As you’ll know if you’ve been kind enough to read my blog, I’m an academic in my ‘day job.’ In that capacity, I’ve worked for a long time with in-service and pre-service teachers. So, I found this post by Lesley Fletcher at Inspiration Import to be especially powerful and resonant. You’ll want to read the post; and, as you’ll be there, anyway, you’ll want to have a look at the rest of Lesley’s excellent site. Thoughtful posts and fine artwork await you there! In fact, Lesley is responsible for the covers of two of my Joel Williams novels (B-Very Flat and Past Tense), and In a Word: Murder. See? Isn’t she talented?
And that’s just the thing. Lesley’s post speaks of a terrible experience she had with a teacher who, instead of helping her develop her skills, did exactly the opposite. It got me to thinking about crime-fictional teachers. There are plenty of examples of cruel, rude teachers in the genre (I know you could think of plenty). But they aren’t all that way. There are plenty of teachers out there, both fictional and real, who are caring, and who exhibit the sort of dedication that I wish Lesley’s teacher had.
For example, Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons introduces us to several caring teachers who are passionate about what they do. They work at Meadowbank, an exclusive school for girls. When games mistress Grace Springer is killed one night, the police are called in and begin to investigate. But that murder is only one part of a web of international intrigue, jewel theft, and kidnapping. One of the pupils, Julia Upjohn, visits Hercule Poirot, whom she’s heard of through a friend of her mother’s. She asks him to investigate, and he agrees. As Poirot and the police work through the case, we see how dedicated Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode is. We also see how much a few other teachers, such as Eileen Rich, also love teaching.
In Val McDermid’s The Grave Tatttoo, we meet Matthew Gresham, head teacher at a school in Fellhead, in the Lake District. He’s preparing to present a unit on family trees, and he wants to get the students engaged in their learning, rather than just having them sit and take notes. So, he has each student create a personal family history that will be shared with the class, and, later, with the town. His students by and large like and respect him, and they get started with the assignment. Little does anyone know that this project will be connected with a mystery that Matthew’s sister, Jane, has discovered. She’s a fledgling academic and Wordsworth scholar who has found evidence that there might be an unpublished manuscript somewhere in the Lake District. If there is, it would be the making of her career. So, she travels from London, where she’s been living, back to Fellhead, to start her search. The trail leads to several murders, and, interestingly, to the project her brother has assigned his students.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a (now retired) academician and political scientist. In the earlier novels, in which she’s still active on campus, we see several interactions between her and her students. In A Killing Spring, for instance, she gets concerned when one of her students, Kellee Savage, goes missing. Kellee is already mentally and emotionally fragile, and Joanne is concerned about her well-being. It turns out that Kellee’s disappearance is related to the murder of one of Joanne’s colleagues, Reed Ghallager. There are a few scenes in this novel in which Joanne interacts with students. In them, we see that she cares about them, and knows them as more than just faces and names on her enrollment records. She’s not perfect, even with her students, but it’s obvious that they matter to her, and that she is committed to their success.
In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to Ilse Klein. She and her family emigrated in the 1980s from what was then East Germany. They ended up on New Zealand’s South Island, in the small town of Alexandria, where Ilse has grown up and become a secondary school teacher. She works hard and has earned the respect of her students. And she does care about them. So, when one of her most promising pupils, Serena Freeman, loses interest in school, Ilse gets concerned. Matters get to the point where Serena misses school much of the time, and when she is there, shows no interest in participating or learning. Now, Ilse’s worried enough to alert the school’s counseling staff. That choice touches off a whole series of incidents; and Ilse finds herself getting drawn into much more than she bargained for when Serena goes missing.
There’s also K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells. She’s a teacher at Hartford Women’s College at the very end of the 19th Century. She’s also an amateur sleuth, who gets drawn into investigations that are considered ‘unseemly’ for a woman. At that time, at that school, many of the faculty members live on campus. So, they do get to know the students, and that’s just as true of Concordia as it is of any other faculty member. She’s devoted to her students, concerned for their well-being, and interested in their development. Yes, they exasperate her at times. But they matter to her very much. In fact, that becomes a challenge for her as her personal life goes on. The school’s policy is that married people cannot teach at the school. So, if Concordia falls in love and decides to marry, she’ll have to give up work she enjoys, and students whose welfare is very important to her.
The fact is, teaching is not an easy job, no matter which educational level. While there are, unfortunately, teachers out there like the one in Lesley’s post, there are also some fine teachers, too. And, in part, my ‘day job’ is to do my small bit to make sure there are more of the latter than of the former…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Black and Mark London’s To Sir With Love.