In praise of teachers

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

Today is World Teacher Day. Only this year did I realise that there is an annual day to raise our glasses to teachers everywhere and appreciate the gifts they give us. I fully acknowledge that a sombre note might set in for many of us if we are forced to think of teachers. Not all of us have a warm feeling about education, and not all of us can think immediately of teachers who inspire us. Not everyone enjoyed their time at school. Some of us left it behind. Some of us may have a chip on our shoulder about it.

Even the bitterest among us might quietly admit that teachers are too often made the symbolic punching bags for the faults of our society. We force our teachers to take on the fault lines of the exclusions and failures of formal education. Teachers are worth more than the confines of formal education, of course. Our culture suffers for not recognising the broadest value base for education as learning in any shape or form, as a helper of emancipation rather than, as it is often experienced, something that must be ticked off to get the job and the reward or condemn us to exile. It is not for want of trying on the part of many teachers that our culture has not yet been able to provide and celebrate a model of lifelong learning. Neither do all teachers present to us bugbears rather than the successes of the self-taught or the lifelong learners.

"Ancora Imparo" - still I am learning - was said to have been the phrase the artist Michelangelo dropped on his deathbed. William Blake noted that motto down in his portrait of the old master. Blake famously had a chip on his shoulder when he claimed he was a self-taught genius. Blake still had many teachers, including in engraving. Teachers are everywhere in society. In the mustiest books or in the imaginary conversations we foster. Even when ours teachers appear to be the foils of greatness and escape, they command some kind of hold on our imagination. Teachers name a formal relationship, but wherever we have our most important relationships with learning, we find informal relationships abound.

In learning, it's not the position of a teacher that counts. It is how they have helped us learn. Sometimes our most important teachers aren't even recognised teachers. They could be tutors, fellow readers, or the unorthodox experiences: a climb up a mountain, a rock, a dog, a challenging acquaintance, or a poem. None of this informal reality of learning should stop us thinking about the value of having people who care enough to teach us.

When I think teachers, I think of my mum, who was a high school teacher for thirty years. She was also a single mum who raised me to appreciate the widest horizons of learning.

I remember when I was young my mum read me these lines from the second stanza of William Butler Yeat's Sailing to Byzantium:

"An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing For every tatter in its mortal dress, Nor is there singing school but studying Monuments of its own magnificence; And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.

This poem and this stanza, in particular way my mother taught it to me - pausing and tracing the threads of Irish poverty, injustice and the distress of dreams across the smallest space of a page - that has stuck with me ever since.

Now I have become an aged man with a wild child at my side.

I have a chance of sorts to teach my own son, a lump off the old block, songs in tatters and wisdom beyond monuments of magnificence.

Before I am reduced to a paltry thing, there are many gifts of teaching and learning that I can give my baby Finn.

Chances are that by the time he is an aged and paltry thing that he will have learned that no one has ever sailed to Byzantium without a teacher.

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