Hilary Wilce pays tribute to the life-changing work of our teachers

It’s the season of joy and goodwill so let’s give a great big shout-out for our country’s teachers. Every day they get up, go to work and very often do things that profoundly change their students’ lives. Sometimes these are small, supportive nudges. Sometimes they are well-timed words of kindness or wisdom, and sometimes they are painstaking, long-term exercises in teeth-gritting supportive belief.

I remember, for example, Christopher, a wiry, lonely eight-year-old from a highly dysfunctional family. Christopher could barely read or write, was disruptive in class, and so uneasy in his own body that he was forever having accidents and sporting a cast or a bandage.

This was long ago, in the very earliest days of school technology, and one day a computer was delivered to Christopher’s classroom. He was immediately fascinated. When he typed on the keyboard his letters came out looking like everyone else’s, not the illegible scrawls he produced with his pencil, and since no one in the class knew how to use a computer he didn’t have to feel hopeless and inferior as he got to grips with it. On the contrary, he seemed to pick it up faster than most of the other children.

Seeing this, his teacher made a very big decision. For a whole term she re-jigged Christopher’s timetable so he dropped art, music and games to work on the computer. She also stayed on in her classroom at breaks and in the lunch-hour so he could have even more time at the keyboard. As a result, Christopher’s literacy came on in leaps and bounds, and almost like magic, his behavioural and co-ordination problems dwindled. He walked and talked like a different boy, made friends in class, and moved on up to secondary school looking confident and feeling able.

That teacher took her own, unorthodox gamble on unseen ability. In today’s more regulated schools this is not always possible, but still teachers carry on steering and encouraging students. They help them see what they are capable of, teach them to think for themselves, provide support through difficult patches, and bring dry subjects alive with imaginative exercises.

Not all teachers, of course, are brilliant at their jobs. They vary, just like any other large group of people. But good ones know when to push and when to coax. They are instructors, counsellors, befrienders, storytellers, administrators and cheerleaders. And their daily round can encompass almost anything from sitting for a few quiet minutes with an infant whose cat has just died, to reading the riot act to a student who thinks he can wing his A-levels without doing any work.

You are never too grand to have a teacher you can thank. I learnt this when interviewing well-known people about their best teachers. The writer Maya Angelou told me a wonderful story about “Mrs Flowers”, a teacher who had helped her to learn to speak again after a childhood trauma had left her mute. Mrs Flowers took the young, silent Maya to the library and encouraged her to read her way back into words “starting with all the books from A to C”. Through that simple act Maya regained her voice. “I never had a chance to talk to Mrs Flowers as an adult,” she said, “but if I had I would have said, ‘Thank you, thank you.’”

So when it comes to sending Christmas cards to your children’s teachers think about anything you – or your children – might want to thank them for, and add it in. It will be the best present you can give.  

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