During this year’s Tes School Awards, fairly-new-and-definitely-still-mysterious education secretary Justine Greening called teachers "celebrities". Her exact words were:
“We do live in a celebrity culture, but I really do feel that teachers are the first celebrities we have in our lives”.
The statement was met with a smattering of applause from the back of the room but then, as Ms Greening pointed out (with a wry smile), we had been on the sauce since mid-afternoon. Most of the crowd, myself included, were slightly baffled.
Having had one foot in so-called "celebrity culture" and the other in education for the past decade, it seemed to me at first glance that comparing the two does teachers a huge disservice. Even as I drag myself out of bed at 4am to appear on breakfast television to discuss the latest (usually) completely tokenistic and nonsensical education reforms before heading off to a school in some far-flung corner of the UK to do assemblies, I never kid myself that I work anything like as hard, or do anything like-as important a service to society, as the average teacher.
I’ve been stewing on Ms Greening’s comments since that evening, trying to articulate why they jarred with me. And yet, I must admit, over the past week I have begun to understand what she perhaps might have meant and why, in the correct context, her comparison of teachers to celebrities might be important.
Two weeks ago, it was revealed that the advertising standards authority is planning to crack down on unhelpful gender stereotyping, with a particular focus on the objectification of women. A week later, an East London bar hit the headlines when it advertised for "extremely physically attractive" members of staff and emphasising the requirement for female employees to wear heels. On both occasions, my services as a TV and radio pundit were called upon.
Now, I’m going to preface what I’m about to say by acknowledging that the impact of gender stereotyping and body fascism in our culture is both cumulative and incredibly powerful. In fact, by noticing that now-infamous beach-body-ready billboard or the job vacancy in question, we acknowledge that they were shocking enough to shake us from an already sexist and narrow-beauty-standard-perpetuating reverie. Neurobiologists broadly agree that approximately 90 per cent of the brain’s total capacity for thought is unconscious, meaning that attitudes that are often dismissed as being "simply the way human beings are built" are likely to be, in fact, learned from our environment. This explains why ideas about gender, sexuality, success, beauty and normalcy differ from country to country.
I don’t for one moment subscribe to modern libertarian philosophy, which seems to work on the basis that we all have total freedom of choice and therefore anyone who is in any way influenced by advertising, pop culture or social media is just a bit stupid. In fact, I tend rather more to the view of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who said: “There are none more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
Having said that, as I parked my size 16 behind on the Good Morning Britain sofa to debate whether being beautiful makes you a better employee (with model and TV presenter Lizzie Cundy arguing for the motion), I did begin to wonder where mine and my opponent’s fundamental differences of opinion had sprung from. This became especially true when hoards of viewers tweeted their support for both sides, with many arguing that Ms Cundy was simply articulating a universal truth.
The conclusion I came to was this: teachers were some of the first people I truly admired and what they represented were the things I continue to value to this day: knowledge, the ability to communicate, patience, kindness and humour. My first girl-crush was on my Year 4 primary school teacher, my first romantic crush was on *ahem* one of my secondary school teachers (who shall remain nameless).
I don’t care about your gender, race or physical appearance: if you can impart knowledge in an engaging way, as far as I’m concerned, that’s sexy.
How did my teachers achieve this? It wasn’t through specific lessons on sexism or questioning prevailing beauty ideals although, I now realise, they did subtly encourage me to challenge these notions pretty much every day. They were, quite simply, themselves: fantastic teachers, great role models, good all-round humans.
I’m writing this column in the wake of a proposal for teachers to become responsible for preventing children from joining gangs. Several commentators, including Tes' head of content Ed Dorrell, have responded by pointing out that this is yet another task on teachers’ ever-growing to-do list – another example of where school staff are expected to mop up after the failings of community, family and state.
I realise that, if you work in education, you might be feeling despondent, right now. So I wanted to reassure you that simply by existing you are making a monumental difference and that, if we understand "celebrities" to mean the people we should aspire to, then teachers are – or certainly were in mine and countless other cases – children's first celebrities.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer, campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets as @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here.