There is something endearing about Ross Morrison McGill’s new book. He starts with a tale of his own upbringing: His parents were members of The Salvation Army and so the family moved around a lot. Their longest stay in a single place was three years towards the end of McGill’s schooling. I tend to agree with him that this is likely to have been a cause of his poor school grades. I was reminded of E D Hirsch’s argument in favour of a common curriculum. Hirsch’s point is that it is usually the disadvantaged that move schools most frequently and so it is they who suffer most from a lack of curriculum coherence.
The book is structured around an interesting conceit. It is divided into five sections, each of which represents one of the first five years of a teacher’s career with a theme on which to focus in each year. This comes from McGill’s notion of the ‘vitruvian’ teacher and the five components that are the qualities of such a teacher. For instance, McGill thinks that resilience is a quality of good teachers and so he structures his advice for the first year around this concept. This makes a lot of sense.
When it comes to the advice itself, it is hard to find the meat. Much of it is akin to advising a comedian to be funny. For instance, we learn that new teachers should turn up for duty, do as they are told and follow school policy. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with following school policy but you don’t need a book to tell you to do that. We read that, “Every time you add something to your own or another person’s workload, you should also commit to taking something away.” Fair enough, but what should we take away and how should we do this? It’s not clear.
Many new teachers struggle with behaviour management and therefore could do with some insights on effective approaches. McGill advises:
“When you do progress to feeling more confident about pushing your behaviour management boundaries, or even now as you decide on adapting rules for your classroom, ensure you are consistent and never detrimental to whole school policy…”
He then borrows some tips from Paul Dix that include, “Limit the amount of time that you demand the attention of the whole class. Too much Teacher talk promotes low level disruption.” I’m not sure that this is the right advice. It might be better to use strategies that improve students’ ability to pay attention rather than to adapt to a low level of attentiveness. Some widely known classroom management techniques are simply not mentioned.
The ‘5 minute lesson plan’ makes an appearance, as you might expect given that McGill is famous for promoting this on his blog. I can’t imagine using this to plan a lesson and I think it would be of limited value to someone new to the post. It’s basically a collection of buzzwords in tiny boxes. Even if you were to believe that a particular buzzword should be addressed in your lesson plan – e.g. ‘numeracy provision’ – then there wouldn’t be the space to write anything significant about it.
And there are other ‘5 minute’ plans. For instance, there is one for marking. At first I thought this must be a plan for completing your marking in five minutes. Which would be huge, if true. However, it is not this but rather a way of potentially planning your marking in five minutes. I can’t really see much value in this because I know of few teachers who spend much time at all planning their marking. And if you follow McGill’s approach then you are likely to plan quite elaborate and time-consuming marking.
Marking is something of a theme of the book – “Mark, plan, teach (repeat)”. Although McGill discusses verbal feedback, it is clear that he mainly equates feedback with marking books and therefore sees feedback mainly as something that teachers provide to students, missing out on a discussion of the potentially powerful effect of the feedback that students provide to teachers. There is a suggestion about drawing yellow boxes around portions of the work that you intend to mark and then empty yellow boxes in which the students respond and/or redraft. You can see the thinking here: It is intended to be a mechanism by which teachers don’t have to mark every single thing that a student produces. However, I can think of easier ways of doing this. The main advantage seems to be in providing evidence to managers of what you are doing.
I also think that McGill was let down quite badly by his editor. At times, it is difficult to understand his message. I wonder if it’s McGill’s desire to provide a balanced view that leads him in to flatly contradicting himself. We read that:
“Whatever your views on strike action, it must be made clear to you that if you are part of a union you will be obligated to strike. But this does not mean that you have to do it!”
“The laziest form of differentiation that exists is going into every lesson, setting a whole class task, waiting for students to produce an outcome, and then simply differentiating a follow-up task of feedback. Avoid this at all costs… However, in all honesty, occasionally we have to resort to this…”
And there are other occasions that are more reminiscent of Alan Partridge:
“I am proud to say – even though it makes me cringe at times when I look back – that the three form classes I had (two were over five years apiece) were a work of art.”
In short, this is a potentially very useful book that has not been executed particularly well. I cannot think of anything else that sets out to achieve what McGill has tried to do here and so I cannot recommend an alternative. Yet despite touching on some key issues for new teachers, ‘Teacher Toolkit: Helping you survive your first five years,” has little of real substance to say about them. I therefore would not recommend it to someone starting out in a teaching career.
I am grateful for being sent a copy of this book to review.