Those who can, must

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair is one of a group of famous people appearing in cinema adverts to talk about his favourite teacher. Jack O'Sullivan tracks down the well-loved mentors. Here they remember the pupils who became celebrities, and suggest how recruitment to teaching can be given a boost.

George Sayer, 83, retired in 1979 as head of English at Malvern College, Worcestershire, where he taught Jeremy Paxman.

Jeremy was capable of feeling great love for what he was studying. It meant a lot to him. I hope that I taught him to love literature, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth. I certainly think that he writes terrifically clear English in a good style. I've read two or three of his books.

The first thing I would say to people to attract them into teaching is that you can gain a wonderful pleasure in communicating a love of literature and helping young people to read for themselves. You sometimes feel you are fighting a crusade against cliches and bad writing. That is invigorating.

To do the job, you must be enthusiastic about it. The young respond to enthusiasm and it is an exhilarating experience passing on that enthusiasm. You are in no doubt about the importance of what you do. In particular, there is something special about being an English teacher. I never attempted to be a counsellor and I avoided Freudian psychology like the plague. But you get close to pupils through the work you are doing. You are touching primitive feelings in the poems you are reading and explaining them to young people who are struggling to understand themselves.

I remember Jeremy very well. He has kept in touch and has been very generous to his old schoolmasters in talking about what he owes to them.

He had a strong dislike of injustice wherever it appeared. He was very much on the side of any underclass. He was rather tender-hearted and gentle. Though it might surprise you - because he has a reputation for being tough - I still don't think that he is tough inside. He was always outspoken. He said what he felt and thought, thank God. He had honesty and that is what the English teacher can help to bring out.

I would want to tell people how much enjoyment teaching can bring them. I loved doing my job. Indeed, I enjoyed myself so much, it sometimes felt ridiculous that someone paid me to do it.

Ruth Webb, 46, taught English to Skin, singer with Skunk Anansie, the rock group, when she was a pupil at St Martin-in-the-Fields High School, Tulse Hill, Lambeth, south London. Today, Ms Webb is an Ofsted inspector and also teaches evening classes.

I remember Skin as a smiling, lively, fun-loving child, during my first year as a qualified teacher at the end of the Seventies. I was her English teacher for five years and form tutor when she was in the fourth and fifth form. I remember Macbeth was the O-level text and her class saw five productions, including the Polanski film and a video of Judi Dench and Ian McKellen's RSC production. In those days the National Theatre actually sent their actors to the school to perform the play. I remember Skin's real love for Macbeth and saying there was nothing arcane about the language. Like many teenagers, she was interested in music. I remember her being excused English classes because she had to go for a violin lesson.

It was wonderful to be named by her. I hadn't spoken to Skin since she left until last Sunday when she rang me from South Africa. In every teacher's heart we hope someone will say publicly `she was a wonderful teacher'. I am terrifically fortunate in that happening to me.

If we are to attract good teachers, we will have to pay them properly. A positive media image is important, but these days new teachers find they earn less at the outset than their peers in similar professions and the prospects for improvement are not nearly as good.

The current campaign focuses on recruiting more highly qualified people. I'm off message because I don't believe we necessarily want to attract those with the best intellect, but rather those with the most enthusiasm, whom we can then ensure receive plenty of in-service training.

I would say to people thinking of becoming teachers that it is enormously rewarding. It is about loving and being loved. Everyone likes relationships and teaching is about really worthwhile connections with other human beings. One of the most important things you can do is teach people to read and write and count. Sometimes you don't appreciate what you have done. Skin is one of many children I have taught. But there are lots of Skins out there who feel good about their teachers and are not in touch. George Eliot says, at one point in Middlemarch, that the influence of Dorothea on those with whom she came in contact, was incalculable. The same is true for a teacher. If you want to feel that you have left your mark on the world, then this is the job for you.

Dr Eric Anderson, 61, rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, taught English to Tony Blair at Fettes College in Scotland. He went on to become head teacher at Eton.

I taught Tony Blair when he was 13 or 14. He was a lively, intelligent pupil, eager to answer questions. He had a scholarship to the school. He showed every sign of loving literature from an early age. We read Shakespeare together, Scott, some Jane Austen and maybe Churchill's My Early Life. He wrote very fluently and was good in debate. I remember when he was 15 or 16 casting him as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. He was too young for the part, but he was obviously the best and I didn't regret the decision. We have been occasionally in touch since he left. One of the exciting things for a teacher is seeing the pupils making successes of their lives.

Another great feature of being a teacher is that it is one of the few jobs where you can play so many roles. You can do Glenn Hoddle's job coaching football in the afternoon and do Adrian Noble's, taking drama, in the evening.

The long-term task to improve recruitment must be to raise the status of the profession, so that it is valued in the same way as in Switzerland, Germany and Japan. One way is to provide opportunities for people who may have had other careers to go into teaching. A lot of people who have worked in the City or industry feel in their mid 30s and 40s that they would like a different sort of job. Bringing that experience of the world would be a great boost to the profession. It would help change perception of the profession and finally banish Shaw's notion that those who can, do and those who can't, teach. In my time, I have appointed a dozen teachers who have come from other careers and they have been outstanding without exception.

You have to pay teachers a bit better. The experience of nations like Germany and Japan is that you don't have to pay them like merchant bankers, but enough to feel that the balance is right given the compensations of working with agreeable, clever colleagues and having longer holidays and a better quality of life than you would get in the City. And teachers should be allowed to get on with teaching and not be so burdened with bureaucracy. This Government is on the right lines in saying that good teachers should be able to increase their financial rewards while staying in the classroom.

Don Potter, 95, retired at 80 from Bryanstone School, Dorset, where he taught sculpture and pottery to Sir Terence Conran.

Terence was a normal sort of boy, very nice lad, a good, hard worker. He showed a certain talent for pottery and metalwork. I remember him as rather versatile. We have always been good friends and I see him occasionally. I like to keep up with the old boys.

I taught for 60 years and I always enjoyed it. To anyone thinking of taking up the job, I'd say it is a wonderful way to build up the character of young people. It was jolly hard work and I don't think it has changed much. It is also a very skilful job and children can be very naughty. You have to be prepared to instil discipline. But you will enjoy the friendships you make and the work is very interesting. Teaching is still an important and necessary job and that is what the Government has to remember and make clear if more people are to join the profession.