9 great books about teaching

Reader's Digest Editors

I’ve always found the world of school a draw, and that’s reflected in some of the books I most enjoy. All the big emotions in life can usually be found within the precincts—deep love and simmering resentment—and, when processed through the eyes of the child, the reader can quickly recover the freshness, and vulnerability, of being a small person in a big place. Then there are the inevitable rhythms of school life which can be worked into such compelling narratives—the schoolrooms and playing fields are natural theatres

Jennings Follows A Clue by Anthony Buckeridge

This is only the second of the great Jennings oeuvre, and a personal favourite. Jennings, ever impressionable and always wholehearted, is blown away after listening to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. He and his (rather more apprehensive) friend Darbishire found the Linbury Court Detective Agency. Unwittingly, they find themselves witnesses to a real robbery—the theft of the school’s silver presentation cups, and confronted by the Headmaster’s displeasure. But the two boys track down the stolen loot and everything ends happily.

Anthony Buckeridge is very clever at reconciling his readers to the idea there are tough times to be weathered along the way, but that virtue plays out well in the long run. Jennings (under all the chaos) is a very honourable sort of boy. It’s a very reassuring book—for both children and adults—and highly entertaining.

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Paul Pennyfeather, a chaste and blameless undergraduate at Scone college, is sent down from Oxford after the drunken antics of some of his upper-class college contemporaries are laid at his door. Forced to earn a living, he is engaged as an assistant master at Llanabba Castle, an obscure private school in Wales. Waugh frequently pointed out that teaching was the default position for many of those sent down without a degree or, like himself, with a very poor one and with debts to settle.

It is a brilliantly funny book, but also anarchic and savage. Dr Fagan, the Headmaster, is enthusiastic but witless. Captain Grimes is an unrepentant paedophile, whose response to being “in the soup” is to announce his betrothal to the Headmaster’s middle-aged daughter. Mr Prendergast, sober, is gentle and melancholy. In his cups, he shoots one boy in the foot and beats 22 others. Forget redemption—no chance of that here—but it sparkles with hilarity and malice.

To Serve Them All My Days by R F Delderfield

David Powlett-Jones was 18 years of age in 1914. A miner’s son, who had seen his father and brothers sacrificed to industrial greed, he still volunteered for King and country, and did well, becoming an officer before being wounded and sent home in 1917 with a Military Cross.

That’s the background to the book—the story of a young man who finds his spirit for life, which he had believed dead, rekindled in his life as an assistant master at a minor public school in the west country. He quickly emerges as a formidable schoolmaster—upright and principled, but also headstrong. While the very embodiment of the school, he’s never quite defined by it. The General Strike of 1926 and the Depression of the early 1930s are as much a part of the backdrop of his life as the usual minutiae of school life. Thus, when he confronts the inevitable travails of school life (there’s one particularly nasty Headmaster with whom he locks horns) he can draw off a much wider frame of reference than many others—and the book is all the better for it.

Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham

Although this book is only incidentally about school, the years spent by its hero, Philip Carey at The Kings’ School, Tercanbury (a token reworking of the King’s School, Canterbury which Maugham had attended) are of enduring significance. It’s at the prep school where Philip first encounters sententious severity. He and another boy are caught playing with nibs by his Headmaster, but only the other boy is caned. The Headmaster justifies this because Philip is “a cripple”—that is, he has a club foot. It’s a dispensation does him no good with the other boys.

Maugham introduces a more subtle element in his an anatomy of the Headmaster of the Senior School, Mr Perkins. The latter, an old boy of the school—but also the son of a tradesman, and a scholarship boy, had been for many staff an object of derision. Now he has become their employer. This is a very skilful allusion to some of the typical status anxieties of the period. Equally, Philip’s determination to reject Mr Perkins’ overtures of kindness (which are impeccably high-minded) suggest his own fastidiousness at being beholden to someone he may have regarded as a social inferior.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

There’s no grief more eloquently drawn than that of a waif in any book by Charles Dickens. In Nicholas Nickleby, he exploits this skill to its greatest effect. Dotheboys Hall is not really a school—it’s a grotesque hostel for those whose parents no longer know or care. Wackford Squeers, the Headmaster, is a thief and a drunkard—but, above all, he is savage.

