From Hollywood heroes to hapless drones

11th December 2015 at 00:00

“The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others,” mused the Franco-German missionary and philosopher Albert Schweitzer. If he was right, then teaching must surely rank as one of the most human of all the professions.

Our My Best Teacher series (see page 26) shows how the kindness, creativity and high expectations of an outstanding teacher can drive a successful individual’s career. But the pay-off can also be more immediate: the reluctant reader suddenly engrossed in a book; the satisfying thrum of collective industry in a classroom; the delight of pupils getting grades that they never expected.

So, with all its potential for profound career fulfilment, why aren’t more people flocking to teaching? This week, we reveal that many student-teacher places at Scottish universities are going unfilled (see pages 6-7). Previously, we have documented how some councils have had to trawl for teachers in Canada, or offer “golden hellos” and subsidised accommodation to boost numbers.

The reasons behind teacher shortages are myriad and complex, but one thing teaching arguably suffers from is an image problem. It’s amazing how many people I’ve heard blithely dismiss teachers as hapless (“Why do a job where sullen teenagers ignore or antagonise you every day?”) or feckless (“Teachers moaning again, with the holidays they get?”).

Teaching unions and professional bodies rightly highlight the troubles with teaching: workload, new qualifications and dismay at how ragged Curriculum for Excellence is in danger of becoming. But who is expounding the narrative of teaching as a uniquely desirable profession in which you enrich thousands of lives?

It does happen in some countries. I once interviewed a Finnish education professor about why his country – where student-teaching places are hugely over-subscribed – held teachers in such high regard. He told me that history provided the answer: Finland had been ruled by Russia but its national identity flowered en route to independence in 1917 – and teachers were the conduits for the new ideas that drove this.

Teaching in Scotland also has a proud history, from the 17th-century drive for universal education to comprehensive schooling and a new curriculum of vaulting ambition – albeit, as we await the OECD’s verdict (see next week’s TESS), that its impact is in the balance. It’s a compelling story – if only more people were telling it. Unfortunately, popular culture, that insidious shaper of opinion, often has a different take. You want drama about thwarted ambition? Stick in a teacher – think Brian Glover’s wannabe footballer in Kes or Breaking Bad’s browbeaten teacher-turned-drug-lord, Walter White.

And if teachers aren’t put-upon drones, they’re impossibly heroic, as in Dead Poets Society.

In a newspaper interview this year, William McIlvanney, the great Scottish writer and erstwhile teacher who died last Saturday, recalled that while he had thrived as a teacher, he was not driven by “missionary zeal”.

He was right. A successful teacher is usually more understated and sophisticated than Hollywood imagines: a steadfast, thoughtful presence, someone who gradually helps pupils to uncover the building blocks that will lay the foundations for better lives.

This is the true story of teaching and one that does appear on screen occasionally, the French documentary Être et Avoir being a standout example.

And it deserves to be told more.

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