Lesson 8 The importance of Respect
Another thing Mrs Star, my first Head of Department, taught me was that how you looked mattered to the Opportunity Class. This was an era when teachers tended to look scruffy. Most smelt of tobacco and a few, after lunchtime, of beer. Don’t be taken in by the nostalgic stories of a past Golden Age of suits and gowns. Believe me, there were suits and suits. Some were crumpled and in sore need of dry cleaning. And as for gowns – few of them had seen a dry cleaner since they were flung into a suitcase after the boozy celebrations at the end of college days.
By the time I started teaching gowns had begun to disappear in the classroom. They perished with the birth of the comprehensive. It was in the grammar school that gowns were worn, because teachers there were mostly graduates (except for those in woodwork and metalwork who had brown overalls to mark their status). Teachers who worked in Sec Mods were predominantly holders of a lowly Teachers’ Certificate, only qualified in General Subjects.
Mrs Star was very firm about appearance. She transcended the educational cesspit of style horrors, being always clean and smart.
“When I worked in a bank,” she said, “it was the rule, that when dealing with the public, we must dress to show respect. Aren’t our pupils the public too?”
During my first term, the Headteacher had a bright wheeze to demonstrate the excellence of his new comprehensive . At a morning staff briefing he voiced his intention to revive the practice that teachers should wear their gowns. He must have checked that a good number of his staff were entitled to wear one.
Mrs Star pursed her lips when she heard of this plan to neatly demarcate teachers and pupils into academic sheep and goats. She narrowed her eyes and plotted. By lunchtime she came up with a plan.
“You’ve got a degree, haven’t you?” I nodded. “Have you still got your gown?”
“Only an undergraduate gown,” I replied. “It’s in the dressing up box at home”
“Never mind, they’ll never know the difference. I want you to nip back home and fetch it, then you are to teach in it all the rest of the day.”
The Opportunity Class was most impressed. They basked in its reflected glory. It looked especially dramatic on break duty in full view of the whole school when the wind blowing off the North Sea made it billow behind me.
At the end of the day Mrs Star told me it would be sufficient for me to hang up my gown in the classroom, where it was visible from the door.
We never heard of the bright wheeze again.
It had withered on the vine.