There are some things that one cannot but help feeling self-conscious about when writing. Teaching or more to the point the teacher is one of them. I have written elsewhere that I came in to teaching to be the kind of teacher I wanted to have. Sounds very grand or at least idealistic, but again as I have written elsewhere, there is nothing wrong with that per se. As long as one avoids the sanctimonious, being idealistic is fine. I did want to develop some understanding though of the teacher, not the teaching. The pedagogy of how to inform minds, engage interest, stimulate thinking and assess understanding etc. are for another place, here I wonder if we might think for a bit about what a teacher is.
The events last week in Reading have seen many column inches given to Mr Furlong. The tragedy of innocence struck down for whatever reason offends us at the deepest level, it is an irrational act, it makes no sense and neither do I pretend to be able to make sense of it. But what of the comments on Mr Furlong? They were not new, teachers receive cards and letters from pupils, parents and alumni extolling the affect they had on them. In some cases, it is the ability to inform. The way teachers have of simplifying the complex and engaging understanding. I see it in lessons where teachers immerse themselves in the struggles of their charges, the very best are adept at never being ‘one of them’ but always being ‘one among them’. There is no place for the player to the gallery, the cult of personality is self-serving and distracting. The authenticity of effective teachers is in the way they present hard truths with the confidence that they can be addressed. Open, honest dialogue informs the healthiest relationships, but they are infused with a genuine care. If Mr Furlong’s reputation was one of anything, it seems to be that he cared.
If the principle quality is to care, then fast on its heels must be the capacity to inspire. The best teachers have an unreasonable expectation of the children in their care and are unapologetic about it. The best teachers do not seek to reproduce ‘mini Me’s’ but independent thoughtful individuals who have been inspired. This quality is worth dwelling on. To be inspired is to be given life, the earliest sense of the word’s meaning was related to a divine experience, there was something mystical about it. I suppose the capacity one individual has to inspire others is life-giving. I wonder if you can recall being inspired at school? The experience transforms, it creates a sense of belief or purpose that didn’t exist before. The capacity to inspire comes from an intrinsic belief in the capacity of others to transform themselves even when and perhaps especially when they do not see it in themselves. The life-giving property of a good teacher is the quintessence of their impact on the children.
The vehicle for that inspiration is the passion they have for their subject. There is a transformative joy in those that enjoy their work, it is not a thrill as experienced on a roller coaster ride but a deeper joy of something more fundamental. I have told some of you previously how I ran home from school one day with a burning desire to go to the British Museum. My sainted mother heard how they were hosting an exhibition of Egyptian artefacts and Tutankhamun’s death mask was being shown. It was inconceivable to me that we would not go, millions of people would be going, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. My Mum carried on with what she was doing, it didn’t matter who Tut was, there were jobs to be done. To be fair, having me running around talking about the distant past and questioning, she put up with a lot.
The passion my teacher had was infectious. It was life enriching and exciting, it certainly made me look beyond the horizon of my experience and realise that there was ‘more’. Mr McMahon has a lot to answer for. But it is not all his fault, Mr Hennessey, Mrs O’Brien and Fr Stephen have to take their share of responsibility. By the standard of today, their approach would be described as highly ineffective, their techniques not necessarily endorsed by the teaching schools but they got results, whatever you take that to mean.
There is a place for the maverick. They were inspirational men and women with a passion for their subject who cared for children. They were instructors, guides, medics, referees, judges but always advocates. They were critics and hard task masters, challenging coaches and prickly philosophers, intense interrogators and tellers of tall tales. They were great teachers.