Lost a valued former colleague and friend recently. Kath was only 55 and was taken from us without any warning really; a smashing mother and wife and the best sort of teacher. Such events, I suppose, become more common as you trawl through middle age, but that doesn’t lessen the devastation, calm the anger, or assuage the bewilderment. The sudden loss of one who was loved and admired, and who had so much to offer does give pause for reflection, though.
Understandably, in addition to Kath’s stricken family, her colleagues and pupils have been left stunned. Her passing leaves a huge gap in a school where she was a pupil for six years and a teacher for nearly thirty, half of that time as a guidance teacher. Their feeling of loss leads us to ponder on what makes an influential teacher; how do we measure the value of those who teach?
At the start of these blogs I hazarded an overview of the road to successful teaching. However, that was more of an examination of what good teachers do; my feelings after we lost Kath were focused more on what good teachers are, and how do we know they are good?
There are, generally speaking, three ways that teachers are assessed more or less formally (apart, that is, from the reactions of their classes!) Firstly, everyone having attended school, most people believe they know what teachers do and how well they do it, which is akin to a car driver second guessing a mechanic, I guess. This is a dangerous form of assessment, as not only from school to school, but also within the same school, a pupil’s experience can be different depending on the teachers to whom they are exposed, the stages at which they meet them, and, inevitably, their family background and parental input.
The second type of judgment is relayed by the media, who, for the sake of news soundbites and snappy headlines, often deliver a picture of rioting pupils, stressed out staff, failing schools, and looney initiatives, rarely taking the time or effort to gain an accurate picture across individual schools or staff.
Lastly is the most formal of all – the professional assessment, which, though including teacher training and development, also covers a range of value judgments which are not necessarily helpful or accurate. Observations, reviews and reports, Inspections – external and internal, exam results – by class, department and school, extra curricular involvement, onward professional development, speed of promotion, regional or national renown or expertise, cutting edge involvement, level of symbiosis with the priorities of department head, headteacher or director of education: all of these are in the mix when officialdom pronounces on how good a teacher is. All of them, I suppose, at some level, have their part to play in signifying a teacher’s approach to their profession, but I’m not sure, on their own, whether they tell the whole story, or even the most important part of it.
On the various sites set up since Kath’s death, a consistent message from former and current pupils was that they loved Kath – as a teacher, as a supporter, as a professional they could trust. Perhaps love is an overused and devalued word these days but there is no mistaking the fact that she touched her pupils deeply and they responded to what they saw in her.
Interestingly she was a stickler for fair play and hated cheating – in the PE Hall, where she was so inspirational, or in life in general. Pupils don’t react positively to ‘easy’ teachers or those without standards; they like to be challenged as well as rewarded and positively reinforced.
The last time I saw Kath, she was with two colleagues and friends in Edinburgh’s George St, in The Living Room Restaurant. I didn’t interrupt, but I knew what would be on the menu: Cocktails, a well chosen bottle of wine, good food, lots of discussion and almost continuous laughter. For at least some of the time, she would have been telling tales against herself, because Kath hated the pompous and the self important and had a keen wit for their demolition.
If this paints a picture of someone who enjoyed life to the full and brought energy, vitality and positivity to everything she did, then it’s an accurate protrayal of a smashing person.
So what does this say of teaching?
Teachers are individuals, and importantly so, but some qualities shine: a love of life and everything in it; a love of job and its challenges; an affection for young people and a fierce commitment to their futures. Carry those with you into the classroom, and everything else will tend to follow.
Kath’s son recalled how, often on a Sunday evening, his mum would say that she and his dad were just off down the road for ‘something sparkling’.
Kath was a great teacher because she was lovely person. In staffroom or classroom, she was that ‘something sparkling’. That’s what we all need to aim for.
The study centre is up to date
The principal tells of all the improvements
The finest discovery is the green blackboard
The scientists have studied long and have
We know now that green is the ideal colour
that it doesn’t tire the eyes
that it is quieting and relaxing
It has occurred to me, Lord, that you
didn’t wait so long to paint the trees
and meadows green.
Your research labs were efficient.
And in order not to tire us you perfected
a number of shades of green for your
So the “finds” of men consist of discovering
what you have known from time immemorial.
Thank you, Lord, for being the good father
who gives his children the joy of discovering
by themselves the treasures of his intelligence
and love, but keep us from believing that by
ourselves we have invented anything at all.
Michel Quoist – Prayers of Life