Teacher Role Models
Updated: Jun 28, 2021
This week saw the annual ‘Thank a Teacher Day’, with posts on social media rightly praising the myriad talents of the teaching profession, perhaps more so than usual this year in recognition of the incredible efforts of all staff in schools throughout the pandemic. The TES Awards also took place this week, marking the significant achievements of schools and the individuals who make them tick.
These events got me thinking about the common qualities among these examples of best practice in our schools. In the sixth form I lead, we are embedding a culture in which our students are seen (and increasingly begin to see themselves) as role models. If this is to be truly successful, we need our teachers to also act as role models to both our students and their colleagues, but what does it take to be a teacher role model?
Inspired by ‘Thank a Teacher Day’, I reflected on why I went into teaching myself. Yes, I wanted to work with young people and improve their life chances, and yes, I wanted to continue to use my degree subject (History) directly in my career. When I really thought about the main reason for my chosen career though, the overriding thought that came to mind was of one person: my secondary school English teacher, Geraldine Bale.
Geraldine taught me English at The Kingswood School, Corby, from Year 8 through to Year 13. She was my absolute favourite teacher, for so many reasons. I’m pleased to say that I kept in touch with Geraldine after leaving school and we exchanged letters periodically (in her beautiful handwriting – see below) up until just before she sadly passed away five years ago. I contacted her husband, Barry, to ask his permission to share my thoughts on why Geraldine will always be my role model teacher. He was touched that I wanted to share my views, but we both agree that Geraldine herself would find such a spotlight on her cringeworthy to say the least; anyone who knew Geraldine will remember fondly her extreme self-deprecation!
Geraldine never sought promotion and remained a classroom English teacher until her retirement, believing the role of an English teacher and sharing her love of literature to be reward enough. I have outlined below just a few of the key qualities that Geraldine effortlessly displayed; attributes that I certainly try to emulate in my own practice and I hope others find useful by way of self-reflection.
The central reason I (and many of my peers – our GCSE English class shrank to become the English Literature A Level group 1999-2001) hold Geraldine in such high regard is because of her unswerving care for her students. She genuinely invested in us and really cared about what we went on to do. Geraldine’s detailed feedback at parents’ evenings is something my parents still mention to this day; her care was obvious to them too. Letters we exchanged whilst I was at university were testament to the fact that this continued throughout Geraldine’s career, with her expressing concern about bright students she taught who had what she considered to be low aspirations for themselves. She believed in them more than they did themselves - that says it all.
This wouldn’t necessarily always be obvious in the classroom though; Geraldine’s quiet manner and acerbic Liverpudlian wit could easily put a cheeky Year 10 lad in his place in seconds! At first, she seemed a strict, even cold, classroom teacher. But, within a few lessons it was obvious to all of her students that she had their best interests at heart and wanted them to aspire to meet the potential that she saw in every one of them. There was no need for fawning; we all knew how much she cared. This was obvious in the photo she took of our class in Year 11, which, when we left the sixth form, she’d had framed and stuck personalised handwritten messages on the reverse ready to gift to each of us at the barbeque she had arranged for our A Level Literature class in her own garden. Personalised, genuine care.
Incredible subject knowledge
There was nothing Geraldine didn’t know about each text we studied. From Shakespeare to Dickens, Priestley to Austen, her knowledge of literature was encyclopaedic. This I found so inspiring. Geraldine was a diminutive figure: barely 5 feet tall, slight, and always dressed immaculately in chic linens and bold, chunky jewellery. The juxtaposition seemed apt; this tiny woman had a mighty mind that seemed matched only by the weight of her fab jewellery. Geraldine knew in depth not just the points of analysis within each book, poem or play we studied, but also their historical contexts and biographical detail about each writer and would regale us with stories of when she’d seen performances bring the words on the page to life.
My favourite ever text we studied was Ayckbourn’s ‘The Norman Conquests’. Our small A Level class loved reading it aloud, punctuated throughout with belly laughs. Geraldine’s enthusiasm for Ayckbourn’s clever interwoven narrative in three different settings was infectious. She was so disappointed that the play was not running anywhere whilst we were in the sixth form as she would have loved for us to go and watch it together. Years later I went to see another Ayckbourn play (‘How the Other Half Loves’) and wrote to Geraldine afterwards to share my rave review and reminisce about those fun-filled lessons. Lasting impact.
Keeping it real
One of the many reasons why students enjoyed Geraldine’s teaching style was due to her sincerity. Geraldine told it like it was, and this surety was welcomed by her students and colleagues alike. She had a knack of being able to relate situations, characters or themes to real life stories, often from her own life. She might draw on her knowledge of the legal system when analysing Mr Jaggers in ‘Great Expectations’ (she was also a qualified barrister, who had trained part time whilst teaching!) or reminisce about her university days and the intoxicating nature of young love to engage the class in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Geraldine also sought to find out what issues were important to students. She rarely missed an opportunity to link her teaching to topics relevant to the teenagers in front of her. This quality had the effect of drawing in her students; we hung on her every word.
Geraldine’s feedback also shared this honest approach. She praised generously but was also relentless in pointing out errors and ways our work might be developed or refined with real specificity. This was evident both verbally in class and in writing. The time Geraldine spent marking was clear; she saw the value in giving very detailed and personal feedback. Whilst teaching and assessment methods have changed hugely since 2001 when I left school, the attention to detail here is the clear take-away.
I could go on about the many other impressive characteristics evident in Geraldine’s teaching, but I think it is clear why I consider her to be my teacher role model. Her impact on me continues throughout my career and I’ll always be extremely grateful that I got to spend so much time sat in a classroom with her, being enriched by her wisdom.
If we want to be role models to our students and colleagues, we could all do with being a bit more Geraldine.