Revenge of the beardy-weirdies

30th October 1998 at 00:00
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the teachers people remember for the rest of their lives are their English teachers. They're the ones with style and flair. They're the ones with interesting ties - or no tie at all. They're the ones who once played third soldier alongside Branagh Olivier in a genuine RSC Production of Richard III. They're the ones who so very nearly once had a script accepted by Hollywood.

But who remembers their physics teacher? I remember mine, but only because he was so stylistically challenged he was a laughing stock. Real English teachers are never ribbed. They deal in the stuff of dreams. They study Romeo and Juliet. They get respect.

It used to be the best job in the world. You could be proud of what you did. It didn't pay big bucks, but that didn't matter. You'd chosen a vocation - a glamorous alternative to Terylene suits and accountancy.

At the fag end of the Eighties, when your mates were earning fortunes, you didn't need to console yourself. You thought of them on Monday mornings, in grubby offices, stained with sweat after stiff tube journeys - while you were talking eager sixth-formers through Swift, Harrison and Beckett.

A real English teacher. A free spirit. The most fun you could have with your clothes on. (You could pretend to be a bit of a poet, too.) In the clean and clinical Nineties, all that's gone. Physics teachers with beards on the back of their necks are laughing. For the twin straitjackets of "syllabus" and "scheme of work" have strapped down even the freest English-teaching spirit.

Syllabuses and schemes of work? What's wrong with those? Nothing, when you're talking about a formulaic subject such as maths. But assuming they aren't written by someone with the vision of William Blake, they have a severely limiting effect on English. They screw down the imagination. They impose "method" on a subject that consistently encourages its pupils to refute it.

Who writes these syllabuses? Keats they ain't. You could stick the lot in the dustbin and no pupils would be any the unwiser. I still can't believe their stultifying style. These word-guzzling juggernauts of bad English - an aide to good communication? I should coco.

End result? English teachers have become automata. They have plenty of meetings with other English teachers, sure. They study masses of syllabuses and schemes of work too ("You will reach Page 156 of On the Black Hill by week 3!"). They count plenty of paper clips. But they don't do any real teaching. There's no time. The curse of the physics teacher is complete. English teachers have become their doubles.

Dr Andrew Cunningham is an English teacher in Cranleigh, Surrey

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