Take them to the edge, then watch them fly

20th June 1997 at 01:00
My granny was a school cleaner. As a child, I used to follow her round her school - Marlborough Road Junior School, in a warren of back-to-backs in deepest Salford - marvelling at the classrooms, the books, the teachers' wonderful handwriting chalked in neat, even rows on the board. Sometimes I was allowed to play with the bricks in the infant department and, on one glorious occasion - perhaps a birthday, certainly something very auspicious - granny let me use the teachers' toilet.

Teachers, to granny and me, were the nearest thing to royalty we were ever likely to meet. They were wonderful, knowledgeable, splendid creatures with swirling skirts and chalky fingers; the possibility that one day I might join their ranks was quite beyond my infant comprehension. The picture of me on graduation day, in a real teacher's gown with a real teaching diploma, still brings a lump to my throat. I remember sitting there while my friend took the snap, hearing Miss Jean Brodie's voice echoing proudly in my head: "I am a teacher."

The first weeks in the classroom were heady: children who thought of you as their very own "Miss"; lessons to plan until deep into the night; piles of exercise books that were yours, all yours, to mark. Oh, the joy of those early ticks and the personal tragedies of the crosses. At the end of the first month, the headmaster gave me a docket to show how much salary had been paid into the bank, and I stared at it in wonder: all this, and they were paying me, too!

The joy of marking wore off quite quickly, of course, and I was soon blase about using the teachers' toilet, but the romance of teaching has never palled. I still believe it is the most important job one can do, the highest of callings. I still cry buckets when I read the story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller at the pump, and remember that Helen forever referred to the woman who gave her the gift of language as "Teacher".

Our profession has been through hard times in recent years, used and abused by all and sundry, blamed for everything that goes wrong and ignored whenever anything goes right. For a while, we contributed to the malaise ourselves by downgrading our skills and thinking of ourselves as mere "facilitators". We have, thank God, moved on from there. In my latest incarnation, as an "INSET provider", I see teachers in primary schools all over Britain, and they're now neither backing off nor ashamed of their own professionalism. Despite Mr Woodhead, and the battalions of those who know only how to deride, they are back on form.

Last week I returned to Marlborough Road Junior School to do an INSET day. It's still there, in one of the most run-down and crime-ridden areas of Salford, where dismal Sixties tower-blocks have replaced the old back-to-backs, unemployment is rife, and single-parent families are the norm. And the teachers are still wonderful - full of hope and excitement for the children they teach, taking them away to camp each year, organising school magazines and outings, giving up their time on a Saturday to turn out for INSET sessions on phonics and spelling. During coffee break, I remembered what it felt like to be a four-year-old cleaner's grandchild in Salford, and realised what a debt I owe the teachers who taught me - that one day I could return to Marlborough Road in my INSET-provider's shoes.

There's a little poem by Anon in the collection "Poem a Day" which sums up what teaching's about, and how important it is that no one - least of all us - should underrate our skills. If you ever feel doubt that you are more significant in the great scheme of things than chief inspectors or politicians, get yourself a piece of chalk and write this on the board: Apollinaire said"Come to the edge""It is too high" Apollinaire said"Come to the edge""We might fall""Come to the edge"And they cameAnd he pushed themAnd they flew.

Only for "Apollinaire", substitute "A teacher".

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