My uncle Jack was a ‘great teacher’, and when he died, that was what I had inscribed on his gravestone. He was born in a Lancashire cotton town to a mill worker’s family, and spent all six years of World War II in the army — bravely too, though it was something he would never talk about.
When he was demobbed, he went to a teachers’ training college and rose to the office of deputy head of a primary school in Rochdale, an English county of Lancashire near Manchester. Later, he was appointed head of English at a large middle school that took in pupils aged 12-16, after which the brighter ones went to a sixth form college (higher secondary).
Jack was an utterly dedicated teacher. Going on strike (and thus jeopardising his pupils’ chances) was unthinkable — as unthinkable as it should be for any caring profession, whether medicine, nursing or teaching. No priest was ever more wedded to the church than Jack was to education and his school. He never married, though he had been very near it during the War.
Being a bachelor course made it easier for him to devote himself wholeheartedly to the school. But even among his married colleagues (at least of his generation), there was none of the present trade union mentality of clock-watching and demanding extra pay and perks for extra-curricular activities and so on. Jack spent his holidays in a guest house in Oxford among the dreaming spires — reading in the libraries, listening to glorious Anglican choral evensong services in college chapels, sitting in the sun in college gardens preparing lessons for himself and material to help younger colleagues in the coming year.
Jack lived for, and largely at, the school. He took evening classes, stayed late to help gifted or struggling pupils without thought of extra remuneration, conducted extra-curricular classes in the evenings, taught several generations of youngsters to swim, and even refereed Saturday morning football matches.
But Jack was not solely or even primarily interested in rare and delicate plants. “My job is also to cultivate deserts,” he used to say, “and I do my best; but when I do find a rare plant, I try to nurture it and protect it. So much talent falls on stony ground or is stifled by tares.”
This raises the question — What is authority within the teachers’ vocation? Is there such a thing as natural authority? To an extent, yes, but it needs to be worked at, and I offer my uncle as an example of how it is done. His, I suggest, was the acceptable face of authority and his was real quality teaching. Yet — and this is the crux — how do we reverse the appalling decline in the standards of education I have seen in my lifetime? How do we create, encourage, nourish and inspire a new generation of Jack Wrights?
(Dr. Peter Greenhalgh is a Cambridge classical scholar and former professor at Cape Town University)