The rewarding moments that beat any Oscar

27th February 2015 at 00:00

There's a scene in Oscar-nominated film Boyhood where Patricia Arquette's character, Olivia, tells a shy Mexican labourer who is repairing a broken sewage pipe at her house that he is bright and should get himself an education. The scene feels incidental - her comment made almost without thinking - and is forgotten until years later, near the end of the film.

Olivia teaches psychology at a college but is plagued with regrets about her life. While eating at a restaurant, one of the managers approaches and thanks her - the labourer from all those years before. He took Olivia's advice to heart, went to college and now appears destined for great things. "You changed my life," he tells her.

In keeping with the rest of the film, these are unsentimental and understated scenes, the polar opposite of Robin Williams' pedagogical grandstanding in Dead Poets Society. They feel truer, too: teaching not as a job that inspires instant adulation but one which, years down the line, may just throw you the odd little reminder of why it's all worthwhile.

Teaching can be a hard and relentless career, but it still attracts talented idealists who see the appeal of an inherently altruistic profession. And, for all the ignorant snipes about long holidays and teaching being a job anyone could do, society turns to teachers when it wants a problem fixed.

A national survey on attitudes to sectarianism reaffirms this (page 8). Far more people - 55 per cent of them, in fact - think that schools are better placed to tackle this blight than government (31 per cent), football authorities (29 per cent), churches (22 per cent), community organisations (19 per cent), local authorities (15 per cent) or the police (14 per cent).

There is a deep-seated feeling, certainly in Scotland, that teachers are powerful forces for good. So it has been a tactical masterstroke for the Scottish government to aggressively insist that teacher numbers be maintained (page 7). Never mind the nuance that local authorities have brought to the argument. (Why, for example, protect teacher numbers where school rolls are falling?) Instinctively, having more teachers seems to most people to be a good thing.

At the risk of overegging the benign influence of Hollywood (pity the teacher with a class of preening narcissists like those at the Academy Awards) there is a lesson in another critically acclaimed film, Selma, which shows the influence of a teacher of sorts: Martin Luther King. Whether in the centuries-long struggle for racial equality or in a modest classroom exchange with a pupil, the best educators don't just tell students how to do stuff; they impart self-belief.

An associate of King, the writer Maya Angelou, said: "At the end of the day, people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel." Teachers may never know when they provide a moment of inspiration that a pupil carries for decades to come, but every day brings countless opportunities to impart one.

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