Friday, November 01, 2013

Hey, Kids - Leave Those Teachers Alone

First published in the Western People on Monday.

This week is the mid-term break for many schools in the County Mayo. So while people who work have the blessing of a bank holiday today, tomorrow we go back to work while teachers and pupils either lie in or are kicked out of bed by outraged parents and told to clean the gutters or mow the lawn, as appropriate to their station.

We all remember what it was like to be in school as a pupil – if you didn’t, you’re making quite the achievement in even reading this paper – but relatively few know what it’s like to be at the top of the class, looking back at the children looking hungrily up at you. Reader, let’s spare a moment this morning to think of the teachers.

It’s fashionable among some people to say they succeeded despite their teachers, rather than because of them. This is a particularly miserable attitude, but it is by no means uncommon. For instance, during one of those clubby radio shows that RTÉ do so often during the summer, Miriam O’Callaghan interviewed the journalists Sam Smyth and Eamon McCann.

McCann, a Derryman, is a graduate of St Columb’s College, a school that is remarkable for the amount of influential people who have been educated there – Séamus Heaney, God be good to him, and John Hume are both alumni of St Columb’s, and there are many more who have made their mark on the city, the country and the world. Miriam asked McCann if he thought St Columb’s had much influence on him.

No, said McCann. He is the fine man he is today despite, rather than because of, his schooling.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, of course, but McCann seemed blissfully unaware of the irony of his disdain for the school that educated him when he went on to mourn the absence of Latin in modern curricula, on the basis that the learning of the ancient language is good for teaching accuracy, mental discipline and giving a taste of the richness of human history.

This is ironic because, if it weren’t for St Columb’s and the teachers therein, where would McCann have learned his Latin in the first place? When the children of Derry were going home in the rain or running up the dark lane it is unlikely they were speaking Latin while doing it. McCann has his teachers to thank for his Latin and his subsequent grasp of grammar, though he seems to little appreciate it.

This is the sort of revelation that only comes with age (or not at all, in McCann’s case). When you’re a young person behind the desk, everything is, like, such a drag. A child who will happily rattle off the Manchester United first XI or can dash off the Kardashian family tree on the back of a copybook may have zero interest in naming the principle rivers and towns in Ireland or being able to recite The Old Woman of the Roads. Something’s got to give.

The worst mistake a teacher can make is thinking that there’s a way for the kids to treat you as one of themselves. There really isn’t, and that’s not the teacher’s purpose. The teacher’s purpose is not to get the children to do what they want, but to get them to do what they must.

Sometimes it seems that the Department forgets this distinction. Different academics publish papers about engaging with the child and that’s all fine but you have to remember that what a child wants to engage in is not what the teacher wants the child to engage in.

Some people say the great teachers are the ones who let the love of the subject shine through. Sometimes, with the major subjects of Irish, English or Maths the gifted and inspired teacher can be swept away by the beauty of a poem by Raifteirí, a short story by Michael McLaverty or the otherworldly beauty of those beautiful, clean lines that only exist on the limitless horizon of the Euclidean plane.

And all that’s true, but those aren’t the only teachers who are great. The great teachers are also those who teach subjects that will not help get a job, but will give joy for evermore. Think of the music teachers and PE teachers, who teach the joys of the eternal battle between the tonic and dominant chords and the incredible benefit of being able to kick with both feet.

And there are also the teachers who know that a real world exists beyond the schoolroom and it can be far more frightening and difficult to deal with than the Tuiseal Ginideach, mischievous trickster though the Tuiseal Ginideach certainly is. Anyone who has had difficulties and was quietly helped by a teacher will remember that kind act until it’s time to turn our backs to this world and prepare to face the next.

So spare a thought, then, for teachers. Every year the department makes their job harder by messing with the subjects and trying devious ways to cut junior teachers’ pay to appease senior members of the union. Every year teachers’ friends mock them for having it easy with those big, long holidays and that blissfully short working day.

But none of the rest of us will have a computer that will talk back and try to get all the other computers on its side, just for devilment. We can take five or ten minutes for a wander around the office when we like. We’re not on duty all the time, with sixty hungry eyes waiting for us to slip up.

But neither are we those who hand on the flame, problematic curricula or no, to another generation. For every ten or twenty children who are just counting the days there will be one who will be lit up by what he or she hears from their teacher, and has a job, a gift or perhaps a source of comfort and joy for the rest of their lives. How many of us can say that we contribute something similar to society?