At the chalkface: The secret teacher

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

All heads do now is push pupils out into the world “ravaged and lobotomised to be supplicant to The Man. To the soulless Technocracy”.

So many young teachers are so good against so many odds. Well, my young, gun-slinging English teaching chums are. It must be tempting to just teach to the test, deliver the whole boatload of dreary targets – and take the pittance.

Well, many don’t. They are exciting and inspirational teachers, who somehow preserve the integrity and thrill of this prince of subjects. Just like the hero in the latest Secret Teacher: Dispatches from the Classroom.

It is cracking stuff and beautifully written – lyrical, sharp, demotic, sussed, fast, and tragic. Our secret teacher is cursed with empathy for his children, displays a keen awareness of social context and a deep despair for the demise of literary culture and the emergent barbarism of the market. The classroom is a sacred space. But, above all, it’s a funny one.

I recognise so many things – desperate parents’ evenings, management balderdash, the rapid fire of the pupils “bantz”, the “Triangulation of the Nation” (me neither), the thrill of a breakthrough – and much else. It’s also pleasingly free of dogma and pomposity. There’s no prescribed way of doing things and failure is intermittently perpetual: “Teachers all feel like failures most of the time.”

He has much time for my generation of liberal dinosaurs and is satirical at our expense. There’s a crusty, passionate HoD who maintains, correctly, that all heads do now is push pupils out into the world “ravaged and lobotomised to be supplicant to The Man. To the soulless Technocracy”.

He reminisces drunkenly about the old days: “We did it all – James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, Thom Gunn. Teaching used to be the nuts.” It was. The “secret teacher” laments that young teachers can’t afford this indulgence, but somehow succeeds in turning his pupils on to genuinely great literature, the likes of Hopkins, Dickinson and Eliot’s Prufrock. There are the usual fabulous catastrophes.

He stays up all night masterminding the perfect observation lesson – differentiated tasks, multiple activities, nuanced pacing – about Greek myth and the Lacanian mirror. It is breathtakingly clever. It breathtakingly fails. He cleans the new interactive whiteboard with the old interactive marker. Ruined. I did this too. We both lied. And only now can I reveal the 50,000 copies of a worksheet I once did. I forgot to turn the photocopier off.

And running through everything is the pupil’s wit, laughter and language. “When I grow up I’m going to be a bannister.”

Get this book. It will make you smile, when the going gets rough.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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