Book Review: Why Teach? by Ben Newmark

May 22, 2021

Why Teach? by Ben Newmark. Published by John Catt. £14

One of my new year’s resolutions was to read more books. I intend to review those that are relevant to education. Two warnings though. 1) Any links to Amazon will be “associate” links potentially earning me a few pennies. 2) A lot of these books have been sent to me by people I know, so I’m completely biased. 

This is another one of those little books from John Catt, which is probably best bought at a discount or in bulk. It’s a collection of essays about teaching. Although the title seems philosophical, other than the final chapter the focus is on accurately describing what it is like to teach and giving advice. It would be well suited to NQTs and others early in their careers. It might be best to read when, having had a fair bit of experience of standing in front of a class, you start to wonder about the point of what you are doing, and everything else going on in your school.

Chapters include “Why doesn’t my school’s behaviour system work?”; “Why are there so many spreadsheets in my school?”, and “Why is everyone so scared of Ofsted?” These, and others like them, are describing the experience of working in a school and how to deal with it. The character of the writing is that of the sort of conversation you might have with a more experienced colleague in your first year of teaching, when you start to wonder whether the many of the things you are are doing have a purpose and if you are doing the job correctly.

The tone is upbeat even when the descriptions of school life would seem cynical to a non-teacher, or equivalently, depressingly realistic to a teacher. It isn’t a book to put you off teaching, even in chapters such as “Why is there more work than it is ever possible to do?” and “Why is teaching making me so sick?” Most chapters have a “What to do” section, balancing out descriptions of what can be a challenge to teachers with solid advice on how to overcome these difficulties.

The exception to this format is the last chapter – the title track – “Why Teach?” which is a reflection on the purpose of being a teacher. This is an intelligent, philosophical discussion reminding us that what we do in the classroom is not some indirect step to some ambitious greater goal, but a worthwhile activity in itself when you believe that what you teach has inherent value.

Like most of the books I’ve reviewed so far, a lot of the appeal of this one is the honesty and accuracy. I don’t remember many books like this when I started teaching. Honest books written by a teacher, for teachers, are a reminder of how much there is to be gained from learning from those still within the profession. This book is a good demonstration of the way that teachers still spend their time thinking about teaching, and probably with greater sophistication than those who are often given the most prominent platforms to tell us what to do.

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