Page 12, 6th June 1997

6th June 1997
Page 12
Page 12, 6th June 1997 — Teachers: not just for school, but for life

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Teachers: not just for school, but for life

Keywords: Teacher, Teaching, Education

WEARE currently very keen on naming bad schools and even bad teachers. The Tories pioneered it and David Blunkett has continued this nasty habit, as if by subjecting a school to public ridicule you are somehow going to rally the staff, pupils and community to work to revive it. The opposite is true. It will henceforth be avoided like the plague.

Parents, as I am rapidly finding out as I contemplate my son's entry into primary school in four and a half years time, are easily put off by a casual remark here, a fleeting observation there. When it is central government sounding the warning bell, what parent could face with anything other than horror the prospect of their offspring heading off to the Ridings School in Halifax with his or her lunch-box.

We used to celebrate good teachers. But then like social workers and many others who follow a secular vocation we started blaming them, making them scapegoats for a society we didn't like. Again government ministers led this outbreak of demonisation from the despatch box of the House of Commons. It was all down to Sixties fads in teaching methods and bearded, sandelled Lefties with no concept of what Rhodes Boyson, chief spokesman for the prosecution, considered the teacher's cardinal virtue to be, discipline. And we followed supinely, as ready to have someone to blame as were the medieval Christians who watched innocent men and women burnt as witches.

A decade or more on, surely we can now see that this doesn't wash. It's time to get back to celebrating good teachers. Just consider, would the current tactics work in any other area? If you want to train up the next generation of footballers to win England the World Cup, would you constantly hark on to your fledgling stars about the shortcomings of Tranmere Rovers, or would you hold up the Liverpools and Evertons as role models? Christianity at least is in no doubt. The cult of saints, figures that we lesser mortals struggle to live up to, has been around since the earliest centuries.

Ask the famous and the celebrated why they've got where they've got and high on the list will be a teacher who inspired them. I've just been reading a biography of Nancy Astor. She put her subsequent success, her wit, her feminism and her determination to storm the male citadel of parliament down to her teacher in Virginia, Virginia Ellet, known as "Miss Jennie". During an interview many moons ago, another name always in the news, Hollywood actor Liam Neeson, held forth for a good half an hour on the Christian Brother in his native Northern Ireland who inspired him to make his career on the stage.

(Until very recently I might have mentioned Miss Jean Brodie to the list for a bit of literary flourish even though to my shame I'd never read Muriel Spark's account of her "prime". I had decided nevertheless that it was a celebration of an inspired teacher. And then I took the Maggie Smith film out of the video library and realised my mistake. Perhaps I should double check by reading the book and not rely, as too often is the case, on a screen adaptation as the basis of my knowledge of a literary classic.) Inspired teachers... I had one. He died this week , five years after a stroke that had left him, in his early 50s and in the prime of life, trapped in a body that no longer worked. Some say his death was a merciful relief, that he is now out of pain, that he will have met his Maker and will get his reward.

I'm sure they're right but I cannot help missing him. He was the only one who would ring after something I'd been involved in on radio or television or in the papers and say that was good, build up my confidence but also, occasionally, pull me down a rung or two when I was too confident by half. Or plain wrong.

THE ABSENCE of a mentor makes for a strange and lonely landscape. It's another of those stages on the road to growing up which, I am pleased to have realised, extends beyond your twenties, beyond marriage and parenthood and career and mortgage, and shows no sign of abating.

Anthony Gynn Tony to his friends and pupils prepared you for more than exams. In the studious and loving but insular and isolated world of my Christian Brother's School in Birkenhead, he slowly introduced us to the notion that there was a world outside our windows where we might thrive. He equipped us not to be afraid. For a quarter of a century he guided his teenage pupils in their first steps into that world with all the care and devotion of a parent encouraging their only child to walk.

He would organise school trips to smart universities Oxford,Cambridge and his own beloved alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin that we had hitherto never dreamt of as within our grasp. He filled his history and political lessons with that same outside world, with figures local politicians, the occasional big name from the outside world and when he thought we were in danger of lapsing into that adolescent ennui usually reserved for the physics lab or morning assembly, he'd whip out a copy of Private Eye and teach us a sense of irony.

I think in his youth Tony had toyed with the idea of being a journalist or a politician. He was briefly involved with the SDP in its heyday in his home town of Chester and talked about standing as a candidate. In the end he reserved his gifts as an orator and they were considerable for the Catenians in the North West. And, Herald readers, I hope, will recall the witty back-page diary he used to write about the trials and tribulations of the classroom and his elegant, incisive book reviews.

But he could never turn ins back on teaching. That was his calling, as valuable, as selfless and, at times, as muchof a struggle as any religion vocation.

Indeed, within the context of a Catholic school and prcbably of any secular school, it carried and carries a spirittal dimension that should not )e underestimated.

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