14 February 2011
“If you can read, thank a teacher” the bumper sticker says.
I have just got through all the magazine reading that accumulated during the summer including an excellent article in the New Zealand Listener (20 January 2011, pp12-16). It was a compilation of contributions from famous New Zealanders about the “best advice I ever got.” On the face of it one might expect a success of clichés and sentimental homilies. But in fact there was one major surprise – many of the contributors credited a teacher with having given them their best advice or perhaps or advice about education from someone else.
Roger Hall, the playwright, was urged by a girlfriend’s mother who, in his words, “sensed that I lack a direction. “’Why don’t you go to teachers college?” she said. I knew instantly that was what I would do, and it was the making of me.” A considerable number of our artists and writers got their start in a teachers college. Where else in tertiary education was there such a concerted emphasis on the development of the individual?
But schools had also been influential to writers. Margaret Mahy goes right to a single teacher. “The best personal advice I remember came from my high school English teacher Ian McLean. He used to gallantly read the many stories I wrote and poems I wrote outside the constrictions of the school programme.
‘Keep on writing,’ he told me rather sternly when I expressed doubt and disappointment regarding my writing ability. “Keep on writing and reading.”
Not all advice was heeded but some advice given while on the surface well-meaning might not always hit the mark. “David Mayhew once told me at Otago Boys’ High School that I shouldn’t slouch so much. He is now the Commissioner for Financial Advisers and I’m still slumped over a microphone, I fear I should have listened to him.”
Prime Minister John Key, speaking about his Mum and the resourcefulness with which she coped with the impact of events around the time of the Second World War, notes that “she started a new life, relying on her education, her determination and hope.” A good education might well be the best thing you can bank for tough times.
The fact that few stayed in secondary school for five years is noted by Bob Jones. “Nearly 60 years ago I was a foundation pupil at Naenae College. It was pretty rough and ready, and by the time we got to the sixth form, only 10 of the original 200-styrong year group remained, everyone else having shot off to work in factories as soon as they turned 15.” Thois was very typical of secondary education back then with about 5% lasting the distance in typical suburban multicourse secondary schools. Jones then goes on to give a beautiful picture of and tribute to his history teacher, Guy Bliss.
“Our first lesson was devoted to a single message – namely, never be afraid to pipe up and ask if you don’t know or understand. He went on about it being a behavioural rarity and the hallmark of all successful people. The subsequent half-century has repeatedly taught me the truth and importance of that message.” A further piece of advice was apparently “flogged” to the class. That message was “that absolutely everything is interesting. He was a fabulous teacher and ripped through the syllabus in one term proving his everything-is-interesting theme by devoting the second term to medieval church architecture, a somewhat alien theme for us state-house lot.”
This is packed with points that teachers should note. Ordinary commonsense advice about asking questions still remembered after 60 years and the refusal to allow “relevance” to restrict the history class to a diet of simply what the syllabus dictated stand out.
Sometimes it is an incident and the impact of advice that makes a lasting impression on young minds. Chef Annabel White retells a yarn: “Many years ago at Hamilton Girls’ High School there was a streaker (it was quite fashionable at that time). Ms Knaggs, the deputy principal, saw the young man running through the school. Instead of screaming shock horror she yelled ‘Go get him, girls!’ and the poor bloke, in panic, ended up caught up in the fence.” Turning a negative situation into a positive and empowering one was a key lesson for White on that day.
Finally Phil Goff remembers his Form 5 history teacher who suggested that he should take his education further. Goff’s father was at that time urging the young Phil to do an apprenticeship in carpentry. “I took that advice and became the first member of my family to go to university.”
There were a couple of others as well. But the influence of teachers and education in the lives of prominent New Zealanders is the tip of a huge iceberg of impact on all New Zealanders. Teachers and school are an important influence on people and the nation in which they live.