Is this the perfect back to school book? A collection of 47 poems and a quiz would seem to be the best antidote for back- to -school blues for both junior school pupils and teachers.
Paul Cookson is a prolific children’s poet and editor of collections with school based poems being a major focus in books such as “Crazy Classroom” (2013), “The Truth About Teachers” (2013), “The Works; Every Poem You Will Need At School” (2014) as well as anthologies on monsters, football, Halloween, disgusting poems and families, so a child-centred poet if ever there was one. He often collaborates with David Harmer with whom he set up a “Spill The Beans” school based show. Harmer is one of the poets enlisted for this collection. There are a couple of very well-known names in Roger McGough and Brian Patten but it’s very much the lesser known poets here who have given me the most pleasure.
There’s a number of over-riding themes in the embarrassment of teachers- practical jokes, wigs and secrets known about the teacher dominate. The blur between the “teacher” and the private life of the individual provides a rich vein of humour and this works splendidly in Cookson’s own “Mum Goes To Weight Watchers With Mrs Donohue”, an evocative title which just sums up the predicament as Mum is keen to share her knowledge of the teacher with her offspring;
“What she eats and how last week she gained a pound or two
Gossip from the staffroom, who cannot stand who”
The sheer joy of mum’s information comes across strongly as does her retelling of the aerobics class where Mrs Donohue’s leotard gives way;
“Bursting open to reveal her knickers old and blue”
The narrator’s lips may be temporarily sealed but only until the time is right.
The delight of finding something unexpected about teachers comes across very well. In two poems the summer break provides an escape from machismo for two male teachers in Claire Bevan’s “The Rugby Teacher’s Holiday” and Gareth Owen’s great character study of “Oh Mr Porter”. This is also evident in Celia Gentile’s deliciously naughty “Skimpily Red” where a pupil witnesses the purchase of a sexy undergarment from Next.
“Miss Nixon’s rather strict and prim
She teaches us RE
The knickers she was purchasing
Were silk and r-e-d.”
A visit to the cinema with Miss canoodling with her boyfriend in the seat in front provides great excitement in “Did Miss Enjoy The Movie?” by Richard Caley;
“This was great, two things to watch
The film and Miss Smith too
Perhaps I should have turned away
But then again, would you?”
Classroom jokes can be practical as in David Harmer’s strongest effort on show “Tricks With My New Rubber Mouse” with its great depiction of a prank played on “dear trembly Mr Taut” or can be used to just pass the time such as in the game played by the pupils every time “Miss Fidgetbum” sniffs and coughs in Trevor Millum’s poem. Double standards are always a cause for classroom outrage as evidenced by Marian Swinger’s “Good Manners” and school life is depicted in its technicolour awfulness in moments provided by the overzealous caretaker in the poem by Trevor Harvey and the school fete where the kids can’t get to throw sponges at the Headteacher in the stocks because the teachers are all there first in the poem by Andrew Collett.
Most of these poems rhyme, have quite simple forms and read aloud beautifully. If I was still teaching this book would form part of my “emergency pack” in my bag. Not as essential as Michael Rosen whose “Quick! Let’s Get Out Of Here” would be pulled out of my bag regularly but it would certainly get a new class on the teacher’s side even if it might just give them undesirable ideas.
How To Embarrass Teachers was published by Macmillan’s Children’s Books in 2008