A new school year is upon us as we ask ourselves how September came around so soon. Like it always does. It’s definitely the sneakiest month in the school calendar. But even as the summer dampens the echoes of the previous year, it nurtures us for the next.
Some will find the return hard, while others will be itching to get back to it (children and adults). But however you feel about returning, it’s important that we acknowledge it is OK and normal to feel the way we do. We are human, and we do not have superpowers – some people’s patience may seem like a superpower, but it really isn’t.
We are all different, have our own coping strategies, and find some things harder than others. Working as a team means playing to everyone’s strengths. And recognising our weaknesses – part of being human is looking inward and seeing how we can improve.
We may see ourselves as educators differently, but so do authors of children’s literature. So how are school staff seen in books? Are the representations fair, even though they might be negative?
I recently asked Twitter’s amazing education community a question:
Do children’s books get school staff ‘right’ in their portrayal of us? Which books chimed with you professionally?
In this post, I will be exploring some of the responses and books which were discussed.
Something I will keep coming back to is the phrase “getting school staff ‘right’”. What I mean by this is, basically, are the characters realistic? Whether it is important to be realistic is another question entirely. In some cases, definitely. Others, not so much. But then there are different levels of realism. Children want to see their lives in the books they read; in fact they need to. School staff are a huge part of a child’s life. But let us not forget that books need to be an escape for some.
It depends on what the character’s role in the story is; for what purpose do they serve the protagonist? In most examples offered in the thread, it’s either to help or hinder the hero. One of the problems seen by Year 6 Teacher Ben Harris (@one_to_read) is that teachers in books are often seen as either a ”figure of fun or fear”. I don’t believe they should be either of these, and I don’t believe children think in such binary terms of their teachers.
Research supplied by Branwen Bingle (@BranwenBingle) found that representations of teachers differed across the age ranges of books. Books in the 0-5 group showed positive representations; 5-10 were more binary (angel/demon); and 10+ were more nuanced. In every book I read now, I will be aware of this observation and make a note if they go against the trend. The reasons for this are interesting and make sense:
Younger children need to feel happy about going to school, so representations are positive (My Beautiful Voice by Joseph Coelho). For the 5-10s, school is such a large part of their lives that it’s an obvious setting for authors, and stories need heroes, villains, and possibly mentors (Cardboard Cowboys by Brian Conaghan). Older children’s books deal with a broader range of themes, so the characters become less binary (Run Rebel by Manjeet Mann)
And the books mentioned in the thread do seem to follow this pattern. Especially the middle-grade titles from authors like Onjali Rauf and Elle McNicoll. The Boy at the Back of the Class and A Kind of Spark feature teachers that are, to put it mildly, very unpleasant. However, both of these authors have titles which show positive portrayals, too, for example, Elle’s Like a Charm.
Getting staff “right” is as much about the negative portrayals as the positive ones. I’m glad these came up, as many responses mentioned the characters every child deserves to have teaching them. And of course, most teachers are nurturing and understanding, but for some, they aren’t. We may not like it, but they are getting them “right” in this way. And we need these portrayals; users in the thread expressed that teachers need to read them (Ben Harris), so as to keep learning and growing (Senior Lecturer Mat Tobin @mat_at_brookes).
It’s rare that you see this learning and growing in a teacher in children’s literature. Two books were pointed out, although I’m sure there will be others. Can You See Me by Libby Scott and Rebecca Westscott, where teacher Mrs Jarman is initially loud and assumes ND Tally is being rude when she’s trying to help. She does learn to be more understanding and quiet. (Suggested by Year 6 teacher Kirsten Fraser @MrsFraserSAB)
Another teacher that learns and grows is Mrs Welch in Kelly Yang’s Three Keys. She starts by giving her immigrant students a hard time by supporting a law prohibiting undocumented immigrants from school and receiving non-emergency medical care. However, her sympathies are eventually won over (Suggested by writer/tutor Lorraine Cooke @WritesAsRaine).
All of the books mentioned have characters that are teachers. Probably not too surprising, but disappointing. Wording the initial question to include “school staff”, I was hoping to get a mix of roles. Sadly, there don’t seem to be many teaching assistants, librarians, catering, admin, or site staff featured in books. Some of these people can be just as important in a child’s life as anyone else. Headteachers are almost always authority figures that aren’t to be trifled with. Cardboard Cowboys and Seed by Caryl Lewis are two which sprang to mind although there will be more.
I don’t think I was ever going to answer the original question with a satisfactory conclusion. But, I’m glad there was such a good discussion, and I hope the conversations continue. From the point of view of someone who works in a school, the representation of teachers in children’s books might often be frustrating. Sometimes this is because of archetypes and idealism, and sometimes it’s because we’re confronted with a reality we don’t want to admit.
Good luck to everyone for the start of the school year, and remember, you’re integral to the plots of every child in your school.