In Praise of Teachers: identity, equality and education. Six topical lectures
By Robin Richardson
Trentham Books pound;12.99
We all remember inspiring teachers, as this magazine's weekly My Best Teacher column testifies, but what makes an inspiring lesson? It is surely the capacity to engage with the audience, to make their learning exciting, to make them want to know more, to make them feel that what is being taught is not only important but interesting to them personally.
As Robin Richardson points out in his introduction to this short collection of lectures, quoting the Polish Nobel Prize-winning poet, Wislawa Szymborska: "Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists, but of those who have chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination, such as doctors, gardeners and teachers." The work of inspired teachers, according to Szymborska, "becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Whatever inspiration is, it is born from a continuous 'I don't know'."
Richardson goes on to state how this needs the techniques and artistry of the actor to be successful, with variations of pace, tone and emphasis. "The curriculum," he says, "is like a script to be interpreted, performed and enacted, or like a musical theme from which to improvise. It cannot merely be delivered." Three cheers to that.
Richardson's six lectures were delivered to educationists. Their themes were interrelated aspects of teachers' work: the teacher as fool, sage, artist, guide, giver and taker of care, and maker of history. They are poetic, witty and occasionally, yes, inspiring, although there exists a neatness and order to the structure that sometimes hinders creativity and inspiration.
You have to love lists to like this book. In the second lecture, for example, in the space of eight pages, there are three parts, five ideals, four images, four strands, four components, six things and four modest proposals. That may have sounded like a well structured lecture to the audience, but it does not translate well to print. Like a good lesson, a lecture needs structure, but not too much of it.
I found the third lecture, on the teacher as artist, the most inspiring. Richardson quotes John Steinbeck: "Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit." Then Muriel Spark:
"A full classroom, with a sole performer on stage before an audience sitting in rows looking and listening, is essentially theatre." He points out that Spark's creation Miss Jean Brodie, like all creative teachers, was a risk-taker liable to fall out occasionally with her headteacher, whose motto was "safety first". But Jean Brodie told her pupils: "Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first. Follow me." A suitable case for discipline? A written warning, perhaps, for undermining the headteacher? Or an inspiration to her pupils with a lesson on her need for space and understanding to express her personality through her teaching? The good headteacher can create that space and give that understanding, promoting creativity by encouraging the naturally creative.
In doing this, of course, the head is taking the risk upon herself, for Ofsted and the other agents of accountability are not widely known for their flexibility in such matters. Over-accountability, as Ernest Boyer, the late US education secretary, observed, is the enemy of creativity and risk-taking.
If you are not list-phobic, you will find inspiration in this book. As teachers, Richardson says: "We are a community of explorers. If you love your children, send them on journeys."
John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association