You teach thousands of kids in the course of your career, plan tens of thousands of lessons, mark millions of exam papers and homework exercises, get fallen arches in your feet and varicose veins from standing too long, and ruin your throat with all that talking. For not a great deal of renumeration, scant respect and very little thanks!
But when the teacher-student relationship works out, the job has to be the best in the world. There's no headier feeling than knowing that you've made a difference to other lives.
Few writers have really got the classroom down to the page and I treasure those who have:
There is of course E.R. Braithwaite's autobiographical To Sir with Love, which tells of a black teacher's attempts to teach difficult teenagers in a London school in post-war Britain.And now I'd put beside them Frank McCourt's latest volume of memoir, Teacher Man which I'm currently enjoying very much indeed. What I appreciate most about the book is its honesty. McCourt details both his sucesses and failures in the classroom, including the kind of embarassments most teachers would want to downplay even to those closest to them.
There's Ursula struggling with her classes as a student-teacher towards the end of DH Lawrence's The Rainbow. I'd also add his poem Afternoon in School - the Last Lesson to the list.
There's New Zealand writer Sylvia Townsend-Warner's excellent Spinster, the story of a teacher working in a largely Maori school. (Note to self: must reread this soon!)
McCourt bemoans the fact that his teacher-training course did not prepare him at all for the realities of the classroom. But there's no-one-size- fits-all-quick-fix for teachers that you can pass on in training, and it takes time and hard-won experience to find out who you are in the classroom. (Took me years and much pain.) McCourt lays out his own personal journey for us, detailing nearly 30 years of teaching in American high-schools and eventually discovering that his stock of stories about growing up in Ireland was his greatest classroom resource. That and the kind of quirky imagination that dreams up assignments like getting students to write their own excuse notes and obituaries!
And empathy. Of course, empathy. What teacher can survive without it? McCourt has bucket loads of it.
I'd love to see this book made compulsory reading on all teacher training courses, but the book is a damn good read even if you don't have a particular interest in things pedagogic. It's beautifully written, moving and funny by turn.
Would you expect anything less from the author of Angela's Ashes?
(Reviews of Teacher Man from the Guardian and the Independent.)