Time to introduce the 'my best manager' column

7th March 1997 at 00:00
They've got it wrong, of course. I refer to all the publications (this one included) that persist in running those "my best teacher" columns. You know the sort of thing. Someone of importance in public life - a presenter of TV youth programmes, a third division footballer, a chief inspector of colleges - is invited to stick a thumb into the pie of their schooling and pull out a plum teacher from among the rhubarb.

Take the one I was reading the other day. The subject was an actor from one of those interminable space drama series, the kind where every other character looks as if he has walked through a Sellafield meltdown and come out the other end with a dead cat welded to his head. (Actually, I think this particular actor is in a programme that sends up the genre, so presumably his dead cat is a satirical one.) Whatever, there he was wittering on about how his old history teacher had (a) changed his life forever (b) opened his eyes to (surprise, surprise) history and (c) made him eternally grateful for the enriching contribution teachers made to young lives everywhere.

Then the teacher said his piece. Despite the intervening decades, he remembered the aspiring thespian with crystal clarity, and how sparky he had always been in class - even if he wasn't exactly the star pupil in an academic sense. There followed a lot more in similar vein - mutual massaging of egos - at the end of which I found myself asking whether these people are living in the real world.

It occurs to me that if teachers really did have such an impact on young (and, in the case of FE, not so young) lives, they'd surely be in a bit of a better state than they so obviously are now.

Wouldn't a profession that had people celebrating their successes 20, 30, 40 years down the line at least get paid a decent whack? Have a career structure? The respect of the nation? The odd mobile phone or BMW?

But no. Ask yourself. What teacher ever got promoted for teaching? Or thanked by a grateful politician?

All right, we know they can spout a few dusty old facts if you press the right button; but surely they wouldn't still be teachers if they were any good at anything, would they?

And that's where they're going wrong in all these school supplements and education extras that the papers are so fat with these days. The people they should really be featuring in their "my best" columns are those who matter in education - accountants, administrators, managers.

Aren't they the ones with the gumption, the power, the careers? The ones whose salaries rise in proportion to their numbers? That's where the future lies in education, surely.

You will hear them from time to time making self-deprecatory noises - politicians do it too - of the "when it comes down to it, then it's the quality of the teachers at the chalk face that really matters" kind. But nobody really believes that now, do they? Least of all those who are mouthing it. Because from where they're sitting, what's a teacher but a potential manager who couldn't make the grade? Or worse, one who didn't even have the get up and go to try and become one.

So, given that it's the managers who are the future, what will the future "my best" columns be like? In an effort to keep ahead of the game, I tentatively offer the following: My Best Manager Thirty years on, Tracey Trumpeter pays tribute to Richard Brain, the FE manager and administrator she remembers most vividly from her teenage years.

"He changed my life. He really did. You see, up until that point the only people I'd come into contact with at the college had been teachers. Richard - Dick we called him - was different.

"For a start, he convinced me I was worth something. He used to refer to me not as a student but as a unit of activity. (The teachers had only ever implied I was a unit of inactivity.) And with Dick I was not just one unit but lots of them - a walking bundle of units was how he saw us.

"Dick said that for each of my units I was worth Pounds 17.74 to the college. And how I should be glad to be in college when I was, because in five years' time those units would be worth only Pounds 6.27, plus a voucher for a half-price burger from the college's sponsor.

"Dick explained he was only dealing with us units temporarily, until they had persuaded the teachers to accept their latest pay cut and come back to work. But he was really good once he'd sorted out the basics like which end of a student (sorry unit) you have to talk to.

"He showed us everything we needed for a good education: how to turn the computers on (actually we had to show him that one) and where to put the big ticks in all the boxes on our course achievement sheets.

"So, I can truly say that my best manager was Mr Dick Brain, the man who turned me into the person I am today. And what's that, you ask. Well, unemployed of course!" Stephen Jones is a London FE lecturer

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