Here's Francis Gilbert's account of what it was like to be a probationary English teacher in inner-city London in the late Eighties. Is it true? Sort of. "Characters referred to are composite characters... although everything that happens is based on real incidents." Lawyers, real or imaginary, have prowled carefully round the writer's conscience. However, the world of English teaching is smaller than I had expected. I could name one of the figures blended into a character.
What does that matter? This is a fantastic book, a cheeringly horrifying and right-on-the-nail description of the sheer terror of being deep-ended into teaching. The guilty rage; the fear of incompetence; the bloody-minded pupils; the good, bad and ugly teachers; the exhaustion; the victories, pyrrhic or otherwise, of coping with the disaffected, the unruly, the helpless; and the bullies on both sides.
The only difference between then and now is that the paper-chase is longer, the jargon more excruciating. The buzz-word then was differentiation, which has since been joined by individual learning plans. It means you are expected to teach at the pace of everyone. This is obviously right - just supposing you possess supernatural powers of crowd control, which you gain by frightening everyone, including yourself. By this time, it is hard to breathe, let alone to differentiate.
What I love about this book, composed of quick snatches of narrative, is that it doesn't tell any lies and also that it is in love with English teaching, despite everything. Despite the desperate anthologies, despite the curse of worksheets, despite the derelict selection of books, despite the detentions and vicious din, despite the staff-room lunacy, despite the parent who tells Gilbert he has a simple cure for his son's sins: put him in the bath, and bury him in bricks. You can smell the tension.
This book hums along. It isn't remotely satirical; not The History Man nor Wilt recast in a failing comprehensive. All its ironies, the best of which is what becomes of the school when Gilbert escapes it, are witty but unvarnished.
Somehow you suspect that I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here will not be used as a recruitment manual. It will stir up indignation and respect in equal measure. To be a young teacher (if you are any good) is to be obsessed and baffled. To be a young teacher in an inner-city comprehensive is to volunteer for mental mayhem, for hell without the luxury of a handcart.
My three teaching decades were spent in the relatively don't-know-you're-born South-west, and Gilbert's book - his first - left me obscurely guilty about it. But I have friends who have lived through what he describes so acutely, with wit where you might have expected rancour. He's a Head of English now. He writes so well that you half-suspect he could give up the day job. Mean of me, perhaps: but I hope he doesn't.Reuse content