An Apple (Or Rotten Tomato?) For The Teacher

A sliced and stacked red apple on white

There is a Japanese proverb that goes: ‘Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.’ I don’t think that I ever notched up 1,000 days of diligent study – but unfortunately, the greatest teachers in my life came long after the school bell had tolled its last; people like the spiritual guru Ram Dass (who taught me to meditate), Anita Roddick, my friend and mentor (who taught me about bringing your sense of humour to work, because you’re really going to need it) and even my husband, come to that, who taught me to keep the faith at all times. (Not religious faith. Just ‘the faith’, trusting to the universe.)

To be honest, I hadn’t given much thought to my teachers in years – before last summer, when I was asked to appear as Lauren Laverne’s guest on Desert Island Discs. (I know I’ve written about this before, but forgive me: I AM still pinching myself, and it’s 100% relevant to what I’m about to share.)

I share with Lauren (and, um, 3 million listeners) a particular, negative experience I’d had with my Scripture teacher. For some reason, the aforementioned teacher was also our Careers teacher, and one day a lesson turned from the Bible to discussions about what we were going to do when we left school. Well, Jackie Chapman was going to study Medicine at Oxford. My friend Stephanie Dodsworth was headed for teacher-training. The gloriously-named Dorcas Bird was, as I remember, thinking of Law. And yours truly announced that she wanted to be a secretary – an actual careers ambition, in those days.

My teacher narrowed her eyes and glared at me. ‘Jo Fairley, if you make so much as a Girl Friday, I’ll eat my hat,’ said Mrs. Wootton. (For readers at the lower age of the age spectrum, a Girl Friday was essentially a PA and several rungs lower on the career ladder than a secretary, probably only good for fetching coffee/dry cleaning/walking the boss’s Chihuahua.)

And my life could have gone in two very different directions, at that point. What actually happened was that I basically heard a Saturn Five rocket ignite under my chair, firing me up with the determination to prove her wrong. (Weirdly, it still drives me decades later – but I realise that if I’d been a different sort of girl, or even feeling less confident, on a different day, I might have bought into her predictions and set my sights perhaps no higher than running the Pick ‘n’ Mix in our local Woolworths.)

And an extraordinary thing happened after the Desert Island Discs was broadcast. No less than seven of that teacher’s other pupils managed to find a way to get in touch and wrote to me of similar experiences they’d had. In five of the seven cases, the impact was the same: it made them utterly determined to show her what they could achieve. But I literally cried at two of the communications, from women who years afterwards revealed to me that they’d bought into her put-downs and – as one told me – ‘my self-esteem has never recovered.’ (Another of the correspondents, meanwhile, hadn’t just been told she was going to amount to nothing, but that she’d ‘burn in hell’ – because a) her parents were divorced, and b) she’d been spotted dancing in the audience of Ready, Steady, Go!, then the must-watch music programme of the week.)

Reading their letters was an amazing and somewhat liberating experience for me, because of course I’d thought it was just ME. I didn’t realise that she had it in for all sorts of other pupils, in other classes and other years. Fired-up as I was at the time, I was also somewhat embarrassed at being singled out. But now I’m just hopping mad – because what an unforgivable thing to do to any young person who you’re supposed to be nurturing, teaching and encouraging.

And it really got me thinking about teaching, and the difference between good and bad teachers, and what huge responsibility teachers have for the kids in their care. Back in those days, there wasn’t the constant dialogue between parents and teachers that there is now (a once-a-year PTA meeting was about it, for my mum and dad), so my family didn’t have a clue about what had happened, and probably wouldn’t have dreamed of questioning the way that we were being taught and cared-for (or not). Parents today are much more ‘on it’, holding teachers to account. But even now, I hear stories from other women (often those who’ve not long left school), who’ve endured similar – and I don’t think it’s going too far to label it as a form of child abuse.

I did get out of school being able to read, write (and speak French), but the handful of teachers whose classes I did well in, looking back, were the ones who encouraged and engaged me – and when that happened, I bloomed like a little flower. I’m reminded of another great quote, from Benjamin Franklin: ‘Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.’

Through my weird and wonderful parallel life as a public speaker, I am now sometimes invited by schools to share my story – and sometimes, I get to see how teachers should be. There was the prize-giving at the school in Hampstead where the most coveted honour in each class was the Kindness Prize, and the huge affection between the girls and their teachers was palpable, in the room. A few weeks ago, I was at a school in Guildford which was clearly working so hard to engage, involve and inspire its pupils. An evening there totally restored my faith in teachers – and made me completely rethink a phrase that I’d often repeated myself, that ‘Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach.’ May I be forgiven for having bought into that, after some of my own school experiences. But after that night in Guildford, I came away thinking: actually, teachers are really cool.

So I apologise for the fact that it’s taken me till this late in life to grasp fully how hugely important teachers are. Underpaid, mostly, and under-appreciated. But how we turn out isn’t just nature, nurture or our DNA; it’s in part down to how good or bad a job our teachers did. I was unfortunate (if you don’t count Mrs. Wootton kindling my ambition to prove her wrong). I hope you fared better.

But to all the good (or even great) teachers out there, let this be by way of a shiny, polished apple – as a very belated thank you.

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