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Colours of a 'one-off' can still shine through

The words came from Margaret, a farmer and cave-owner from County Kerry in the west of Ireland: "What I find boring and disappointing these days is the colour of politicians. They're all grey."

I was visiting her patch as part of a television series on the Celtic rim of Europe, and Margaret was clearly warming to her theme. Over her Gaelic coffee she continued the flood: "Ah, they're all bland and lacking in bounce. Totally dull. No spark, you see. No spirit, no adventure. You couldn't make a full-blooded character from a mixture of the lot of them!"

This tirade occurred some years ago, but I've often wondered about her assessment, and whether the affliction might have spread to other pastures, such as teaching.

Is there as much space for manoeuvre these days for the vibrant teacher, the six-cylinder individual who fills the air with creative enthusiasm? Is there enough room for the "match-lighter", the "one off" character?

Character, they say, is what you are in the dark when no one is looking.

But I prefer my teaching characters out in the open, brightening the day, firing ambition, and taking young minds to the far horizon. I love the inspiring, intoxicating teacher.

In my frequent visits to schools, I have often been raised in spirit on meeting many heads and teachers who clearly showed that essential ingredient which drills self-belief into the minds of the young. Many do so in challenging catchment areas. Within two minutes of walking into a school, you just know that these people are made of the right stuff. The school is in good hands.

There is still a concern in my mind, though, that the path through the forest may be too direct. The signposts of the national curriculum and assessments indicate the goal, but over the years the route-changes have made a mess of the map. The goalposts have also been moved so many times that the ground must resemble the scene of a mole migration. Getting there is one thing, travelling in style is another. But it's the journey that needs to be savoured if at all possible.

Now in my day... Yes, I know, nostalgia is a country that should be visited with care - but there did seem to be characters galore on the road to learning.

How well I remember Ben Davies of Penarth. I met him when he was a "young buck" teacher with a new box of full-length chalk. He was a pre-Sixties product and a great class performer, but he constantly wrestled with "open plan", "integrated day", "family grouping" and "team teaching".

I can see him now, sitting in his sagging settee in the staff room, listening to the end of the playtime bell and sighing, "Roy, come and get me when my style of teaching comes back, will you?"

There was also Sid Harries, a classics man of Cowbridge grammar, standing on a letterbox in the town with a daffodil in his mouth after a staff visit to a watering hole on the afternoon of St David's Day. We had half-days for our patron saint then.

John Jones ("Taffy" to the classroom tribes) of Aberdare boys' comp could raise the first-years to historical fervour as Vikings going up the Rhine.

The class sat on their desks, rowing upstream to wild-horned calls. The attack was halted, briefly, when Taffy's oar (a floor brush) got tangled up with a few ceiling tiles. Whether they got to their destination is immaterial - they will remember that history lesson forever.

I could mention so many more - Orlando Evans, deputy head of the Amman Valley grammar school, frog-marching the boys of the sixth-form to the outdoor toilets on the morning after the sixth-form party because a single Woodbine stump had been found in the urinal.

I hope that such characters are still alive and operating in schools today.

And I would welcome your response. After all, it is said that the eye can detect 500 shades of grey. The teaching fabric desperately needs stitchers who sew in their own inimitable and individual way.

Roy Noble is a former headteacher and presents The Roy Noble Show on BBC Radio Wales

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