Let us see the light under the bushel for a change

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Teachers' fan Julia Neuberger believes they are selling themselves far too short. There is a particularly strong tendency in England -as distinct from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - to denigrate teachers. The saying, "those who can, do; those who can't teach; those who can't teach, teach teachers" is all too common.

This attitude affects school teachers most of all, particularly in the wake of the rows about testing at various stages and about the contents of the national curriculum. But it also affects university teachers, despite a recent series in The Times in praise of super-dons. The English do not rate teachers. It is hardly surprising that teachers tend to be fairly depressed, with morale often at rock bottom.

Not all of this can be put down to long-held attitudes. Before the Second World War, teachers were held in greater respect, and those in the private sector are certainly now held in more respect than those in the state sector, although the private sector tends to get a larger proportion of the "easier" (more motivated and docile) pupils. But the general attitude is one of disdain, and a sense that teachers are not "real" professionals, like doctors and lawyers.

One of the reasons sometimes adduced for being hard on teachers is that they are too unionised, that their behaviour is not such as befits a professional grouping. Yet some of those who say this are members of professions with considerably more muscle. Though neither group would admit to being unionised, there is no doubt that both doctors and lawyers go in for a series of restrictive practices quite unknown in the teaching profession. Doctors have made a terrible fuss over prescribing rights for nurses. In the debate over solicitors' rights of audience in the higher courts, the barristers resisted at first, then insisted that decisions about individual solicitors should be made by a committee of judges, all from the barristers' side.

No profession can argue that it is without some restrictive practices and some union-type behaviour. The attacks on teachers who seriously disagree in principle with decisions over testing at certain stages, for instance, are very unfair.

There are legitimate questions over whether the testing debate was well handled by the teachers. The general public was often confused by the principle behind the objection being less than clearly stated, and the threat of industrial action seeming to come rather quickly. Similarly, there are questions over the extent to which teachers managed to rally public support in their debate with the Government.

There are plenty of parents who, while sympathetic to testing some of the time, would also be sympathetic to the teachers' view. However, given teachers' unpopularity, it is not surprising that they did not rally much support. Yet one might legitimately ask why not. For most of us with children have seen teachers in action, have admired their dedication and enthusiasm, have marvelled at their ability to sparkle about a subject for the twentieth year running. Most of us admire their ability to keep order, most of the time, and to convey ideas and facts. Some of us are thrilled by the way our children come home from school unable to stop talking about ideas they were discussing that day. Or amazed that teachers have got the children to read something after they had turned up their noses at it when one suggested it oneself.

In recent months, I have watched my children be enthused about physics, which is an entirely closed book to me. I have also watched them encouraged to read historical novels, poetry and learn to debate, a useful talent in our house, where everyone argues. I have seen some inspired teaching of music, something which I received at school and for which I have been truly grateful for the rest of my life.

I also see teachers working with children who are far less academic and far less motivated than I was or my children are. When I see teachers enthusing children whose parents have very few books at home to discover fiction or poetry, I am proud that this is going on in our schools. When I talk to pupils at prize-givings, I often meet children from relatively uneducated backgrounds who are the first in their families to go to university: their excitement shines out.

I ask myself who is responsible. There is no doubt that parental influence is very powerful. But the enthusiasm, the sparkle, the fun, the energy, come much more from teachers who have slogged their guts out to get those young people to understand, to get up to speed for increasingly competitive exams, to do the work when parental pressure was not there, or was not enough.

But not only have the teachers worked so hard over enthusing, motivating, guiding, instructing. They have also done that huge pile of marking. They have given up their evenings organising the school plays, concerts, debates, or endless away matches. They have given careers guidance both officially and unofficially. And, in many cases, they have listened to the children's problems.

When things go wrong in families - divorce, separation, a death, an older sibling in trouble with the police - the teachers tend to know, and have to try to support the child without favouritism.

Teachers deserve medals. It is incredibly hard work, and can be distinctly unrewarding when no one feels enthused by one's subject or method. They often have to deal with children who feel education is a waste of time and whose parents and grandparents did not rate teachers either.

As a nation, we ought to give our teachers more respect, and recognise that they are responsible for the next generation, our society's future. They need all the support and help and encouragement we can give them, instead of brickbats and snide comments. I think most teachers are marvellous - but I want to know if they can do a better job of selling themselves.

Julia Neuberger taught religious studies very part-time at St Paul's Girls' School in the 1980s. She is a governor of James Allen's Girls' School.

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