Life lessons: Are there any eccentric teachers left?

What's happened to those maverick teachers – and should we be mourning their decline, asks Tes' maven of manners

Thomas Blaikie

Life lessons: Elderly gentleman, sitting in leather armchair and smoking cigar

Dear Thomas, 

Bring back eccentric teachers! I’m sick of wall-to-wall corporate blandness.

Whatever happened to all those one-off individuals who populated staffrooms years ago? Have they really died out? I suspect there are a few lurking in my school. 

What do you think? 

Xenia Leonidas
Roehampton 

School staffroom: Where have all the eccentric teachers gone?

Dear Xenia,

It depends what you mean by “eccentric”. I knew a teacher who, when presented with a document headed “syllabus”, tossed it at once into the bin. Another was vague and unworldly – an engaging trait – but it meant he was rarely present at his own lessons. 

It has to be said that both these people were “functioning eccentrics”, rather like functioning alcoholics, in that their pupils seemed to manage well enough despite them. But, really, they were a bit too much of a liability. 

On the other hand, many of you will remember Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, depicting the goings-on in a boys’ school supposedly in the 1980s. Richard Griffiths was the history teacher whose lessons consisted of boys belting out musical numbers and performing drag acts of an unsuitable nature, for some reason in French. It was incredibly fabulous. 

Then, there was the art teacher in a girls’ school where I worked for many years. She had quite an impact, not least on the entrance hall of the school, where examples of her pupils’ work created an atmosphere almost of menace.  

One huge and alarming painting showed what looked like hefty Soviet women heaving another such woman, nude and writhing in apparent agony, out of a bath. It was a masterpiece in its way, immensely complex and ambitious for school art.  

In the staff dining room, there was a portrait of a tormented-looking middle-aged woman. “It’s so-and-so’s self-portrait,” Miss X explained, referring to a teenage student. When I looked doubtful, she said, “That’s how she sees herself.” 

You can understand that the new headmistress was quite keen to clear works of this nature out of the entrance lobby, but there was no escape from them all over the rest of the school. They lined every corridor. 

Eccentricity doesn’t equal completely deranged, necessarily. This teacher knew what she was doing. She was intolerant of what she thought was the natural tendency of girls to produce tiny cutesy drawings of squirrels and flowers. Their art must be bold, angry if necessary, and real. Too bad if the resulting artworks were uncomfortable to look at. 

Not all the girls got on with Miss X – especially not those who had decided rebelliously that their forte was tiny pencil drawings of squirrels and flowers. Some colleagues were concerned about all this angst pouring out all over the school. 

Are children more responsive to those outside the mainstream? 

My own French teacher when I was 9 or 10 was another eccentric, but just about the most effective teacher ever known – to me at least. His style was whirring mania. He would spin through the door, beginning the dicté at once. 

The whole lesson was a helterskelter ride – even, somehow, the marking of our work. I can remember pieces of paper flying off his desk. 

By modern standards, his lessons wouldn’t have done. Where were the learning objectives? The plenary summing up? But it was blindingly obvious what the intention was – this man was totally subsumed by his mission, which was that small boys must learn French at any price. 

He was quite frightening, but exciting and not nasty. He was a young man. He can’t have kept up this raging pace for long. I wonder what became of him. 

Could it be that so-called “eccentric’ teachers are likely to be more dedicated than the routine smooth operator playing by the rules? This was certainly the case with the art teacher I mentioned before. 

The best eccentric teachers are fun. “What are you doing in the corridor?” I enquired in passing of a child thus placed. 

“I’ve been subtracted,” the child explained. It was a maths lesson, and the teacher had a mathematical method of removing malcontents from the room. 

Children are by nature eccentric, disinhibited and not yet fully homogenised as functioning elements of civilisation. So it makes perfect sense that their teachers should be eccentric, too. I suspect that children are more responsive to those who, like them, are not in the mainstream, but are in an important way outsiders. 

So, the long and short of it is, I agree with you wholeheartedly. Where are all the eccentric teachers? Does anybody know? 

Without these mavericks, how can there ever be progress and innovation? Please be in touch if you’ve spotted an eccentric teacher recently. 

How do you show your appreciation for support staff? 

What to do about appreciating support staff? I’ve mentioned this before, but it suddenly occurs to me that often it is the caretakers, nurses and school secretaries who are the making of a school, for better or for worse. 

In my first school, the caretaker was Mrs Douglas, who was absolutely terrifying. A colleague once remarked: “Did you see Mrs Douglas parading through the corridors this morning? An absolute queen.” 

On one occasion, as a nervous new teacher, I went to the school on a Saturday to fetch some vital worksheet I needed for my Monday lessons. Oh dear, the wrath of Mrs Douglas: “What do you think you’re doing disturbing me at the weekend?” 

Her husband was sufficiently roused to get out of his armchair, offering rather pale back-up fury when compared with hers. 

In my other school, where I was for 18 years, the support staff were so nice. They came and went, but anyone new began at once to glow with the niceness left by the previous person.  

It made such a difference. Occupying offices in the central part of the school, these people were its throbbing heart. Also there was Matron Terry, who cared for the sick and served coffee to the staff at morning break. But really she dispensed so much more, with her soothing, steady presence. When she retired, it was a major trauma. 

Needless to say, Nuala, her replacement, at once assumed Matron Terry’s mantle of kindness and calm. 

Thomas Blaikie was a secondary English teacher for 25 years. He is author of Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners (4th Estate)


Do you have a problem you'd like Thomas Blaikie to address? Send it to tes.lifelessons@gmail.com 

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