Review by Cath Murray

21 May 2017, 5:00


Requires Improvement

By Paul Jenkins

Jim is a drama teacher (“any resemblances [sic] to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”…) tormented that the academic obsessions of “central government” have relegated his subject to third class.

He’s also a tormented genius, who – despite losing his father when he was ten and dropping out of school to support his mother through rehab – somehow “aced the very exams his school friends had sweated and struggled over just the year before”.

The protagonist of this self-published novel, by real-life former head of drama Paul Jenkins, then signed up for a BTEC in performing arts, where he “performed by day and worked takeaway shifts to bring in the pennies, and used his down time to get (and later keep) his mother on the straight and narrow”.

This book is especially painful if you’re a lover of good writing

This character, ladies and gentlemen, is a saint. Yet he’s a saint with a short temper and many, many axes to grind. In fact, Jim is the patron saint of woodcutters, with a stack of axes piled up (and if you think I am over-egging the metaphors, think again, dear reader – these are nothing compared with the positively Tom Cruise-like metaphor-mixing talents in this book) against teachers of other subjects (such as maths and science, which unreasonably take priority over his); against anyone who parks their car in “his” space in the school car park; and of course, the perennial enemy: the senior leadership team. SLT are – apparently – three letters generally “spat out rather than said”.

Jim knows how to fix it, though; he would like to promote a student from the pupil referral unit to the SLT, recognising what the school leadership fails to see: that despite two years of poor GCSE results in drama, the students NEED to be doing plays!

This book is especially painful if you’re a lover of good writing. Jenkins fails to understand how an omniscient narrator works and flips between perspectives like a dog chasing a fly (again, my talent for similes pales in comparison). The narrator is able to jump inside the head of many characters: Jim the tortured drama teacher, Janet the unflinching SLT member, Steph the unappreciated support assistant and occasionally the odd student – yet every character is narrated with the same whiny drone. You have to keep on track or you will have no idea which perspective the narrator is attempting to take.

There are a few, rare moments that could have been poignant, were the scenario not so clichéd and the writing not so heavy-handed. Such as when Ethan, the bright kid whose mother is in jail, gives a dazzling explanation of Shakespeare, but manages to swear and insult classmates in the process – all during an observation – thus requiring Jim to immediately send him into the corridor rather than try to tame his hidden genius.

The finale is an excruciating stick-it-to-the-man cliché

Or when Debbie, the special educational needs co-ordinator, stands up to her SLT colleagues over the marginalisation of the “thickie kids doing soft subjects” – that is, those not taking the Ebacc. There is a momentary tacit understanding that while they would all love to empathise, the pressures from the DfE and the academy trust they have recently joined simply do not allow them to prioritise pastoral concerns over attainment. The author manages to convey this despite his writing, rather than through it.

The book’s finale is an excruciating stick-it-to-the-man cliché, which I won’t spoil, but more for the sake of convention than because you will make it that far.

Theoretically, a book like this might make a good gift for a teacher in their NQT year, to reassure them they’re not alone in feeling hopeless. Sadly, it ends up being one long, bitter rant.

We need more books that show new teachers it’s OK to feel like you’re drowning. This is not it.

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