Teacher On The Run, by Francis Gilbert (review)


Francis Gilbert      Teacher On The Run        Short Books    £9.99

Francis Gilbert’s highly entertaining I’m A Teacher – Get Me Out Of Here was a white-knuckle ride through the terror of being a probationary English teacher in Tower Hamlets. Its sequel is less shocking, because there is much less to be shocking about. But Teacher On the Run is just as candid, just as well-written, and just as good an insight into the rattled and baffled psyche of a young English teacher. This time we follow Gilbert through two very lightly-fictionalised further schools, “Humbard’s”, and “Broker’s”, before our hero makes his escape from the profession – briefly, it transpires, luckily for anyone he has since taught, or is even now teaching.

Humbard’s is a doddle after Tower Hamlets, as Gilbert admits. What is wonderful about his account – offered to us, as in I’m A Teacher, in short bursts of anecdote – is its honesty about how success goes to his head. In no time, surviving on savvy and hard work, he is suckered into going for promotion, and the need to speak the language of action planning and SMART targets. He becomes, as he puts it, “an educational super-creep”. At the same time, he is teetering – like all really thoughtful teachers – on the edge of breakdown. He loathes himself, he judges himself, he finds himself in constant conflicts, real or imaginary, with colleagues and kids alike. His switch from one school to another is a survival instinct.

The second school, which sounds well-run, offers the same daily back-stabbery, confrontation, sense and insensibility in equal measure. Gilbert is best when describing the peculiar intimacy of teachers and pupils, how they are always keeping an eye on each other, sizing each other up, plotting each other’s psychologies. His foot-notes are particular pleasures – little master-classes for the unknowing in such arcana as “teachers who want to be the pupils’ friends”, “the war against chat”, and “real teaching”. Not much of the latter takes place, so Gilbert reckons. By this he means that open discussion of moral issues, including sexual ones, is actively discouraged. He hazards – a bit wildly – that this accounts for the high rate of teenage pregnancies.

Gilbert has few axes to grind, really. Teacher On The Run (an awful but marketable title, as before, only now with a Carry-On-Up-The-Classroom cover) is a compulsively readable confessional. It makes space for a spot-on encomium for the late, wonderful poet Michael Donaghy. It will wrongfoot traditionalist readers, however. His view is that grammar is now over-taught, and his bible is Rhys Griffith’s National Curriculum – National Disaster. And the truth is that, because he is so straight about the quirky worlds of classroom and staffroom, he makes teaching English seem a difficult challenge well worth attempting.

From The Independent