Proof that a truly outstanding teacher is never forgotten

4th November 2011 at 00:00
A memoir of school life in the Sixties and Seventies testifies that some things never change

Exactly two years ago my TESS column analysed Janice Galloway's portrayal of childhood and primary school in her then newly-published memoir, This Is Not About Me. (What a tantalising title! It was about her, wasn't it?)

Galloway, herself a one-time teacher, recently addressed the Excellence in English session at the Scottish Learning Festival. She enthused on the values of teaching language and literature and spread a warm glow through her audience of mainly English teachers. She has also produced All Made Up (of course it isn't - I think!), her memoir of adolescence and secondary school in the late Sixties and early Seventies and her sequel to This Is Not About Me.

The world was more formal. Emotions were restrained. Respectability remained a powerful imperative. Yet much remains unchanged. Except that their ties are too tidy, the mini-skirted girls in the class photograph on the cover could almost pass for today's pupils. (The boys are curiously more dated.) Galloway's sister's response to her course choices (Latin and music) still echoes for some working class youngsters: "It's not for the likes of you, for Godsake."

Starting secondary was a great adventure. Each year that first day of term in August is always the most exciting. The grudging welcomes by some teachers, alas, also vary little: "For goodness sake, girls, it's not difficult. Nobody's asking you to think for yourself."

These were the days of selection and the "quali". They were also the days when at least a substantial number of working class parents shared Janice's mother's views of education: that those with it could, unlike herself, do anything they damn-well liked. There was jealousy, but also a powerful hope for improvement and an escape from drudgery: "I'll make something of you if it kills me, and it might." Perhaps that blind faith in education's potency has faded.

For Galloway, secondary school was Latin, music and English, which she loved. The thrill of Shakespeare had her reading into the early hours. Latin opened up the concept of language as a set of understandable rules. Music was the stage for creativity. Although some teachers taught only to the exams, many were inspiring, often eccentric, and made learning accessible.

In these teachers, I was kissed with unearned, scarcely believable, fit- to-bust luck. I recently told a friend whose daughter is studying to be a teacher that teaching, its stresses and pressures notwithstanding, remained the most intrinsically rewarding job imaginable. Hearing and reading Janice Galloway reminded me why that is true.

Alex Wood, a former headteacher, now works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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