Re-reading ‘The Craft of the Classroom’ by Michael Marland

I have recently moved house.  What should be a pleasant event is, in reality, truly hideous; in fact if there was a fifth horseman of the apocalypse I think he would be called ‘Moving house’.  However, even the most draining, exhausting experience can throw up some unexpected pleasures.  Old photographs, postcards sent by long-lost friends, items of clothing worn by children when they were babies…such things stop you in your tracks, transporting you, for a moment, into your past and projecting you into your future, just as Eliot wrote about in ‘Burnt Norton’ (‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.’)

And then there are the books.  Why do we cling to old books that we will never re-read? What unique power is contained in those yellowing pages that makes us hesitate before putting it back on the shelf?  Other objects do not maintain such a hold over us, but throwing that collection of poems away, or binning that broken-spined novel, seems like a conscious fragmenting of the self.  It weakens us, removing a past from our own identities.  And so we continue to break our backs as we carry hundreds of books from place to place.  Such things used to make some sort of sense before Kindles and the internet, but now?  I’m not so sure.

craft-of-the-classroomEvery so often a book slips from a box that makes you think again about how you teach because, years ago, it made you think for the first time about what it means to be a teacher.  One such book is ‘The Craft of the Classroom’ by Michael Marland, first published in 1975 (another one would be ‘The Learning Game’ by Jonathan Smith).  Marland’s book was hugely influential when it came out, changing the lives of many people (teachers and students alike).  When I picked it up again for the first time in perhaps 15 years I did so cautiously: what could it tell me now I don’t know? Do teachers still think of themselves as possessing a craft?

Its subtitle (‘A Survival Guide’) seems to place it in a particular sub-genre wearily familiar to many teachers (let’s call it the ‘us and them’ school which includes titles such as ‘Getting the buggers to behave’ and deploys lots of imagery of attrition, conflict and battle zones).  That approach, or rather that tone, seems rather old fashioned.

But Marland knew what he was writing about (this affectionate obituary from The Guardian shows just how much experience he had in London state schools, and gives a real flavour of this charismatic headteacher).  As I browsed it again my eye was drawn to pages with whole paragraphs underlined, and my (neater) handwriting asking questions of the text and author, somehow expecting answers, and finding them, eventually, in the classroom.

The 70s are now characterised as a brutal time when even the teachers not only dressed like Regan and Carter from ‘The Sweeney’ but acted like them too (and they were the good guys).  Marland’s book is humane and fair, and contains advice that seems, in retrospect, remarkably far-sighted and modern:

Never refer to a pupil’s family in front of other pupils. Never use the ill fame of other brothers and sisters, perhaps because they were at the school, to criticize a pupil.  Never make invidious comparisons with other members of the family.  Never say anything to wound.  Never refer to physical or racial characteristics.

I wish my teachers had read this.

Of course, much is outdated (advice on the right sort of equipment a teacher should have makes alarmingly little mention of mobile devices, unless you count a board rubber , mark book and chalk).  But Marland reminds us that good teachers share the same qualities, regardless of the period, or even the sector, they find themselves in.  One section caught my eye, and again, I could not argue with much of it:

It is important…that in searching for improved motivation we do not overlook the very basic point that in fact almost the best motivation is simply achievement.  On the whole, we want to do the things we can do, and don’t want to do the things we can’t do.  In classroom terms this means that it is not practical to put too much emphasis on motivation, nor to wait until pupils ‘are motivated’ to do something.  Vigorous teaching of the skills will often lead on to motivation.  ‘Being able’ to do is very close to ‘wanting’ to do.  Not being able to do is distressingly off-putting.

But he was no soft liberal who had the soft prejudice of low expectations.  Quite the opposite.  And he placed particular emphasis on the teacher as the leader of the group of pupils being taught: ‘you have to be able to dominate the group’ he writes.  And this section on classroom management goes further, and is written from real experience:

There is nothing so pathetic as the sight of the desperately anxious teacher casting away more and more of his standards as frantic sops to rapid popularity and sacrificing the elements essential to a good long-term relationship to the empty hopes of immediate success.

We have all seen those teachers who want to be friends with their difficult students, allowing what were once clear lines to become blurred.  It never works, and new teachers should know this, as should their mentors. Some schools publish reading lists for teachers new to the school to read (they  invariably include Dweck and Hattie). But they could do worse than include extracts from The Craft of the Classroom.  

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