Secrets of an English teacher

The Learning Game by Jonathan Smith (Little, Brown, £14.99)
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The Independent Culture

One wonders where librarians and bookshop managers will shelve The Learning Game. In part it's the thoughtful autobiographical reflections of a wise and successful teacher nearing the end of his career. At another level it's a rather challenging how-to manual for less experienced teachers and for parents. Yet it contains so many lengthy quotations from poetry, prose and drama that in places it feels more like Jonathan Smith's commonplace book than anything else.

Smith, the author of five published novels and a string of radio plays, teaches English at Tonbridge School, and every jargon-free word that he writes rolls pleasurably round the mouth like good brandy. The prose is marked by a rare and incisive blend of informality and precision. He must be quite some role model for the pupils in his English classes.

He compares his own experiences as pupil, in both state and independent schools, with that of his own children and the pupils he has taught over more than three decades. There are telling anecdotes about his parents, who were both teachers. Smith was taught by his own father and, 40 years later, he taught his own son. His charismatic father-in-law was the headteacher of a comprehensive school where Smith practised a bit of teaching while a Cambridge undergraduate. In other words, Picasso-like, he looks at teaching from every possible angle.

Teachers, he argues, should take unapologetic pride in what they do. "Do doctors, actors, engineers, architects and politicians apologise?" he asks, quoting extensively from his hero, the schoolmaster and academic AC Benson (1862-1925), for support on this and other points.

A self-styled "Wordsworthian", Smith dislikes the constraining effects of the ever-narrower English curriculum. "Refuse to be dominated by the syllabus... Stretch the brightest minds. Do not dumb down," he declaims rhetorically in one of several passages aimed squarely at fellow teachers.

Elsewhere in the book he recalls how he used to walk miles every afternoon after school, pushing his infant daughter in her pram, addressing her continuously in adult language. Thus, he hoped, she would develop advanced linguistic skills. She did.

However, this led to problems later because her vocabulary was way ahead of that of other children in her class. Smith ruefully describes this without drawing any specific conclusions. As so often, he describes, reflects and then leaves you to agree with him or not.

Inevitably, though, many teachers and some parents will be infuriated by his forthright and politically incorrect views on discipline, teaching style, coursework and examination grades. Moreover, his deliberate and, arguably, simplistic disregard of the differences between fee-paying and state education may rankle.

The Leaning Game is prefaced with a Chinese proverb: "The other day I asked my colleagues if they had ever read a good book on teaching. There was a long silence." If Smith intends that this book should fill that gap, he may well succeed in his goal.

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