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Education book reviews: Assistance when the going gets tough

22 September 2023

Dennis Richards takes his pick of books for schools


A FOURTH reprint of How To Survive Your First Year in Teaching, first published in 1999, tells you all you need to know about this treasure chest of ideas for, wait for it, early-career teachers (ECTs).

ECTs have recently replaced newly qualified teachers — just one example why a reprint for this already successful book was necessary. The positivity of the title is, of itself, almost enough to recommend the book.

Reassuringly, in these days of instability in the education system, some aspects remain very much the same. If you are in a leadership position, welcoming ECTs into the profession, advice about time management, adopting a teaching “style”, and tips for day-to-day survival are all here.

I guess most ECTs will turn straight to the chapter on behaviour management — certainly in the first term, and probably for the rest of the year. The reprint allows the author to talk in depth about the school’s behaviour-management policy. There is no more controversial or difficult area of a school’s life than this.

Rigid staged sanctions have become the norm in many schools. There can be as many as six stages before you reach the “red-card” stage, starting with the teacher’s writing the name of the miscreant on the blackboard. The author has a winning “tip” for teachers — “Blame the policy” — much on the same lines as “This is hurting me as much as you, but the policy gives me no choice. You have a choice. I don’t.”

Laudably, there is much more about teacher well-being than I have seen before. Cowley goes as far as encouraging exhausted teachers to prepare days of lessons, even a week, in which the students do all the work. A “colouring-in” competition would be an excellent example.

And how about coaching ECTs about what to expect at the first INSET day of the academic year? Don’t wear a suit! And be prepared to stand up in front of your new colleagues.

Have a go at the 70 or so acronyms in Chapter 4. Test yourself. I failed on ACEs (adverse childhood experiences). Teaching can be fun, joyful even. It is also more stressful, tougher than ever in 2023. You can say that again. And Sue Cowley just has done. A veritable treasure trove.

The Extra Mile is rooted in the northern tribal heartlands of an archetypal working-class sport, Rugby League. So, I suppose it is possible that this extraordinary autobiography will have greater appeal in northern regions of the UK.

The sport owed its origins to a dispute between the southern hierarchy of the game of rugby at Twickenham and working men who wished to be compensated financially for pay they lost through playing rugby. The schism became definitive in 1895, and remains decisive more than a century later.

One aspect of the national, indeed international, relevance is now clear, given the grave concerns in both codes of rugby, about early onset dementia and other neurological problems affecting rugby players after their retirement (Comment, 15 September).

Rob Burrow, Sinfield’s fellow RL player at Leeds Rhinos, has motor neurone disease (MND). A possible link was first brought to our attention by a much-loved Scottish RU international, the late “Doddie” Weir. Everything about this book and the relationship between Sinfield and Burrow is noble. Their great achievements in their chosen sport speak for themselves.

Then came the shattering blow of the MND diagnosis, devastating in its implications. The medical facts are stark, and are made clear in the book. Through BBC TV Breakfast and the superb TV documentary Kevin Sinfield: Going the extra mile, an extraordinary tale of commitment, courage, and boundless compassion has emerged and made its impact on the nation.

A tough man, from the toughest of sports, not afraid any more of crying in public on behalf of his mate. And why not? Why is a perfectly understandable reaction to emotionally challenging events seen as uncomfortable, even abnormal, in boys?

Boys Do Cry is an extraordinarily well-timed publication in the light of the above scenario, and the deep nationwide concern about boys’ mental health and all-round well-being.

Crisis is not too strong a word. It has finally dawned on the nation’s consciousness that male suicides are at least three times higher than those of females.

While there are complex sociological factors involved, it seems that there is little doubt that schools should now be taking the issue of the emotional well-being of boys seriously. Very seriously, in fact.

Certainly, some of the subjects discussed in this book will be controversial in a school context, but the author cannot be faulted for the extensiveness or the thoroughness of his approach. Exclusions is a classic case in point, given the overwhelming evidence that mixed-race and black Afro-Caribbean boys, along with Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller boys, are statistically more likely to be excluded from school.

Terminology is important: suspensions cannot amount to more than 45 days in a year; exclusion, however, is a permanent removal from the school roll.

Pinkett’s conclusions will be seen by a hostile media as “woke”. Expect this issue to come to increasing prominence in the near future, if the appointment of Sir Martyn Oliver, from the Outwood Grange Academies Trust, as head of Ofsted is confirmed.

The whole volume concentrates on reframing schools’ thinking — but without risk-taking, which is exemplified particularly in the chapter dealing with self-harm and suicide. Pinkett emphasises that teachers are not therapists; their task is primarily a safeguarding one. But attention-seeking terms such as “drama queen” are to be “reframed” as “give them the attention they need.” The guidelines are exhaustive, in an endeavour to reassure teachers that there are ways of discussing such sensitive topics without risk.

And what about “boy talk”? I guess Sinfield knew the moment when the laddish “banter” ran out of road. Most male teachers will, at some point in their careers, want to be “one of the lads”. PE teachers have a special responsibility. Research has shown that negative experiences in PE can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, with all the negative consequences that can follow. The changing-room is particularly fraught, and teachers must be particularly on guard against any kind of public humiliation.

There are grounds for positivity. Pinkett’s “Come off it, mate” method is an increasingly effective strategy in male environments, especially in relation to LBGTQ+ matters. We have much to learn still, and far more progress to make before we can truly say that boys are safe in our schools in terms of their mental health. This book will be an invaluable resource as schools embark, or continue on, a crucial transitional path.

How To Survive Your First Year in Teaching
Sue Cowley
Bloomsbury Education, £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

The Extra Mile
Kevin Sinfield
Penguin Random House, £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

Boys Do Cry
Matt Pinkett
Routledge, £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29

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