Top 10 books about teaching

As another school year begins, here is some of the most instructive reading about this toughest of subjects — from Plato to Shakespeare and beyond

As a rule, I try to avoid blogs and books about teaching practice. They tend to be full of “strategies”, whingeing about Ofsted and images of teachers with their heads on piles of marking. The problem with educational writing is the same as the problem with the profession itself, and has not changed since the 1960s, when George Dennison derided the statistics, percentages, curriculum changes: “Everything, in short, but the one true object of all this activity: the children themselves.”

My book, Secret Teacher: Dispatches from the Classroom, is a composite account, based on my experience teaching in an inner-city state school, which features many common gripes: observations, governmental interference, data obsession, the end of humanism … and, yes, marking. But I also wanted to depict the antidotes to such soulless technocracy: the joy of teaching zesty, hilarious kids; the humanity; the passing on of some infinite thing.

As an English teacher, this list is unapologetically literary. An honourable mention in this context needs to go to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, whose preface to its 1971 edition is a clarion call for the literary autodidact, with this lacerating assessment: “Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do.’”

1. The Lives of Children by George Dennison
In 1969, George Dennison wrote about his experience setting up the First Street school on the Lower East Side in New York. This was a “free school” in its purest, libertarian sense, infused with the radical philosophies of AS Neill, John Dewey and Leo Tolstoy. Dennison and his colleagues taught 23 black, white and Puerto Rican kids – all from low-income families, many with behavioural issues – who are depicted with tenderness and humanity by a graceful and elegant writer of the American old school. The kids read, take the bus, go to a baseball game, talk trash, hang out, fight, learn and grow. This book made me want to become a teacher.

2. Stoner by John Williams
Another classic of US literature, this exquisitely melancholy novel became a surprise bestseller in 2013, almost 50 years after it was written. William Stoner is a farm boy who falls in love with books and becomes an academic at the University of Missouri. Williams describes the transformational power of literature, its value in keeping the noisy world out, and the bitchy departmental infighting recognisable to all teachers. To be a teacher was to be “simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man”.

3. To Sir With Love by ER Braithwaite
A touching and inspiring autobiographical novel about a classically educated West Indian (played with characteristic dignity by Sidney Poitier in the 1967 film) who comes to the East End of London to become a teacher of a class full of unruly, unmotivated “peasants”. Like Dennison, Braithwaite’s radical approach involves treating the kids as human beings and leading them out into the world. The kids overcome the “hateful virus” of their racism and learn to treat their teacher with respect. “Sir” encapsulates how teachers often feel: “O God, forgive me for the hateful thoughts, because I love them, these brutal, disarming bastards, I love them.”

4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Another teacher committed to education in the Latin sense (educare: “to lead out”). In 1930s Edinburgh, Miss Brodie – a cultish teacher from the Dead Poets school who behaves with Calvinist assurance that she has been chosen – teaches six girls art history, the classics, fascism and adultery. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” she boasts, “and she is mine for life”.

5. The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Prospero is the master of the isle who can tame nature with his “potent art”. However, he suffers the frustrations and inadequacies of a teacher, as Ariel, Miranda and Caliban test his magic, his fathering skills and his colonial legacy. The latter berates him: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is that I learned how to curse.”

Maggie Smith in the 1969 film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Maggie Smith in the 1969 film of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/20th Century Fox

6. Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough
An inspirational portrait of the architect of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a New York school for disadvantaged kids. The book is indispensable for anyone who wants to understand how to address the deepening inequalities in our cities. See also Canada’s TED talk and the film Waiting for Superman, which features one of the most galling scenes about education, showing children watching the official draw to assign their school places. The lottery of life depends on being one of the lucky few sent to a school like Canada’s.

7. Plato’s Republic
Here, Socrates sets out his ideal curriculum: men and women should receive the same education, consisting of the basic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and temperance. And PE, which will help prevent illness and weakness. Philosopher-kings are given further education in “goodness”: military training, 10 years of maths, further maths, astronomy and music, five years of “dialectic” training, then 15 years working as teachers, leading people out of the cave of illusion into the sunlight of knowledge. They finally graduate, at 50, with good PhDs.

8. Creative Schools by Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica
Robinson is the avuncular guru of creativity in schools, whose videos are some of the most popular on the web (see his Changing Educational Paradigms animation and TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity?). In this book, Robinson develops his theory that the industrialised model of teaching is harmful; and that collaboration, creativity and personalised education are the only way to prepare kids for a future economy that we cannot predict.

9. Seven Myths of Education by Daisy Christodoulou
The pendulum is swinging back to Gradgrind again. Christodoulou argues that the progressive, collaborative teaching practices beloved by Ofsted are devoid of content and knowledge. Facts and “drilling” must return to the classroom. This kind of education does not stifle creativity; indeed, we need restriction to flourish. Shakespeare learned Latin, Greek and history by rote, in what today would likely be considered sterile exercises of memorisation. His plays, shot through with blazing invention, are a testament to the saying “discovery favours the well-prepared mind”.

10. Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov
Forty-nine effective techniques to help new teachers create excellent classroom management. OK, it is a how-to book full of “strategies”, but every department worth its salt has a copy of this lying around, so teachers can dip into it during a free period to find a whizzy plan for the next lesson.

The Secret Teacher

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