Text books and study guides have a bad press in British schools. Teachers – especially in my subject (English) – often claim that using them in class shows a certain lack of originality. In my experience, those who teach science, or languages, as well as History and Geography, are more open to using them, but after inspecting quite a few independent schools I still come across homemade resources in class, or badly photocopied Teacher Toolkit stuff, rather than an enthusiastic and extensive use of textbooks. It’s not unusual to see a stack of expensively-bought, up-to-date textbooks, sitting on the side of a classroom, unused and unloved. The great shame is that, very often, these books are better researched, better written, more differentiated, and simply more interesting, than some of the pages being circulated by the teacher.
Why is this? Does it spring from a deep-seated sense of insecurity on the teacher’s part? Do some teachers feel threatened by textbooks? Or is it something else? Do teachers think that what they produce is inherently more bespoke for their students? More personal? Do they think they are simply better?
What I do know is that many teachers spend hours every week creating new resources, and adapting old ones, for their classes. I once had a meeting with some senior ministers who were staggered that this continued to be the case in so many schools: they saw this constant writing of resources as a waste of time – time that could be better spent teaching and marking. The teachers at that meeting defended their practice saying that they preferred to write their own resources for their students, rather than import them.
Now a confession: I write textbooks and have edited two Shakespeare texts, and I’m proud of what I produce. Arrogant though it sounds, I view the work I am currently doing on Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ as something creative.
I believe that writing textbooks is some of the best professional development there is for teachers. Why?
Firstly, it makes me a better teacher because writing forces me to think about the text itself, and to get to know it intimately. I can now teach this Sixth Form set text next year very well as I have had to analyse it for months. I have spent a lot of time reading very good writing about the novel, such as this by John Updike, or this by Daniel Zalewski.I have also had to approach it as an author and teacher, writing tasks which will (I hope) engage students and extend their knowledge and understanding of the text. I have had to get to know the new specifications (I learned, to my dismay, that AL students will be able to study a Ben Elton novel if they wish). All this is excellent professional development.
Secondly, it makes me a better student. Being edited is an experience that I think all teachers should experience because it returns you to being at the receiving end of (at times) some pretty frank criticism. When I hand back marked essays to my students and see their faces drop I show them what has just been done to my work by editors and readers: favourite phrases deleted, questions raised about clarity of argument, suggestions for development…and so it goes on. You very quickly have to develop a thick skin if you’re going to publish something that is promoted by a publisher and bought by the public. I tell my students that in order to get better you have to accept criticism, and that to be good at writing you have to write, and then re-write, and re-write…until it’s good enough. Writing is not some precious art, and perfect, polished prose does not flow from the pen straight to the page. It takes work, it can be tough. Importantly, they begin to see that getting better is a collaborative process.
I use textbooks all the time now, building them into my planning, and I think my lessons are better as a result. And if using such books can free up my planning time to do some writing myself, or to spend it reading, marking, or even not working…then so much the better for me – and the students I teach.