminder to have a spare pen ready for the inevitable pupil who has forgotten to bring one; the encouragement to sharpen your understanding of children's behaviour by watching Channel 4's Supernanny; and the practical hints on dealing with stress.

The next two books from the same publisher depart from the list format, and will suit readers who want a more developed and reflective text. Sue Leach's How to be a Successful Secondary Teacher starts with the realistic assertion that many of us were taught by teachers for whom relationships with pupils were a key consideration. It goes on to map out some of the essential ingredients in good teaching (commitment to the learning of every child; not being locked into conventional notions of ability). There's a good section on the artificial compartmentalisation of the curriculum into subjects, and the author argues persuasively that the subject and modularisation approach does more harm than good. For that point alone, I admired this book. It illustrates that this is no simple tips-for-teachers manual. It provides an introduction to the issues every new teacher needs to know about - behaviour management, literacy, lesson planning - which is both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Louisa Leaman's The Naked Teacher wins the prize for the most eye-catching and possibly gratuitous title. The jaunty, conversational tone was not to my taste: but then I'm a seasoned veteran of schools, resistant to such enthusiastic burblings as this description of school life: "Oh, and there are children. Everywhere. Lots of them."

Beneath the froth, Leaman's advice is assured and practical. There's guidance on lesson planning, on assessment, on behaviour management and maintaining your stamina. It's a good, accessible read, clearly written by someone who knows the ins and outs of classroom life.

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

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