I still have the photograph tucked away in a drawer – occasionally I come across it when looking for something else – and it always makes me smile. It’s a picture of me in the early seventies, gap toothed, grinning like the cat who got the cream in my first communion confection of a dress. I’m only partly smiling because of the dress – oh that dress! – but rather because standing beside me, hand on my shoulder, is a young woman looking like a groovy chick version of Mary Poppins in her lilac and cream safari suit with shiny gold buttons. We are a pair looking out of the past and into our respective futures basking in the amber light of a Kodak instamatic camera. I look at my face in that photo and I immediately know what I’m thinking. This woman next to me is my inspiration and I will never ever forget her – not ever! – her intelligence, her innate kindness, her sense of fun, her sense of fairness, her boundless energy, her huge imagination and her endless patience. And I am hugely proud that she is here with me to share this big moment. This is my teacher, one of the most important and influential people in my young life. During the week I spend more time with her than I do with my family. She knows me in a way that they perhaps do not. What and how she’s taught me will guide the person I become and the life chances I aspire to and hopefully attain. I keep that photo to remind me to be better, do better, to never let adversity get in the way, to always be a lifelong learner and remember that there’s always something new to learn and if you’re lucky a fun new way to learn it. These were her life lessons beyond the 3 Rs.
Most of us have had teachers who we remember with fondness; those who stood out, who inspired, encouraged, engaged, cajoled and mentored us as we navigated our way through the education system. I was lucky enough to have had a number of great teachers, from the English teacher who saw some potential to the Leaving Cert Maths Teacher who unlocked the subject for me. Before he came along I just didn’t get it, but this man managed to take a class of students with fairly average Maths ability and impart a real love of the subject. Quite simply he made Maths beautiful in a way I couldn’t have imagined before. For him it wasn’t just about his students passing an Honours Maths exam (which we all did) but something much more important, understanding that Maths matters. And I’m glad to say that my own children have had some brilliant teachers, amazing human beings who have supported them and encouraged them to be the best that they could be. Equally in my professional life I have had the pleasure to meet and work with some passionate teachers who go far beyond the expected to engage their students, making learning fun and relevant to a changing world using technology to ignite interest and spark learning.
For me these great teachers have some things in common – they know and love their subjects, respect their students, are always open to new ideas, whether it’s new ways of seeing or ways of doing, take every opportunity to get creative, teach beyond the curriculum and view test scores as only one measure of success.
Teachers matter. Not just what they teach or how they teach but how they relate to students, how they support students, how they upskill and keep abreast of new methodologies and technologies, how they communicate with parents – all of it matters. We need to foster an education system that allows teachers to be great teachers; to value them, their knowledge and their skills and acknowledge the hugely important job they do in helping to shape and develop young minds. So to all teachers the best thing you can do is to remember that what you do matters. It has value way beyond the classroom. Keep this in mind as you teach, make every day count and be remembered as one of the greats. You can make a big difference to a child’s life.