Teachers for Life

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Teachers for Life

By Max Malikow

Rowman Littlefield pound;11.99. Order on 01752 202 301; orders@nbninternational.com

American import books about teaching are prone to the Krispy Kreme effect: the initial sugar rush may leave you feeling bloated and bewildered. This one kicks off with a citation from TS Eliot and some sickly acknowledgements to people who have influenced the author (including his rabbi).

To sneer at the emotions on display, and to miss the fact that at the heart of this book is some real wisdom acquired in 30 years of teaching, would be to be a misery-guts in Disneyland. There is much that I liked here, including the opening section on learning which demonstrates vividly that knowing about something isn't the same as learning it. Each year Max Malikow sets his students a task to change their behaviour, such as to stop smoking or biting their nails. He reckons the failure rate is 90 per cent.

Learning, he reminds us, is hard. Clearly we are in the hands of a classroom realist.

I also enjoyed the Socratic dialogue about whether teachers are born or made. It nudges us into reflecting on what makes a great teacher. Malikow asks us to consider the teacher as farmer (getting hay down from the loft so that the cows can reach it; that is, making lofty materials available to students); the teacher as raconteur (telling students stories they need to hear); the teacher as hunting guide (showing them the territory but leaving them to fend for themselves).

He writes interestingly about motivation, suggesting - radically - that before teaching any topic we should ask ourselves four questions: would I want to do this activity? Why would my students want to do it? Can I do any part of this lesson with enthusiasm? Are my students capable of accomplishing what I require of them?

We ought to ask ourselves question one continually. Follow a student from lesson to lesson to remind yourself of the remorseless tedium that can be the schooling (as opposed to learning) that we sometimes inflict on young people.

None of this will help you much if you're about to embark on a career as a teacher; you'll be looking for something much more practical. But for those of us whose mirrors each morning reveal an increasingly grizzled visage, who think we've seen educational fads come and go faster than secretaries of state, and who crave new perspectives and original insights, this book will make a thought-provoking read.

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

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