Not so much as a fond farewell for our unsung heroes

26th July 1996 at 01:00
There was a time when nearly all teachers reached the normal retirement age. Today's school-students would find that difficult to believe as, at the end of almost every term, they say goodbye to another teacher who is "retiring". It must surely puzzle our young people that many of those who depart do not seem old enough to be retiring; that often they have already disappeared from school many months before, and don't even return for a proper send-off.

Sheila could not face returning to the school which had for so long loomed so large in her life, even though she had always dreamed of going out in, as she put it, "a little blaze of glory". By the time her medical retirement came through, she hadn't been into school for many months. Just as well really. Her tiny office - she was a year head, among many other things - had already been cleared out. Life has to go on. She was written out of the script.

Her colleagues were pleased when she got her "breakdown pension". In her case, as in many others, the colloquialism was appropriate. She had been broken down. A woman who had given of herself, without stint, to future generations, she'd finally had enough. Even if she had been able to drag herself in for some kind of function, it would have been too distressing for the survivors. The scent of breakdown is something they can do without. And she might have turned out to be not just a sufferer, but a carrier.

Sheila came into teaching as a mature entrant in the Sixties, an appropriate time to enter the business of life enhancement. She got a job in an excellent English department and eventually became its mainstay. The school will never grace the upper reaches of the league tables but, year after taxing year, kids left knowing how it felt to crystallise and express your personal thoughts and feelings - a priceless lesson. Kids wouldn't necessarily have studied a Shakespeare set text, but they would have had plenty of opportunities to visit the theatre and many of them would have owned children's or young adult literature - Sheila ran a school bookshop. And long before Gillian Shephard rediscovered the importance of examining oral English separately - a short time after her own Government subsumed oral work into the single English grade - this school put an enormous amount of effort into teaching talking.

The school itself was a tough one to teach in. Drugs, violence, family breakdown, child abuse - you name it, Sheila had to cope with its effects. This is perhaps why she never moved on to pastures leafier - she was needed where she was. She had no children of her own but, like so many teachers, she did all the things the best parents do. She knew when to challenge and when to support, she always listened, always made time.

In fact, she knew the writing was on the wall for her when she found herself fobbing kids off, because she was too busy; too busy trying to ensure that she was complying with the national curriculum in all its absurd trivialities; too busy moderating coursework that would count for virtually nothing in the new model GCSE (imposed); too busy writing and rewriting policies for OFSTED (before they decided they had overemphasised paperwork); too busy ensuring that child abuse procedures had been followed to the letter (so that the local authority could not be sued); too busy compiling records of achievement which would count for nothing; too busy coming to terms with IT, ITT, ITTI (yes, I made that one up, but were you certain?); too busy trying to promote the school in the artificially created market-place (which bears as close a relationship to a level playing field as Chris Woodhead does to an impartial referee); too busy to do the job as she believed it should be done. One morning, she woke up and could not get out of bed.

So Sheila joined the growing band of casualties.

They aren't all as gifted as Sheila, of course, but I bet they have all had their moments.

Despite the long-running campaign to convince us all that our profession contains a large number of incompetents, we know that most teachers chose to teach because they liked children, were enthusiastic about their subject or wanted to help build a better future. We appreciate, day by day, the solid, the creative, the painstaking, the exciting, the compassionate, the quirky, the well-planned, the inspired, the nurturing contributions of our colleagues.

So every time I hear Tony Major or John Blair trying to buy votes by knocking teachers, I think of Henry Adams' dictum: "A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence ends". And I think of Sheila, and the thousands like her, and the words of an old assembly stalwart spring to mind: "For all the Saints, Who from their labours rest . . .


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