Why it’s teachers who need textbooks most

Can anyone sympathise with the following?

You discover, towards the end of the academic year, that from September you’ll be teaching a new A level topic.

Wonderful, you think, what an opportunity! This – this here – is why I went into teaching. I can read books and watch documentaries and become a new master of this material. Someone is paying me to embrace the subject I love!

And so you will locate the key textbooks. You might perhaps ‘borrow’ a few weightier tomes from the school library. You may even splash a bit of your own cash on Amazon or Abe Books or similar.

Come September, things start positively. You are scholarly and erudite on the first section of the course, able to weave in stories and insight from your hard summer’s work. The students love it (‘Thank God we chose History!) and your world is alight with wonderful purpose.

But, at some point, this fades.

Weighed down by the inevitable drag of data and admin and reports and all the other million tiny tasks that eat into our day, the scholarship takes a back seat. Your lessons are still fine – good, in fact – solid (probably, in some ways, less-ambitious and therefore clearer) but they lack that flair and fire for which you are desperate.

Now, the above may just represent my singular experience, but I suspect I’m not alone.

So what’s the fix?

Well, here’s my idea: Textbooks for Teachers. It may sound dull, but hear me out.

Imagine if for, say, history, we had a big – and I mean seriously weighty, the sort of stuff Tom Sherrington references in his recent blog post – textbook (or maybe 3 or 4, broken up by period – medieval, early modern, modern etc).

They could cover a whole range of topics, pitched at somewhere around A level / first year undergraduate level of detail. They could include the basics (obviously), anecdotes, scholarship, points of interest that are worth exploring – and so on.

For the sake of familiarity, let’s take Hitler’s Germany to consider briefly an example.

The chapter could be divided along the lines most GCSEs are divided. Something like:

  1. Why did Hitler come to power in January 1933?
  2. How did Hitler consolidate his power between 1933 and 1934?
  3. What was life like in Nazi Germany?

The textbook could draw on substantial extracts from the likes of Richard Evans and Ian Kershaw. There could be an introduction to the historiography and the key debates.

Perhaps what would most be of value would be the collection of short but interesting stories. A treasure trove of (reliable) anecdotes is invaluable to a teacher. At their best, they illustrate a key point of learning. Failing that, they can at least harness a pupil’s attention.

And I suspect this could all be accomplished in a few brief pages. They would have to be crammed full of detail, granted, but they would quickly allow a time-pressed teacher to become an expert on the issue at hand (at least in the eyes of their pupils).

Of course, such a textbook might have more profound implication.

As the number of secondary school pupils in the UK continues to grow, and the government struggles to hire enough teachers, the chances of a non-subject specialist teaching History or English or Geography surely grows.

A textbook might equip these teachers with the knowledge they need to deliver their lessons to a higher standard. That can be no bad thing.

There are, as with any idea, problems. The two that spring to my mind are as follows:

  1. Who decides what goes in the textbook? (In a subject as political and potentially divisive as history, this is no small matter.)
  2. Are there enough teachers (say, history teachers) to make such a project economically feasible to a publisher?

Dealing with those problems will perhaps require another blog post. For now, I am just anxious to hear the thoughts of the teaching community.


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