Teachers should be top of the list whean compiling a list of people for a dinner party. Not because of their sparkling wit or even, sadly, for their general knowledge of politics, history or even fashion.
Certainly not fashion. Male teachers tend to fall into two sartorial categories. Those who have kept manufacturers of walkshorts and sandals in business long beyond their commercial lifespan, and those who had hair in the 1960s and now look like roadies for the Doobie Brothers. The most desperate try to dress like their pupils, with predictably tragic results.
Most of the teachers I know are secondary teachers who daily face classrooms of bored, blank and sloppily dressed teens, crackling with acne and twitching with hormonal overload. It’s hard enough for anyone in the workforce to put together a combination of clothes each day that makes them feel they look a bit different from yesterday. But knowing that the only thing that will momentarily get the sneering attention of pupils is your clothing must be soul-destroying.
Of course that’s not an issue for the walkshorts and sandals brigade, who have stood astride the peaks and troughs of fashion for a number of decades … although trying to decide between the fawn and slightly tan walkshorts must make many of them late for school.
The reason teachers are vital for any dinner party is that when you’ve run out of topics of conversation, you can drop in the observation that NCEA is a total waste of time outside the classroom walls or suggest teachers get more than their fair share of holidays. Put away any sharp cutlery and just sit back and let them hold forth for the next hour or two.
Once they’ve reached the stage of angrily pointing out that teachers are expected to do the job of parents, you can extend the entertainment but noting kids spend more time in classrooms with teachers than at home – so it’s still the teachers’ fault.
Because teachers tend to huddle together for mutual support, their dinner guests are invariably other teachers. So at least you know you won’t be invited back.
It has always struck me that teachers and librarians are very similar. In fact, a librarian is just a teacher who can’t be bothered with kids, but likes the books and trying to make people keep quiet. Both have a curious form of agoraphobia, which literally means “fear of the marketplace.” Wikipedia says many people with agoraphobia prefer seeing visitors in a defined space that they feel they can control – a fairly good definition of a classroom, except for the “being in control” bit. It also says that such people may live for years without leaving their homes, which, considering the numbers of weeks leave teachers get each year, must be rather stultifying.
When they’re not standing on roundabouts holding ungrammatical signs about wanting equal pay with some other branch of the teaching profession, they can be found in their favourite watering hole, the staffroom. Few outsiders get to see the school staffroom which, for all I know, contains punching bags shaped like pupils, a soundproof screaming cupboard, and sauvignon blanc on tap.
When I tell teachers that I would not want to join their profession unless capital punishment is re-introduced, they assume I mean corporal punishment. No, I don’t.
Having been corporally educated at Catholic primary and secondary schools, my academic career was a triumph of faith, hope and lots of caning by priests. [I now realise that smacking my firm young buttocks was for their benefit, not mine, and recent revelations involving the priesthood suggest I got off lightly.]
Admittedly the people who brought us the Inquisition had modified their corporal punishment techniques considerably when I first entered the world of the convent primer pupil. But when it came to the nuns who taught us, old habits died hard, as it were. Dressed in black robes, pale faces framed in white cardboard, a thick leather belt around their waist and a crucifix jammed into it like a Roman broadsword, the good sisters wouldn’t hesitate to rap five-year-old knuckles with a sturdy pencil.
The last time I got caned, it was for rolling an empty .303 brass shell up and down my tilted desktop as the whole class sat in bored and unproductive silence for some earlier misdemeanour by persons unknown. These days, pupils in the United States carry live .308 rounds to school in semi-automatic rifles.
Those teachers who overcame their agoraphobia and escaped to another job with more pay and even better holidays include Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Phil Goff, Jim Anderton, Chris Carter, Trevor Mallard and Maryan Street. There seems to be a link between more teachers in politics and a decrease in educational standards and public behaviour.
The new Speaker of the House, Dr Lockwood Smith, who moonlights as a farmer, was famous in an earlier life as the schoolmaster-like host of a children’s education quiz on television. I suspect his decision to switch to politics came in a memorable moment in front of the cameras when a little girl was asked to define a group of molecules that support some form of life.
“Orgasm,” she responded brightly.