In the latest Spectator I describe one of the most enjoyable weeks I’ve ever spent – four days as a guest teacher (“writer-in-residence”) at my old school Malvern College. There’s a convention one is supposed to observe when writing about such things: you have to make out that teaching, a bit like nursing, is the noblest professional calling there is and that really teachers ought to be paid at least as much as hedge fund managers for the shockingly demanding and matchlessly important work they do.
Actually, I part-agree with this. Teaching well is extremely demanding and quite fantastically exhausting. At the end of every class, you feel totally satisfied and exhilarated – but also so drained it’s as if you’ve just had a whole month lopped off your life. It seems to me entirely proper that the most dedicated and inspirational teachers (and I met many at Malvern, particularly the young men and women who run the various boarding houses) should be incentivised and rewarded with higher salaries or bonuses.
At the same time, though, teaching is a vocation. If you’re in it for the money, you’ve made a bad call. When you’re standing up there, engaging with a bright, enthusiastic or just amusing class you think to yourself – at least I certainly did – “This is the best job in the world.” And the reason it’s so good is not because of the long holidays or the use of the school gym or the pension rights but because teaching, when it goes well, is pure joy.
Most teachers, I think, even the many whose politics are diametrically opposed to mine, would secretly agree with me. The most important thing of all for a teacher is – or should be – to be placed in circumstances where you are properly able to teach. That means, at minimum: a strong academic ethos; a firm disciplinary structure; commitment from the pupils and parents. Without all these, what you’re doing is not teaching – it’s riot control or social work.
Now the first two of these necessary conditions are up to the school itself – as you see demonstrated in most private schools, grammar schools and our better comprehensives. But the third condition is largely beyond a school’s control.