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Thursday 30 June 2011

Transformative Teaching or Why We Really Are All in this Together

Teachers and teaching have been in the news a fair bit of late. Although that's not strictly true because there has been very little discussion of teaching itself. The heated debate has been mostly about pensions and holidays. Subjects dear to all our hearts of course and therefore understandably likely to stir strong emotions. Thank God they're not also talking about making gherkins mandatory in cheeseburgers or Twitter might spontaneously combust.

All this chat about teaching, (and the fact that tomorrow is the end of term here in Scotland so we are doing all that end of term stuff like concerts, presents for the teachers, drinking neat martini and smoking cocktail Sobranie in the loos,) sorry, where were we? Oh yes, all the chat about teaching has made me think about my own teachers. Recently someone also asked me if I had a favourite teacher.

The truth is, not really. I remember lots of teachers, but I'm not sure that I'd pick one out as a favourite. I remember Mr Anderson who ate his chocolate biscuits before his sandwiches, I remember Mrs Bailey with the crazy beehive and hairy legs, I remember Mr Roger who ran up and down in front of our desks pretending to be a sperm. I remember Mr Eastbury who came in one day rather half-cut and sat cross-legged on his desk; and Mrs Paterson who played the tape of an "O" Grade German student who, in his oral exam, said everything in English but with a German accent and who called the characters in the story Fritz and Gretel.

There are a couple who stand out from the crowd though. One was Mr Stevenson who took us for English. He looked a bit like Gimli from the Lord of the Rings, if Gimli had worn Hush Puppies. He read aloud and acted the parts and fulminated loudly if we didn't like the things he liked. It was in his class that I read "A High Wind in Jamaica" and "The Great Gatsby" for the first time. He also gave me the worst mark I ever received for a creative writing piece.

It was all about a clever girl who worked as a secretary in order to support her ailing mother. It was mostly a description of her outfits, with a bit of romance chucked in. It was basically the literary love child of The Bunty and "Scruples". He gave me a "D" and wrote on it something like "This is very boring. You are better than this." I think all of those things explain why I might have been a little bit in love with him.

Then there was Mrs Rochester a music teacher who joined in my fifth year and took over the choir. She was very tall and theatrical and she conducted like her life depended on it. The senior choir grew from 20 pupils or so to over 100. They could barely fit us all on the stage. We sang carols and old songs from musicals, but with her we also sang Gilbert and Sullivan pieces and "Worthy is the Lamb". Put simply, she had ambition for us. She therefore also expected more of us than the other choir masters had done. (Though any pupil could join.)

Neither of these teachers changed my life. Frankly I came from a nice middle class home and was reasonably bright and didn't really need my life changing. But they both taught me very well. They had a passion for their subject which lit the embers of enthusiasm which lurk in even the most painfully cool and self-conscious adolescent breast.

One of the many unfortunate things about the nature of the debate surrounding today's action is that discussion of teaching, of the transformative power of a good teacher has been squeezed out. I am not belittling the importance of the issues under discussion. Teachers have every right to fight for a decent pension. I do not expect them to do it simply for the love it. They deserve fair recompense like the rest of us.

They derserve fair recompense because the job they do is very important. For parents what could be more important than the education and social development of your child? For non- parents what could be more important than nurturing the citizens of the future?

I think we all need to be honest about both the burdens and benefits of our jobs (if we have one). Many of my friends and members of my family are teachers. They work hard in a stressful and important job for a salary that could not (except in some very rare cases) be called vast.

Some teachers are wonderful and work above and beyond the call of duty. Some are not that great. My husband works in education and I know how wearisome it is to be needled about your holidays by a lawyer who earns four times what he does. But, having shared the long summer holidays with my husband for the first time these past two years, I also know the rare delight of having that "breathing" space.

I recently met two young women who, despite having worked full time for their employer for two years, received 8 paid days holiday a year because they were retained on 12 hour a week contracts. I am categorically not espousing that as the way forward. I was shocked and angered by it and saddened by their acceptance of it.

I don't think a fairer deal for them will be the result if teachers' pensions are eroded. But I do understand why they might feel resentful and how preying on such feelings drives a divide and rule philosphy which is to the detriment of society as a whole.

Teachers are not, and do not claim to be, martyrs to the cause of our children's future. Neither are they indolent parasites. MPs are not all avaricious monsters, most journalists do not routinely tell lies for a living, even some bankers are quite nice people.

Basically, let's remember, we really are all in this together.


  1. OMDZ, this is so absolutely true. Great, piece.

  2. Well said.

    Teachers who are supporting the recent strikes should be compelled to read your last sentence.

  3. I just wanted to say, for the avoidance of doubt, that I support yesterday's strike. The post was about the need to avoid this becoming a "them" and "us" debate. We all need good public services which will suffer if there is a demoralised and undervalued workforce.


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