Review by Stephen Lockyer

Primary teacher

28 Apr 2024, 5:00


The Magical Place We Call School: Creating a Safe Space for Learning and Happiness in a Challenging World

By Dr Kathleen Corley with Glenn Plaskin


Forefront Books




16 Jan 2024

Howdy pardner! Afore you mosey on past this here ree-view, how’dya like a slice of ma Meemaw’s apple pie while I tell yer all about The Magical Place We Call School?

Too much? If you’re the kind who wants to claw their own ears off when a group of American tourists (collective noun: a trump) get all excited about heading to Lie-sess-terh-shy-ehr Square on the London subway, then give this book a HARD avoid. I was only allowed a glimpse of the digital copy, but even that, when sliced, bled red, white and blue in a weirdly patriotic smear.

If you can get past this – and I did manage to by chapter two – what we have here is a heartfelt and impassioned love letter to teaching and education. Despite the Trumpification of society, where we can only have one point of view and anyone who dares sit in a different camp is an enemy, this book shows that there is a middle ground – a magical land where you don’t need to beat your pedagogical drum louder than others to be heard, where both firm boundaries and an understanding of individual children matter.

Dr Kathleen Corley has worked more than four decades in the American education system – a system that quite frankly makes our own appear vanilla by comparison – and it is clear throughout this book that she is devoted to her students and the profession.

This is obviously a dangerous path for some. Witness the burned out and broken staff sitting in the dust bowls along the same road. Devotion to one’s career comes at a huge, often untold, expense to mental health, marriage, social lives and the lives of your offspring if not carefully managed.

When someone survives such a journey with optimism enough at the end to refer to school as a ‘magical place’, it behooves us to listen (sic.). There is a wisdom that comes from longevity, which we can now christen Corley’s Law: The longer you spend in education, the more accurate you can be in saying exactly what does work in the classroom.

Don’t expect it to revolutionise your career,
but do enjoy chewing the fat with an experienced principal

Accordingly, the book is heavily led by anecdotes, but these are teachable moments as much as anything. They exemplify the wisdom Corley wants impart, and as such the book works relatively well.

In the olden days of teaching, a lot of teacher training used to happen in hotel conference rooms. You’d get wildly excited about wearing your own clothes on a weekday and the free buffet lunch. Zoom was how you would leave after filling in the evaluation form and, despite many of these expert-led courses being brilliant, the best thing about them was the chance to chat to colleagues, picking up ideas, advice and expertise from those older and often wiser than you.

So with this book. Don’t expect it to revolutionise your career, but do enjoy the chance to sit by the fire and chew the fat with an experienced principal. It’s reassuring and comforting, like those conversations you’d’ve had with brilliant teachers on training days way back when.

I’d also recommend this book to aspiring and aspirational heads. I’m too little a fan of Excel and meetings to want to be a headteacher, but the advice Corley gives out seems to be the sort which would really stick with me if that was my career path.

Here’s one I highlighted and thought about for longer than a TikTok: “Take care of problems before they take care of you”. I’m consistently bemused at the number of times I’ve seen leaders suffer because they’ve either kicked the problem can down the corridor or (alas more commonly) buried their head in the sandpit completely. Every time, the problem comes back to bite them in the ass, as our cousins over the pond might say.

Like a bucking bronco, headship is an unforgiving and unwieldy beast. Sometimes you need to hear campfire stories from someone who’s had their fair share of rodeos. With four decades of rustling kids and an enduring love for them, Corley has plenty of those.

If you can get past the twang.

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