Sticky buns and lashings of respect

7th June 1996 at 01:00
It was the start of our department meeting. Sticky buns were on offer, it being someone's birthday, but before we could get down to the serious business of deciding between chocolate eclair and meringue, Mary, our principal teacher, made an announcement: "I have to tell you that I have applied for, and been granted, early retirement."

A range of emotions around the table, but chiefly, given that Mary is well loved and respected by the department, and because, like many, she has had the onerous task of balancing professional and personal commitments for long enough, there was delight and good wishes.

We all had cause to regret Mary's going. For me it was the memory of the open and easy welcome I received when I was parachuted into the school, a guidance cuckoo in the English department's nest. Mary combines an inspirational expertise with an effective flexibility, concern for her pupils with the necessary degree of detachment, and a support of her departmental colleagues that goes far beyond the merely professional. All of this is powered by an impish sense of humour, so that working in the department might not always be easy, but it is consistently great fun.

As we say farewell to her, I am aware that similar scenes are being played out all over Scotland, as principal teachers take retirement, early or otherwise. Special as she is to us, Mary is not unique. Her qualities and her child-centred approaches are to be found in every staffroom. It is on the backs of these departmental leaders that educational advances have been made over the past two decades, and a brief glance at the vacancies for principal teachers in English and maths particularly will show at what personal cost these initiatives have been implemented.

It was with a fairly jaundiced eye, then, that I later viewed Channel 4's Dispatches programme. Filmed with a secret camera, in a north of England secondary, this ran the full gaunt of tabloid education sensationalism, from A to B. Pupils carried knives, or sometimes guns; no one wanted to learn, the headteacher chased truants around the neighbourhood in his car. It presented every parent's worst nightmare and was seasoned with a predictable moan session in the staffroom about how unteachable the pupils were. The limited examples of teaching style and classroom management on display tended to suggest that the blame lay elsewhere. It was a hideous misrepresentation of the reality of education, most of the time in most of our schools.

While no one would deny the problems caused by increasing violence in the classroom and the general underfunding of education, it is surely irresponsible to paint such a one-sided picture of a system that serves the majority of pupils, parents and staff in a rewarding manner most of the time. Ironically, in the one balancing scene, where a drama group presented the teacher with a bouquet in recognition of her hard work, their faces, like those of miscreants, had to be blanked out, because of the clandestine nature of the film.

When Mary and her like-minded colleagues take their wisdom and expertise out of the school gates for the last time later this month, those of us who are left behind can best pay tribute by working to create and maintain an atmosphere of mutual respect in our schools.

Perhaps the most old-fashioned educational value of all still applies, to teachers as well as pupils: respect must be earned, just as surely as our principal teacher has earned a long and fulfilling retirement.

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