When we returned to school after the Easter holidays last year, it was to the news that a dear colleague had died. She had been involved with the school for nigh-on 55 of its 125-year history. Formerly head of history, this unashamed blue-stocking was infamous for terrifying kids into submission as our chief invigilator.
When former students heard that she had died, comments rolled in about the massive impact she had on their lives. For many, she was a heroine. They cited her influence on successful careers, getting to good universities and, most importantly, in encouraging them to love academia in general and history in particular. It was, they said, all because of her.
Hearing the words “because of you” means a lot to any teacher. Writing for Tes on 16 July 2017, teacher Thomas Slack explained how that sentiment, coming from students and former students, reaffirmed his belief that what he does matters. He went into teaching to make a difference, he says – and so hearing that a student stayed longer in education or went to university because of him meant that he was doing something right.
But should we be teaching in order to feel that we, as individuals, make a difference? Are we classroom heroes? Sure, it feels good when kids say nice things when they leave, or when you bump into them in future. What they say is always sincere, but I find it impossible to believe that future success is truly "because of" me.
Can a teacher be a 'cult heroine'?
Take, for example, a student from my first-ever A-level class, who is now undertaking a PhD. I was, she says, the one who first put such an idea into her head. Is she really doing a PhD "because of" me? Of course not. Teaching is so much a team effort and is intrinsically relational. There is no teacher if there is no learner. No teacher is an island, entire unto herself.
Yet rhetoric around teaching often dupes us into thinking that individual teachers do make all the difference. Books and films – you only have to think of Mr Chips or Miss Honey or Dumbledore – underline this perception all the time.
Looking through comments written about my late colleague, I came across this: “My children worship her as a cult heroine." I think my colleague would have felt moved, yet alienated, by this sentiment. Maybe this is the point. A good teacher does, by working with others, make a real difference in people’s lives. But part of the magic of teaching is that you don’t ever know the full extent of your effect.
If you’re a doctor or a nurse, you know when you’ve saved someone’s life. As a teacher, you frequently have no idea of the full effect you have. You don’t know which things you said have struck home; which lessons made a difference. Teachers are certainly central to the heroic endeavour that is education, but as for trying to be one of the "hero teachers" of popular culture, perhaps that is better left to the world of fiction.
Clare Jarmy is head of academic enrichment and Oxbridge, and head of religious studies and philosophy, at Bedales School in Hampshire