A couple of days ago I had a conversation with a colleague about why we originally entered the teaching profession. Not surprisingly, we found that there were a number of common factors that had shaped our choices and led us along this pathway during our formative years. Both of us had experiences as teenagers of working with various youth groups in which we had taken leadership or instruction roles. Similarly, we had both seen the teaching profession as providing an opportunity to participate in a worthwhile activity that could prove beneficial to others, whilst enabling us to continue our own learning. As I feel sure is common, amongst teachers who come together to discuss teaching issues at any time, we expressed our dissatisfaction with various developments in educational policy and its management, but both of us agreed that we would not have chosen any other profession, and that we continued to enjoy our respective roles.
Whilst we were able to find parallels in our earlier lives that had led us to select teaching over other professional pathways, the factor that had probably had a greater impact upon us than any other, was the influence of specific teachers who had shaped our thinking and inspired us to learn. Much of our reminiscence centred upon individuals who had galvanized our interest in their subject and motivated us to ever greater enthusiasm for exploring opportunities for learning. Both of us felt that the decisions we had made to become teachers were heavily influenced by our experiences in the lessons conducted by these individuals, and that to some extent our own approaches in the classroom had been guided by their example.
Two particular teachers often come to mind when I recall the best experiences I had at school. I am sure that it is no coincidence that my love of literature and a continuing passion for history were both shaped by teachers for whom I had the greatest respect. What interests me greatly as I recall these two characters however, is that they were in many ways distinctly different in their approach and in the way in which we regarded them as students.
The English teacher who instilled in me an insatiable appetite for reading and taught me to appreciate some of the world’s great literature, could be unpredictable in his moods and was certainly perceived as a hard taskmaster. His interpretation of our work could often appear hyper-critical, and his standards were always high. However, he gave us considerable freedom to express our ideas, to argue our point of view and to challenge the perceived wisdom of the day. I cannot recall him ever telling us the meaning of a passage of prose, a poem or a section from a play, this was not his style. He expected us to question everything, make up our own minds and then defend our position and interpretation of a text. This was not an approach appreciated by everyone, and I am sure that other students have a less than fond memory of his lessons. From my own perspective, this was an ideal way to learn. It taught me to think critically, to question everything and to have the conviction to express my own ideas. As a result of this teacher’s influence I cannot imagine ever travelling without a book, and it is thanks to him that I have explored and continue to seek out the literature produced by great writers from all around the world, and find in their words the inspiration for much of what I do in life.
By contrast, but equally important was a history teacher who clearly believed that simply teaching to the requirements of the examination was an affront to his professionalism. Officially for our A levels we studied British social and economic history from 1800 – 1939, but in reality we were given an eclectic range of opportunities and explored a much more varied historical diet. Studying history, he told us, was about understanding the present, through our appreciation of the events and actions of the past that have shaped our society. He therefore encouraged us to read well beyond the limited textbooks provided for our course. His lessons often appeared tangential to the syllabus, and should any one of his students show the least interest in a topic, no matter how far from the central theme of the set curriculum, he would feed this enthusiasm and facilitate opportunities for learning. I recall that some of my schoolmates were horrified that we wandered so often from the examination pathway. Yet despite this aberration (or possibly because of it) we succeeded in passing with good grades and many of us with an enduring enthusiasm for the subject.
A few years ago, because of a shortage of teacher availability in English schools, a government advertising campaign was organised under the slogan – “everyone remembers a good teacher!” (I know that you can probably recall a few who were less than good as well- but hopefully these were a minority). My colleague and I certainly owe much to teachers who inspired us. I believe they did so not only through their commitment to their subject, but also because they wanted to create independent learners who would have the ability to relate to others and to engage in a critical analysis of their world. I suspect that if you take a moment to reflect, that you too will remember teachers whose actions may have influenced not only your interest in a subject, but also your approach to life.