Smike is the most egregiously ill-used of the pupil population, but violence and extortion fall at the feet of each of them. Snawley Junior, Mobbs, Bolder—a name is scarcely put down on the page before we see some outrage perpetrated on them by Squeers and his appalling wife. Nicholas, hero of the book, enjoys the happy ending for which the reader yearns—but not most of the others. Dickens was too savvy in the ways of the darker world to allow that.

The Rotters Club by Jonathan Coe

This wonderful story is about growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970s. Ben Trotter, the wistful and intellectual teenage boy around whose life the book revolves, attends the local grammar school—surely based on King Edward’s, Birmingham, alma mater of Jonathan Coe. Ben’s preoccupations are bound up less with sport than many of his contemporaries, more with music and literature, and every bit as much with girls.

The book is a bit of a memento mori to a world that, even then, was on the edge of extinction: class tensions, trade union militancy, casual racism and sexism spill over every page. It was still possible in the 1970s to believe, as Ben does, that the school’s annual play was a culturally significant event, or that watching a French film on late-night BBC2 was edging towards a full-on sexual experience.

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Robert Graves’ autobiography is famous as a snapshot of the life of a young officer in the First World War. But it’s an astonishingly vivid, if unflattering, portrait of life as a schoolboy at Charterhouse in the years 1909-1914. British society in general was going through a rabidly xenophobic and philistine time in its history. Graves, a scholar, and the grandson of the great German historian, Leopold von Ranke, suffered accordingly.

There were few redeeming features to Charterhouse, as Graves saw it. Bullying and homosexuality are both mentioned, but he reserves his most stinging criticism for the school’s willingness not merely to tolerate a climate of anti-intellectualism, but to glorify in it. There’s a particularly vivid moment when the school’s athletic heroes (“the bloods”) are publicly humiliated in chapel—a moment of sacrilege to those of a traditional bent of mind, but one which brought joy to Graves’ heart. Graves was no athletic slouch himself, but a champion school boxer, and mentored in his mountaineering by George Mallory, then a young master at the school and later leader of the doomed expedition to Everest.

The Land Of Spices by Kate O’Brien

The year is 1900 or thereabouts, and Anna Murphy, aged five, is sent off to a boarding convent school near her parents’ home in Ireland. Anna’s parents’ marriage is a disaster—her father is a feckless, tragic drunk, and her mother is neurotic and in thrall to her own over-bearing mother. Sainte Famille, the convent, is run by an order of Belgian-based nuns, and the hope is that Anna will draw from their example a stability absent from her parents’ home.

Anna learns the disciplines of faith and of self-denial, and to savour the rigour of scholarship and the acclaim which follows public success. She also encounters jealousy and vindictiveness— memorably so in the person of Mother Mary Andrew—and crushing tragedy in the death of her adored brother, Charlie. Most brilliantly of all, her emerging womanhood and understanding are mirrored delicately in the parallel development of the extraordinary Headmistress, Mother Marie-Helene. Kate O’Brien’s exceptional novel refuses to allow the reader to wallow in sentimentality, and demands instead a harder-edged understanding of what it means to walk in faith and to receive grace.

The House of Elrig by Gavin Maxwell

Gavin Maxwell is chiefly famous for Ring of Bright Water, his book, detailing his life of otters. The House of Elrig is an account of his young life in rural Northumberland. His father, who had been killed in 1914, had been a landowner and his mother was a daughter of the Duke of Northumberland.

The book is an exquisitely written trawl through the author’s schooldays. Memorable cameos are drawn of his prep school Headmaster, the superbly-named H Frampton Stallard, who believes that every young man should be a scout “for England’s sake, and for Christ’s sake”. In those cases where scouting fails to effect the necessary character-building, the same Stallard is prepared to use a No 4 cricket bat instead. There is also a genius pen portrait of J F Roxburgh, the charismatic founding of Headmaster of Stowe, a man who believes in using 15 words where one would so: “Moribund Maxwell, I find this room chilly or frigid. It is not, in other words, within the comfort zone of the Fahrenheit scale. Will you rise, stand, or become otherwise vertical, and close this window, orifice, or aperture so that it is closed, sealed or hermetic?”

Under The Table by David Hargreaves is published by Unbound, price £16.99 in hardback