Good isn't always bad;Talkback;Features amp; Arts

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Enough of the modesty, says Hilary Moriarty.

Once upon a time, I won an award for teaching. In 1971 I was a joint winner of the Dame Olive Wheeler Prize given by University College Cardiff for excellence in the PGCE course.

Several of us attained distinctions in both educational theory and teaching practice, but I think the Dame Olive prize was shared between only two of us. I was given a cheque for pound;40, bought a bookcase which I still have, wrote the achievement into my CV and remember it as one of the proudest moments in my teaching career. I didn't get to make an acceptance speech, but if I had, it would never have occurred to me to declare that my winning the prize was really nothing to do with me. Which is almost exactly what most of the winners at last summer's teaching awards ceremony did. Singled out for excellence on national television, all they wanted to do was deny it.

"It wasn't me, it was the team!" they said. "I could not have done it without the support of the whole school!" or "It's all down to the parentsgovernorscolleagueschildrenwonderful headmaster!" Even Stephen Fry got tired of the litany of denial, and ushering people - "Thank you for saying I'm a great teacher, but it isn't true!" - off stage with indecent promptness.

The awards recognised "the team" and not the teacher in a very visible, concrete way by awarding the hefty prizes not to the winners, but to their schools. That was like saying "Best Actress... Gwyneth Paltrow" and then giving her Oscar to Twentieth Century Fox or whichever film company made the film - I don't actually know.

Nor care, either, because Gwyneth won the Oscar for her great acting, and yes of course she needs the organisation, the script, the director, the make-up girl, the lighting man and the editor, all of whom can make her look marvellous and provide her with the material which she only enacts - but that is what she did! She acted better than anyone else. So give her the Oscar and blow the rest of them. And so it should be in teaching: give excellent teachers the money and blow the schools.

Great teaching exists. The organisers found it last year all over the place and in spades, but they won't go the whole hog and hand over the loot to the teachers. Although to judge from the awards ceremony, not one of them would have taken it.

The question remains, why not? Why is ours a profession where we are ashamed of accolades and, by extension, of the excellence which can win them? If we don't want excellence recognised, how can there be any incentive to aim for it? Why bother? Is it not dangerous to aim for bland OK-ness, for all for one and one for all, with no one out there in front, doing it better?

The irony is that everyone knows some teachers are better than others. The Teacher Training Agency advertising campaign said: "Everyone remembers a good teacher" without apparently noticing whole cinemas full of people muttering "Yeah, because they're so bloody rare". As I remember it, the good ones were outnumbered by the ordinary or just bad by about ten to one. I'm not saying that's any surprise, that's just life, and it's probably true of most professions.

It was inspiring to hear the opinions of pupils on film for the teaching awards pointing out and illustrating how this teacher was doing the job - in their wide experience of enduring this job being done - much, much better than anyone else they knew - even though presumably all the staff in those schools had the same helpful teams, parents, governors, etc.

These were clear, honest, truthful assertions that this teacher was "the best". For us then to deny, individually on the podium and collectively elsewhere, that this excellence exists, is a pure nonsense, and shows a sinister lack of self-esteem which is both misplaced and inappropriate. We who train pupils to be competitive - more A* grades, more A-levels, more scholarships, prizes all the way, go for it - are foolish to refuse to accept our own success, even when someone hands us a Plato and Stephen Fry honours us with a handshake.

A consequence of this modesty is that this year the awards will not be for best teacher at all, but for "outstanding teacher". And if the change in nomenclature has to do with teaching unions thinking we would be upset because naming the best is divisive elitism, then they, too, must have a poor opinion of teachers, which is worse than sinister. It's insulting.

The writer is deputy head in an independent school.

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