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Editorial: Stay or go, your face will never be forgotten

What does a teacher look like? When we asked children around the country to draw portraits, some of the results were as you would expect - and some most definitely were not.

The pictures were mostly of women, which chimes with official statistics, although a number of the children drew men despite the lack of male staff at their schools.

Overall, the artists' logic was impeccable but hairstyles were trickier. Eleven-year-old James couldn't decide what colour hair to give his teacher so got round the problem by giving him none at all. Nine-year-old Ewan drew a woman with long brown locks carrying a box with a book on top because, well, sometimes teachers carry boxes into class.

Interestingly, only 40 per cent put a smile on their subject's face, showing astute powers of observation. Teachers are not happy at the moment. According to the latest Department for Education figures, one in 12 is leaving the profession every year. Student and newly qualified teachers also feel jaded, with an ATL union survey reporting that some 73 per cent have already considered leaving.

Their reasons include excessive workload, the merry-go-round of change and the pressures of inspection. Teachers want to teach but unnecessary tasks are getting in the way.

One man's reason for throwing in the towel will chime with many: it felt, he said, as though "the whole purpose had become about serving the people above you rather than serving the kids". Teachers, he pointed out, do not mind working hard if it is going to "make a difference to kids' lives".

"Making a difference" may be a clich but it is hard to think of a better way of expressing what it is that teachers strive to do. It may not always be appreciated in the moment, but in later life an adult's perception of the profession is very much coloured by memories of the teachers who fired their imagination and literally changed their life.

The words that crop up most in our weekly My Best Teacher feature are "encouraging", "inspiring", "passionate", "enthusiastic" and "strict". Sadly, the kinds of teachers often described are the eccentric mavericks who wouldn't last five minutes in today's schools. The majority name a teacher of their own sex - more than 70 per cent of the teachers chosen by male interviewees have been men and more than 60 per cent named by females have been women.

Most fondly remembered are those with a strong knowledge of and fierce passion for their subject, who inspired a love of it in their students and taught them how to think. This week's candidate is no exception. Newsreader Alastair Stewart remembers a general studies teacher, Father Aelred, an intellectual giant who helped him and his classmates to discover "a world that we had no idea about" and who instructed them: "Think. Don't accept anything."

Whatever the picture painted of teachers, whether by current or by past pupils, one thing remains: the extraordinary privilege of the job. Stewart sums it up. "Apart from you," he told his father on seeing Father Aelred again, "that's the most influential man in my life."

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