Loosen up the collar

16th July 2004 at 01:00
It's now nearly 20 years since I left teaching. But people still ask me whether I "miss it". In the summer months, believe me, I do.

Come the month of June, and you'll find me sharing end-of-session gatherings with friends still in the profession, and I can distantly recall - though no longer share with them - the intense feeling of liberation as that lengthy summer break approaches.

However, I know full well that the easiest way to annoy teachers is to start complaining about their summer holidays, and - if truth be told - I don't actually begrudge a minute of them.

As (some) readers of this Summer Diary will be aware, I have also led the vicarious life of a teacher for slightly longer than those 20 years (as the amanuensis of Morris Simpson, TES Scotland school diarist) while still managing to hold down a job in the educational publishing industry. So, from both perspectives, I have a good idea of what I am missing, and I have to admit that I am not terribly sure if I could hack it as a teacher these days.

But the holiday run-up this year gave me greater pause for reflection than usual and I almost wondered about going back.

It wasn't just because our sales figures in April and May had given me the white-knuckle ride that accompanies the necessity to "make budget" in the somewhat harsher commercial reality than that which exists in your average staffroom; and it wasn't just my annual pang of envy that sees one of my best pals - and ex-colleague - decant to Greece for six-plus weeks of languorous hedonism.

Rather, it was because I revisited a tutor I hadn't seen for even more than 20 years, and I was made to recall what it is that makes teaching worth the candle.

David Newell offered much inspirational English literature teaching when I was at Glasgow University. But during the course of our reunion, I offered especial recollection - and thanks - to him for a lecture and tutorial that he had given on a 17th century poem, "The Collar", by George Herbert.

"It was wonderful, that lecture," I recalled. "The way you got our attention with a dramatic start that highlighted the arresting opening of the poem." (If you're interested, he banged his hand down - extremely loudly on the lectern, to the point of personal injury. Just as the poet had.) "And the way you analysed Herbert's struggle with God, and how wonderfully the poem was turned on its head in the final couplet. The way you . . ."

David was clearly pleased, if modestly so, that the lecture had been such an obvious success, and confessed that it was an old favourite, still in regular use, and I was moved to ponder its effect on others through the years.

"When I was teaching, for example," I explained, "I used those lecture notes as a basis for teaching the poem to my Higher class, and I'm absolutely certain that the pupils who wrote about it in their exams got a better grade because of it: it was an unusual poem, and was bound to come as a huge relief to any marker after their 20th Morgan or McCaig of the day. Plus, their enthusiasm would shine through their essays after working through your analysis of the poem's inner structure."

David grew silent for a moment, then revealed the source of his own enthusiasm for the poem, indeed the source of much of his "landmark lecture". It was his own English teacher from the 1960s who had imbued him with such affection for the poem, and who had penned many of the bon mots that had been used in that Gilmorehill lecture theatre in the 1970s, then transferred to another generation in a 1980s Paisley classroom.

Plagiarism? Not likely. As Oscar Wilde said: "In art, as in life, the law of heredity holds good: on est toujours fils de quelqu'un."

It's the same in teaching, and teachers should never forget it, especially if that liberating June feeling transforms itself to an August lump at the bottom of the stomach. The chance to transfer your enthusiasm, the chance to inspire for the future, the chance to make a difference to a young person's perception of the world for the better: these remain the qualities that give teaching - still and all - the very best chance of being the very best job in the world.

Recently, a research study - costing God knows what - revealed that it wasn't the curricular framework that most affected students' perception of, and their success in, education - it was the quality of individual teachers. Well, knock me down! I wanted to award it a prize for stating the bleeding obvious: that it is inspirational teachers who inspire future generations to greater things.

Cling on to that, if you have enjoyed the liberating freedom of June, but now dread the impending arrival of an August return.

Teachers make a difference.

John Mitchell John Mitchell is managing director of Hodder Gibson.

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