When I was a kid there was an ad on TV for an Australian tinned fruit company that showed a man in a big bush hat desperately squeezing more and more peaches or pears into the can. He was called I’ll Get More In If It Kills Me McKenzie. If we could bring him back from whatever purgatory is inhabited by forgotten characters from TV ads, we could make him the patron saint of Irish higher education. For most of the last decade our third level colleges have had to cope with the painful squeeze of rising student numbers and falling staff numbers. For both students and teachers there has been the danger of feeling like you’re being packed and processed through a frantic machine. We’re here this evening to celebrate the people who have stopped that happening, who have stood up day after day to say that education is not information squeezed into a can but a human relationship that can transform lives for the better.
In Bertolt Brecht’s great play The Life of Galileo, Galileo’s daughter Andrea says to him at one point “Unhappy is the land that has no heroes”. “No,” Galileo replies, “unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” In some respects, over the last decade, Ireland has been an unhappy land, enduring the effects of the great banking crash and the consequent squeeze on public resources, not least on education at all levels. Unhappy lands do need heroes and we honour some of them tonight. We honour their talent and their commitment, their care for their students, their dedication to sharing their enthusiasm for the subjects they love, their daily celebration of the power of real engagement and clear communication, their refusal to betray the true values of education – and, not incidentally, the values of public service.
They are educators who have refused to become mere processors. Ernest Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure”. Any of us can be graceful under ideal conditions, but it takes quiet courage to carry on with your integrity intact and your joy in what you do renewed when you’re under fire from both a lack of resources and a lack of recognition of the value of your work. These teachers have stood up to the pressures of recent years with a graceful dedication to the belief that students deserve to be challenged, stretched, inspired, filled with confidence in their own abilities and in the unstoppable energy of the questioning mind. That courage is a contagious virus of optimism – it passes from teacher to student. And I know it means the world to all the teachers recognised tonight that this recognition comes from those who matter most to them – their own students.
What a wonderful recognition that is. I’ve won a few awards for mysterious reasons over the years but I can say with complete honesty that I’d swap them all for a Teaching Hero award. It’s not just a professional clap on the back – it’s a very personal kind of validation and I envy those who have the knowledge that whatever else they’ve done or not done in their lives, their students, who see an awful lot of them, also think an awful lot of them.
The choices those students have made say a lot about their teachers but also a lot about themselves. There is a caricature of contemporary students that draws them as docile creatures who do not want to be made to think, who prefer to have things handed to them on a plate and to stay within their comfort zones. But these awards and the whole process behind them gives the lie to that caricature. They are a profound statement about what students really value in the educational process. And it’s not easy conformity or the passive reception of knowledge from on high. What students actually value is the teacher as pathfinder, cutting a path for them through the immense thickets of ignorance that surround us all but staying close enough to them to know when they’re stumbling or falling behind.
There is a real danger at the moment, when all the talk is of institutions and rankings and funding systems, that we lose sight of the fundamental truth that teaching and teachers are at the heart of education. Let’s indulge in a brief and rather grim thought experiment. Imagine that, in some apocalypse, we’re given a grim choice. We can keep all the facilities and buildings and labs and campuses and resources but all the teachers will disappear. Or we can lose all of those physical resources and be left with nothing but the teachers. Which would we prefer? Would any of us hesitate for a moment in saying that so long as we have the teachers, education will be alive – even if they had nothing left but the thoughts in their heads and the courage and confidence to keep connecting with students?
And actually this thought experiment isn’t really all that abstract. I remember a few years ago being in Bangladesh and visiting a dirt poor community of landless people who had to live on the shoreline. A typhoon had hit this extremely vulnerable village and destroyed most of the little they had. And I remember seeing the pathetic remains of what had been their little school house and meeting the teacher. He had literally nothing – no school, no books, no copies, no chalk or blackboard. And he still sat there amid the rubble with the kids around him – even with nothing he was still their teacher and they were still students. The process of teaching and learning – and all the hope that is wrapped up in it – could carry on so long as the teacher was alive.
Teaching is not a commodity or an input or a cost factor — it’s a human relationship. A great teacher gives students the confidence to go beyond what they thought were their limits, to unlock their own creativity, to develop their powers of critical thinking so that they remain open to the need to question and explore. And for many students that can be a transformative experience, one that shapes the rest of their lives for the better. A great teacher doesn’t just impart knowledge — he or she embodies for students an attitude to life that is positive and full of possibility and a way of treating other people that recognises their individual dignity and unique potential.
The teacher is a professional, and that matters. The essence of being a professional is that you are accountable for what you do. But even as we insist on accountability, it must never be at the cost of imaginative freedom. The great teachers never lose touch with the very primitive pleasure of teaching itself, the way, before it is a profession, it is just part of being human. We are social animals and one of the ways in which we are naturally social is that we teach each other things all the time. Put two kids in a playpen with some toys and the one who knows how to do something with a toy will start to show the other one. Being alive is a constant process of teaching and learning: we teach our children how to button up their coats and before we know it they’re teaching us how to use our mobile phones. When we fall in love with someone, we teach each other how we can be together. When we get into discussions with friends, we’re naturally engaging in ideas and arguments. The great teachers are the ones who, even while accepting professional accountability, retain this naïve enthusiasm and bring into the classroom and the lecture hall.
And this means that we have to trust teachers. The processes of accountability must never be allowed to become processes of invigilation in which the underlying attitude is one of suspicion. It is the teacher who is there in the moment, in that crucial human relationship with the students. If we don’t trust that moment, we don’t trust education itself. Let’s not over-manage our educational processes or turn them into bureaucratic games. Let’s trust our teachers to teach – which means trusting them to try things, to experiment, to invent, to explore, to sustain the two-way energy that is real communication.
The criteria for these awards hinge on a lot of great “c” words: courage, care, commitment, creativity, communication. But let me perhaps add three more: consumption, critical thinking and citizenship. The first two are at odds with each other. In a healthy democracy, we are more than consumers of products just as in a vibrant classroom students are more than consumers of an educational product. Our republic needs us to be critical thinkers, willing and able to take on the responsibility of questioning assumptions and engaging with the public realm. That is the call of citizenship – a republic depends on its citizens and those citizens in turn depend on an education system that has given them the confidence and the capacity to curious, compassionate and careful of the truth.
Our great teachers both exemplify and pass on those qualities. They are good citizens and builders of good citizenship. The hope this evening must be that the day is not too far off when Irish higher education does not need so many heroes because it is better resourced and more deeply embedded in a democracy that enables everyone to fulfil her or his desire to learn and keep learning. But the lovely thing about being here this evening and meeting so many great teachers is that we know they will all go on being heroes even when they don’t have to be.