Book Review: ASBO Teacher by Samuel Elliott

February 26, 2022

ASBO Teacher: An irreverent guide to surviving in challenging classrooms. Crownhouse 2021

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2021 was to read more books and I intend to continue that into 2022. I will be reviewing those books 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.

I’m probably more biased about this book than any I have reviewed. I know, like and use the same barbers as the author, and he kindly sent me a copy of the book. I worked in, or visited, many of the schools he writes about including the one he attended as a pupil. Despite his use of pseudonyms for those schools, throughout the book I was picturing him in classrooms I’d taught in. (Although with hindsight I think I was imagining him delivering his history and geography lessons in maths departments.)

This book is written as advice, but the appeal is that the advice, the examples and the description of the author’s own experience is the apparently unvarnished truth, unlike the many books aimed at teachers that make you wonder whether the author has ever met a teenager, let alone taught classes of thirty in a tough school. He has written the first guide to teaching in terrible schools since Paul Blum’s “Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms“. Its coverage of school life is not so much “warts and all” as “what to do if your school is nothing but warts”.

It is extremely funny, with a deliberately humorous style, which is what you need to avoid crying, or becoming angry, that schools like these exist. The subject matter, of what to do to get the best for your students, when those in charge are doing everything to make that harder, is potentially grim, so the jokes and anecdotes are needed to avoid traumatising the reader. Despite having taught for years in schools like that, I found myself realising that there is no way I could cope with all that now in middle age.

The book would be most useful to the new teacher in a bad school, best read when approaching one’s first nervous breakdown, as a chance to realise “oh, it’s not just me”. This is good advice on how, through force of personality and a willingness to invent your own systems, you can survive until the opportunity comes to work somewhere else; anywhere else. There’s also a lot of solid advice about how to plan and deliver lessons where children will actually learn, even though they weren’t expecting to. I wish I’d been able to read it back when I was teaching in schools like those represented in the book. I wish I’d been able to read it when I was teaching in the schools featured in the book.

When the author was a pupil, and I was teaching at his school, I remember how I would be told that the violence in the corridors; the repeated verbal abuse, and the fact that kids would occasionally escape through a fire exit, and on to the roof were all perfectly normal for schools. I would be told it wasn’t close to being as bad as the special measures school in another part of the city. Being tough enough to survive without falling apart was just how you get along in your career. Ofsted even declared the school to be “good”, more than once, during the time when it was most challenging. My teaching experience since then has involved working in many much better schools, including those in much more challenging circumstances, so I guess I knew that schools don’t have to be like that. Rereading my blogs about that school (I called it “Stafford Grove“) brings back just how bad it was, and just how unhappy I was there. However, it wasn’t until I read this book that I truly accepted it wasn’t just me. The school was violent, the children were unsafe, and this should never have been okay with anyone.

The most tragic element of the book is that, although schools like that now seem somewhat rarer, they still exist and Sam has been able to find them and work in them even in the 2010s. A lot of debate about education centres on schools that are safe and orderly, and whether they are cruel or make insufficient allowances for SEND. The flipside of that debate is to consider schools like those in this book. Are kids happier when adult authority is limited? Do those with SEND thrive when those annoying little rules are barely enforced? Anyone tempted to think the answer is “yes” should read this book, particularly the sections about the author’s own time at school, and realise that there is no substitute for the grown ups being in charge.

One comment

  1. The fact that 2 of my favouriteTwitterati were student and teacher in the same school at the same time is the best revelation ever.

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