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Ditch the 'inspiration' myth

I switched on the radio recently and caught the last part of a "Point of View" piece by Sarah Dunant, the historical novelist. She spoke of two teachers, both female. She described them as "inspirational" and claimed that "inspirational" women teachers of the 1950s and 1960s were vital in effecting greater liberation of women, which led to the feminist movement and the equal pay legislation of the 1970s.

Leaving aside quibbles about the impact of longer-term social trends and the role of women trade unionists and politicians, it was the focus on "inspirational teachers" which irritated me. Such teachers may be more common than we think. But the myth of the "inspirational teacher", which began with an idealised Thomas Arnold in Tom Brown's Schooldays and appears in other fictional works, is a dangerous one.

The myth propagates the idea that inspirational teachers must suffer for their calling. Noble self-sacrifice is at the heart of this myth: success as a teacher is inalienably linked to an almost monastic asceticism. In the novel Goodbye, Mr Chips, the protagonist marries but his wife predeceases him by some decades, leaving him childless. He breathes his last, mumbling: "I thought I heard you say 'twas a pity, a pity I never had children. But you're wrong ... I have ... thousands of them ... and all boys!" It cannot be coincidence that Sarah Dunant's latest novel is set in a convent.

The trouble is that those fictional "inspirational" teachers, and the real ones who taught in Sarah Dunant's grammar school, worked in another country - the past. They worked in relatively privileged schools in which pupil behaviour rarely exceeded the bounds of the dormitory jape. Nor did their classes contain pupils of widely varying ability, nor, very probably, any at all with ADHD or autistic spectrum disorder. Photocopiers and activities involving preparation of materials played no part in their curriculum and while computers may have figured in some contemporary science fiction, they were never in schools and never needed maintenance or repair. Digital projectors and smartboards were well beyond the realms even of science fiction.

Interestingly, Edinburgh-born Muriel Spark made Miss Jean Brodie a very different kind of "inspirational" teacher. Jean's confrontation with the authorities in the form of the headteacher of The Marcia Blaine School for Girls is worth quoting: "I am a teacher! I am a teacher, first, last, always! Do you imagine that for one instant I will let that be taken from me without a fight? I have dedicated, sacrificed my life to this profession and I will not stand by like an inky little slacker and watch you rob me of it."

It's time we ditched the myth of the inspirational teacher and replaced it with the blunt reality that a successful and wealth-creating public education system needs to support teachers and not undermine them. A sustainable future for Scotland requires that our public education system be sustained even when times are tough and money is short.

Peter Wright is president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association.

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