The age of the teacher

I was a full-time teacher in further education for twenty-eight years, – mainly teaching 16-19 year olds, and mainly, after the first five years, English Lit at A level. There were lots of reasons why I left, most of them positive and life-enhancing (for me). The main thing I’d done was to stay put in the same place, which wasn’t, I didn;t think, going to be healthy if I made it to 44 years, as was threatened. But there were other amusing moments which told me that I was getting past my sell-by date. One of these was when one of the girls I taught (they were mainly girls, because they all did Art as well as English, and there was a huge speech by Callaghan in 1978 in something called ‘The Great Debate’, and haven’t there been a lot of them in education, which put boys off Art), without thinking, called me ‘Dad’ (actually, it might have been ‘Mum’, but whichever, it was parental).

It’s not true for everyone, but when you reach the age at which you are the same age as the parents at parents’ evening, it might be time to quit. In my case, in the last group, one student’s grandfather had been the father of one of my students (his aunt, work it out). That was odd. And then there was the way in which you talked to students, or the way you read parts in plays. If I may digress, one of the pleasures of teaching literature classes is when there is a play to read. The whole process is still about demystification, but you do get the odd treat (if you like reading plays, of course, aka showing off, although it’s a good thing to read a play with students, and to overact – there is no other way with me – since it makes them come out of their shells, those that aren’t out of them already). Parse that sentence…

I knew my time might be up when I decided to use David Mamet’s Oleanna as a set text. This must have been in about 1999. It presents a teacher with a problem: it only has two characters. It presented me with a bigger problem: I was going to be reading one of the parts. The part of the teacher. The part of the older, middle-class teacher. The part of the older, pretentious middle-class teacher who is trying to explain the reason he teaches to a young woman. It’s one of the best engineered plays I know (I don’t think you have to like texts to teach them, in fact it’s fun when they have faults, but Oleanna is just perfection, a feat of dramatic writing quite beyond my power to imagine. It gets you every time).

There comes a point in the play when the teacher, very archly, says to the student, having crossed several borderlines very quietly and without realising it, ‘I’m not your father.’ I have to say this brought the house down, and I am not talking about my acting skills (slight). The fact is, I had reached the age where this was an innately funny line, the kind of recklessly stupid thing a male teacher might say to a teenage student. I joined in the laughter with a mixture of feelings. (And as a matter of fact, I did briefly wind up teaching my son, for a few weeks. He said something sensible, and I said ‘Good point’ or ‘Well done’ or something equally cauous and platitudinous. It was a very odd moment. The group had a good laugh there, too, though I think I egged them on.)

I wouldn’t have missed the twenty-eight years for anything. But there came a time…

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