Name an airport after a teacher? Never

20th March 2009 at 00:00

By common consent it seems that teachers are, or should be, role models. The term comes up again and again in the discussion about teachers' private lives and the extent to which bodies such as the General Teaching Council and our own Institute for Learning might seek to regulate them.

This is a debate where strong voices are heard on both sides. Some suggest that for teacher read nun. Others see no reason at all why they shouldn't double as lap dancers once the day job is done.

What no one ever seems to question, though, is the basic premise that with your licence to teach comes the awesome responsibility of being a model for others to copy. But should we be? Do we want to be? To these and similar questions I would suggest the answer is a resounding No!

What exactly is a role model? defines it as: "a person whose behaviour, example or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people". Note that nothing is said about the quality of such examples or the reasons for success. And herein lies a problem.

Role models can be bad as well as good. Teachers are clearly expected to fall into the latter category, but in practice the labels don't always make a lot of sense. Indeed, it could be argued that, in the long run, the bad might turn out to be better than the good.

Consider this. As a young man I grew my hair long and adopted a certain lifestyle in emulation of the most decadent rock bands of the day: the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. My mother wagged her finger. My headteacher shook his head. Malcolm Muggeridge prognosticated almost nightly on the BBC. All this necessarily confirmed me in the correctness of my choice. But what is the legacy of those "terrible" role models of yesteryear? John Lennon Airport and Sir Michael Jagger, to start.

On the opposite side to the decadent ones were the likes of the American television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Rock music was the music of the devil, he thundered. Surely here was the epitome of a good role model, an upstanding Christian who wanted to bring others to the Lord and save their souls from damnation.

You may, or may not, remember a subsequent chapter in Swaggart's story. Like so many others of the so-called moral majority, he was found to have feet of clay. Suffice it to say that not all of the women Swaggart had prayer sessions with behind closed doors turned out to be Sunday school teachers.

Even if you could sort out the wheat from the chaff, how many students really want to view their teacher as a role model? If you doubt this, just think back to your own schooldays. Some teachers you liked, some you didn't. Some you considered to be competent, other less so. But did you ever want to be like any of them? Four- or five-year-olds, mesmerised by the grown-up world of school they have just entered, might, perhaps, but they soon grow out of it.

Of course, you might argue that a teacher could become a role model for a younger teacher or a trainee in the job. But is that any different from how an aspiring beginner might behave in any profession or occupation? In which case, you might just as well argue that dustmen, or dentists, or bankers should be role models too.

About the best that teachers can hope for as role models is to avoid hypocrisy. Just as we tell students to be in class regularly and punctually, so should we be ourselves. And when we tell them to take care over their work and produce it to the highest of standards, so should we ensure that we are marking their assignments and preparing our classes carefully and thoroughly.

Beyond that, I suggest we leave the field to the real saints . and sinners.

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