Life lessons: 'Why is Corbyn like a geography teacher?'

Tes' maven of manners, Thomas Blaikie, counsels a geography teacher fed up with being compared to the Labour leader

Election 2019: Why do people say that Jeremy Corbyn is like a geography teacher?

Dear Thomas,

I’m not trying to be political, even though it’s election time. That wouldn’t be polite, at a dinner party or even in the staffroom. All I want to know is: why is Jeremy Corbyn like a geography teacher? 

Only a few days ago, I heard some comedian on Radio 4 saying, “Who would you rather be ruled by, a bloke who went to Eton and looks like an Eton mess or” – wait for it – “a geography teacher?” The audience loved the geography teacher bit. It got a huge laugh. 

I just don’t get it. I’m a geography teacher and I don’t think I look like him at all. And why are geography teachers a joke? 

Baj Singh 
Leicester


Dear Baj,

We had this geography teacher thing only last year, when Gareth Southgate wore those waistcoats at the World Cup. At the start of the tournament there were murmurings: "old-fashioned", "fuddy-duddy", "where’s his pipe?", etc.

But suddenly, as England began to do well, “geography teacher” came to mean civilised, courteous, solid and reliable – just what was needed, in fact. (He did wear his waistcoats very well, if you’re interested, with no gap at the top of the trousers.) 

Every teacher is supposed to look like their subject, rather as pedigree-dog owners resemble their dogs (which they do, of course). But none more so than the geography teacher. 

Quite what geography really would look like as a person is neither here nor there. The drama teacher obviously is dramatic and boiling with fascinating passions, but the geography teacher? Cloud-topped? Displaying geological strata? With contours?

No, that isn’t the idea. The stereotype persists from the 1940s. So it’s about 70 years out of date. Why is this?

The essential elements are a not-very-nice brown jacket, and slacks in a different oatmeal shade – never a suit. The geography teacher is generally expected to be a bit dull, and probably to have worthy, unglamorous weekend interests, such as gardening or fell-walking. 

It’s that whole post-war generation of schoolmasters (so antiquated is this stock character that there’s no question of a woman geography teacher), who insisted on retaining their military titles from the war. 

Jeremy Corbyn has a horrid brown jacket

My geography teacher in the 1960s was Captain Glossop. We spent hours drawing the “harbours of the world” – Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong, etc. Only later did I realise that “harbours of the world” meant “harbours of the Empire”. 

Jeremy Corbyn is like a geography teacher because he has a horrid brown jacket bought from one of those menswear suppliers that isn’t even Marks and Spencer, and he’s not young. Oh, and he’s got an allotment. That’s it, really. In other respects he doesn’t conform – he’s not mild or unexciting. 

Curiously, it does turn out that he actually was a geography teacher, briefly, in his youth in Jamaica – although, by his own admission, he knows nothing of the subject. 

The persistence of this outmoded concept of geography teachers would make sense if everybody had been to school over 70 years ago. Yet somehow the fixed notion continues to resonate with those who must have been exposed to geography teachers of an entirely different nature. 

These days, the subject couldn’t be more hip or urgent – the environment, climate change, migration. The modern geography teacher is presumably incredibly organic, sustainable and solar-panel orientated. 

Geography is now exciting

I can’t help wondering if we don’t see something quite profound here about how schools are sealed off from the rest of the world. Once you’ve left it, school is always in the past. As time goes by, it gets even more in the past and perhaps eventually slips into some other past altogether. 

Quite frequently, when I was teaching, people used to ask me, well, into the 21st century, how my pupils were getting on with their O levels. “Well,” I would say, “O levels went out in 1985 or thereabouts. It’s GCSEs now.” 

“Oh yes,” they would say, “I did GCSEs myself, actually.” 

This wouldn’t matter very much, except that everybody’s got an opinion about schools and education, haven’t they? 

Apologies, Mr Singh, for going around the long way. The short answer to your question is: don’t worry, it’s got nothing to do with you. 

Suddenly hairless

Beware: we all know teachers are likely to be more dynamic and interventionist than the general run of the population (here I go stereotyping away, putting a bomb under what I say above – oh, dear). But are there limits? 

This week I heard of a school, which shall be nameless, where staff took it upon themselves to give “advice” to a hapless young teacher. 

“You’re going bald,” they said, which is quite a forward thing to say in any case – not what you normally say at a social occasion. “The pupils might make fun of you but they wouldn’t if you…shaved it off altogether.” 

Now, isn’t this a bit wrong at just about every level? I’d always assumed mockery of a person’s appearance was one of the big things schools are against. So covert collusion is a bit odd. 

Plus, isn’t this poor person going to attract even more attention and ridicule if suddenly hairless than if he’d been allowed to quietly moult at his own pace? The awful thing is, from what I’ve heard, he took the “advice”. 

Thomas Blaikie was a secondary English teacher for 25 years. He is author of Blaikie’s Guide to Modern Manners (4th Estate). Send your problems to him at tes.lifelessons@gmail.com 

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Thomas Blaikie

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