Top Reads of 2021

2021, like the year preceding it, was very much a year of reading and doing very little else. Shamefully for me, it was not a year of writing blog posts – this is my first post since last year’s round up of top reads. I did, however, edit my book, Culture Rules, during those several locked down holidays and weekends. Have a read!

Non-fiction

Doug Lemov Teach Like a Champion 3.0

A new edition of Teach Like a Champion is always an excellent excuse to revisit what I have come to feel are the markers of truly great classroom practice. I read this just as I reentered the classroom, having not taught for two full years – first when setting up a start-up school with no children, and then taking on a school through the second pandemic year (I was advised to not teach, and with good reason as almost every planned day last year was torpedoed by Covid in one way or another). Reading this, I found myself reflecting on how hard it is to automate the strategies that make a wonderful classroom, and how useful it is to revisit them time and time again. Lemov has provided such useful reflections and clarifications here, I challenge anyone to not find worth and expertise in this glorious tome.

Doug Lemov Teaching in the Online Classroom

I was so in denial of what was likely to happen at the start of the last academic year it took me far too long to read this. By the time I did, the incredible teaching and learning team at Ark John Keats were well into the swing of delivering CPD on remote teaching. My ardent hope for the new year is that there only needs to be one book on remote learning, and this is surely it.

Mike Schmoker Leading with Focus

This was recommended to me by not one but two of the Vice Principals at Ark John Keats. I found it particularly useful to read last year, when the sheer struggle to remain open as a school threatened to dominate. This book contains incredible clarity on curriculum and instruction, and if nothing else is a call to arms to stop focusing on anything else.

Musa Okwonga One of them: an Eton college memoir

I was fascinated by this account of attending the most prestigious school in the country – both the reality experienced on the ground, and the weight of expectation Okwonga details feeling throughout the rest of his adult life.

Lucy Kellaway Re-educated

Having followed Kellaway’s column detailing her move from successful Financial Times journalist to the classroom, I bought this for the writing style alone. The fuller picture – that of setting up a teaching charity from scratch, changing home and ending a marriage – was equally extraordinary. A compelling and inspiring account.

Joanna Rakoff My Salinger Year

A wonderful memoir of Rakoff’s work in the 1990s with a literary agency which happened to represent J.D. Salinger.

Fiction

Amor Towles Rules of Civility

This was my top fiction read of 2021, with characters I genuinely missed when I finished reading. Towles evokes an atmospheric 1930s New York as well as making the central relationship of the book – a female friendship – feel real and relevant.

Gemma Reeves Victoria Park

I spent many lockdown days in Victoria Park, Hackney, and bought this book because there is always something wonderful in reading about a familiar place. Though this book is made up of short narratives, the characters are loosely connected in what feels like a very current, almost anonymous London way; not through startling revelations but instead through minor coincidences.

Mateo Askaripour Black Buck

This satire made me laugh and cringe in equal measure. Despite its clear fable-like unreality, you really root for the main character throughout. Race is central to the book, and it also felt like a sharp critique of the empty hollow at the heart of modern start-ups.

Emily St John Mandel The Glass Hotel

This book swirls around a key line which echoes through its pages, its meaning becoming clearer and clearer as the story goes on. The parallel stories, which at first seem utterly disconnected, collide in a fascinating conclusion.

Lorrie Moore Self-Help

I cannot believe these short stories were published in 1985 – they felt utterly modern. Mainly around relationships and their messiness, the stark poetry of some phrases made stayed with me for days after reading them.

Esi Edugyan Washington Black

Though set in a time of slavery, this book resists being solely a slave narrative. A rich and complex novel, especially around the uneasy exploration of race relations at an individual level.

Being the teacher Year 10 deserve

I have what has been termed as an “intervention” group in year 10. Last year, when making the set lists, I decided to make a top set and then mix the rest of the year; it was then decided that certain students would take one less GCSE and have three extra lessons a week: one in English, two in Maths. So the two intervention groups came about, and I took one.

Why do these students need extra English? It’s not because they’re stupid – but then, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a stupid child. It’s not because they’re illiterate, although I do wish they would read more. They seem to be behind their peers, in terms of their raw data, and for that I can think of many reasons, which I would imagine are the same reasons any “intervention” child is behind. What it boils down to is time and effort. At some point, for some reason, these students have lost time in English. They have missed lessons, or they have been in lessons in body only. Many of them aren’t the well behaved angel children I am accustomed to dealing with (joking – though my year 11 class does seem fairly rammed with angels).

The bottom line is that these children deserve the best teacher. They have to cover more ground in less time; they have less than two full years, and time is ticking.

But I’m filled with doubt. Am I the teacher they deserve? Can I dedicate enough time, energy and effort myself? With all my other classes exam classes, with running a department, and with the additional responsibilities of being a member of the SLT, can I be that teacher?

These children need to be inspired. They need to feel awe and wonder in their English lessons. They need to be thirsty for knowledge, keen to read and learn and close the gap. Can I muster the energy to inspire them six times a week?

These children need to be nurtured. They need to be comforted when things go wrong, they need to feel safe in my classroom, they need to know that they have the space to get things wrong because that is what learning is. They need to be cared for, and their parents need to be told when they are wonderful, every time they are wonderful. Can I care for each and every child individually?

These children need to be in the room. They might behave in ways which eventually lead to being sent out, but when they do that in every lesson every week, it is clear that they are desperate to avoid the learning. They need to be sanctioned in multiple ways, outside classroom time, and those sanctions need to be both horrible and long. Can I improve my planning and pedagogy to the extent that I can ensure no-one needs to be sent out of my classroom? Can I follow up every sanction relentlessly?

These children need to receive excellent feedback. They need to fill their books with work they are proud of, with paragraphs that improve every week, where they understand the next steps towards achieving in English. Can I mark every book every week, let alone every lesson, with comprehensible guidance to lead them in the right direction?

I don’t think there is a teacher in the world who hasn’t had a class like my year 10. In fact, there probably isn’t a teacher anywhere in the world who doesn’t have this class right now: the class where every moment is vital, every interaction make or break, every comment taken to heart. This week, I have invited teachers into my lessons and taken their feedback, tracked down students in between lessons to smooth over issues, phoned parents and re-read parts of my go-to teacher manual Teach Like a Champion before and after every class. Next week there will be more visitors to the class, and more phone calls, more emails, more marking, more reading, more encouraging, more consoling, more understanding.

Things are improving, but I’m not the teacher they deserve.

Yet.