A good teacher is a friend for life

THE shocking murder of a teacher in Leeds on Monday and the outpouring of genuine love and respect from staff and pupils demonstrates how important a good teacher is within his or her community.

The fatal knife attack on Ann Maguire was, thankfully, a very rare occurrence – it brought back memories of head-teacher Philip Lawrence who was killed outside his school in Maida Vale, in 1995, when he went to help a pupil who was being attacked. But there is a real concern about the number of teenagers who carry knives; teaching unions have warned about the risks of violent attacks; and in 2013, a total of 250 pupils were found with weapons at school.

Colleagues spoke of the murdered teacher with real warmth and pupils described her as “amazing,” as “the best at everything,” and a teacher who “wanted the best” for her students. The impact on the 950 pupils and staff at Corpus Christi College is bound to be deep and traumatic but we must hope that over time the horror will fade and that Mrs Maguire will be remembered as a great teacher, and perhaps help to inspire some students to follow in her footsteps and bring knowledge, inspiration and excitement into the lives of future pupils at this and other schools.

Schooldays are not always the happiest days of our lives, and many children can’t wait to leave, but there is no doubt that the best teachers are a lasting inspiration. If there is one small good thing that emerges from this terrible murder it would be to remind people of the importance of teachers in our lives, not only when we are children, but in their influence over our future careers and our life choices.

I have friends who have taught at schools and universities, who have remained in touch with former students and others who are still in contact with former teachers or friends from school, meeting up regularly for reunions, exchanging news and memories that come from years of shared experience.

My school was an academic grammar school where high achievers were expected to go to university and on to a life of academic research and intellectual achievement or into the professions.

Some of our teachers brought to the classroom a combination of great knowledge of their subjects and empathetic skill at sharing their knowledge that encouraged our ambitions and our imaginations to soar.

Some were relaxed, encouraged informal discussion and arguments and treated the students as friends and even as grown-ups; others were old-style, authoritarian, insisting on old fashioned schoolroom behaviour (no whispering, no passing notes, no giggling). But the good ones – traditional or modern, teaching subjects from ancient Greek to advanced maths – could hold a class of unruly hormone-ridden teenagers spell-bound.

There was a maths master who showed us how exciting his subject could be and helped us to understand how mathematics underpinned so much of our lives. An English teacher ensured that we did not look back in anger at Shakespeare – the set books were plays, to be seen on stage or acted out in the classroom, not texts to be dissected. He is the reason that live theatre is one of my enduring passions.

Our French teacher wanted us to love the language as she did – we were encouraged to listen to French radio stations, buy French newspapers and go to French plays. My lasting affection for Francoise Hardy, Sacha Distel and Sylvie Vartan dates from those hours of listening to Europe Numero 1.

A classics master brought even the dullest texts to life – his description of Cicero’s audience in the Senate, “waiting open-mouthed” until he got to the principal verb and they finally knew what he was talking about, helped us to grasp the elegance (and infuriating logic) of Latin. He also captured our imagination with stories of Greek heroes and philosophers and made the Greek drama exciting and even funny.

A history teacher dragged us with a tedious chronology through the late 18th and early 19th century – the South Sea Bubble, American War of Independence and the Corn Laws. Bogged down in politics and pompous texts, we wrote rude limericks, passed notes under the desks, drew wicked cartoons and gave up history as soon as we had the chance. I have loved history for years, but it is thanks to my travels and to inspiring writers … not to a poor teacher.

Teachers often get a bad press, and the actions of some teaching unions have not always inspired confidence and respect. But teachers nowadays have so much more on their desk or desk-top than their own subject and the behaviour of the 30 eager or bored youngsters in front of them. They have to contend with Ofsted reports, health and safety, data protection, parents who are too quick to believe their children’s version of an incident rather than find out the truth, the constantly changing demands of politicians, the pressures to “manage” education as if it was just another business and the competing demands of social media on the attention of their pupils.

The death of an excellent teacher, who had given 40 years to the care and education of generations of students will be mourned by her colleagues and pupils. Politicians will put in their tuppenceworth and the media will exaggerate the level of violence in schools. But we must hope that the lasting legacy will be young people who remember their warm and generous Spanish teacher with love and respect, who will look back at a good school where they were happy, who will remember a role model not a murder victim.

Fanny Charles