By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Teaching poetry can be a hugely rewarding experience, and it’s heartening to find that some of the biggest names in poetry have paid tribute to teachers, whether in heartfelt eulogies to the impact those teachers had on their students’ lives, or in comic tours de force that bring the memories of our schooldays come flooding back to us.
Below, we select and introduce ten of the greatest poems about teaching and teachers.
1. Oliver Goldsmith, ‘The Village Schoolmaster’.
The village all declar’d how much he knew;
’Twas certain he could write, and cipher too:
Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage,
And e’en the story ran that he could gauge.
In arguing too, the parson own’d his skill,
For e’en though vanquish’d he could argue still;
While words of learned length and thund’ring sound
Amazed the gazing rustics rang’d around;
And still they gaz’d and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew …
Goldsmith’s depiction of a genial village schoolteacher, who is viewed by the locals as a kind of demigod, is not one that has lasted, alas, into the modern age. But when Goldsmith was writing, learning and literacy were looked up to, and the man who possessed their gifts was revered.
2. William Wordsworth, ‘Expostulation and Reply’.
‘Why, William, on that old gray stone,
‘Thus for the length of half a day,
‘Why, William, sit you thus alone,
‘And dream your time away?
‘Where are your books?—that light bequeathed
‘To beings else forlorn and blind!
‘Up! up! and drink the spirit breathed
‘From dead men to their kind …’
This is the ideal poem for a schoolchild to throw back at their teacher, when that teacher accuses them of being idle or not ‘doing anything’ simply because they’re not reading books at that moment.
Wordsworth stages a conversation between his boyhood self and his schoolmaster, who believes that books provide the only means of gaining philosophical wisdom. The young Wordsworth, by contrast, believes that we can learn about the world simply by sitting and allowing ourselves to be passive receivers of the many phenomenon found in the natural world.
3. Vernon Scannell, ‘Ageing Schoolmaster’.
This views the start of another school year in September from the schoolmaster’s perspective, rather than his pupils’. He associates the chalk and the board and the classroom with his own mortality, with each September bringing him closer to the grave – and this feeling is only made more piquant by gazing out upon all the ‘April faces’ of the young schoolchildren, who have their whole lives ahead of them.
4. Roald Dahl, ‘My Teacher Wasn’t Half As Nice As Yours Seems to Be’.
This light rhyme from a children’s writer whose work taps into some very dark ideas sees Dahl’s speaker recalling his history teacher, Mr Unsworth. With his trademark gift for exaggeration and horror, Dahl’s speaker talks of how Mr Unsworth would twist his pupils’ ears until the ear came right off! The class was, as a result, ‘full of one-eared boys’.
A comic poem, but with a grim message that recalls the way children would once be severely punished for not knowing their lessons.
5. Miroslav Holub, ‘Napoleon’.
There aren’t many famous poets who are also immunologists, but the Czech poet Miroslav Holub (1923-98) combined these two vocations: his 1990 collection Vanishing Lung Syndrome, published by Faber, is well worth seeking out.
This poem is witty and striking in the way it seizes upon a history lesson in which the teacher tries to gauge what the class knows about Napoleon – as in Bonaparte. But instead, one of the pupils, who might be thought of as a kind of Czech version of Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons, derails the lesson by talking about a dog named Napoleon …
6. Roger McGough, ‘The Lesson’.
This is another poem from a great comic poet well-known for his performances of his poems (and for singing as part of a skiffle band, The Scaffold, in the 1960s). This is not a poem for very young children perhaps, given the violent imagery (even more so than in Dahl’s!), but as with Dahl’s it is comically overdone. We love the play on words in the final line that delivers the coup de grace.
7. Allan Ahlberg, ‘The Supply Teacher’.
This poem appeals to both children and teachers alike, and much like his more famous poem ‘Please Mrs Butler’, Ahlberg uses traditional rhyme and a memorable refrain to create the ideal poem for recital at school.
The poem mischievously tells pupils how they can create havoc for a supply teacher who turns up to cover for their usual teacher, by responding to everything the supply teacher does by saying that their regular teacher does the opposite.
8. Sandra McPherson, ‘For Elizabeth Bishop’.
This poem is not just a beautiful poem about teachers and the inspiration they can be to us: it’s also a wonderful tribute from one poet, Sandra McPherson, to another, Elizabeth Bishop, who taught McPherson at university.
McPherson weaves in her daughter’s own birth (while she was enrolled on one of Bishop’s college classes) and the powerful influence Bishop had had on her life, using the clever image of the globe throughout.
9. Bill Dodds, ‘Mrs Stein’.
Dodds is a children’s poet and novelist, who in this poem gives us a very different take on the ‘substitute’ or supply teacher who fills in for the regular teacher while she is off sick. This supply teacher is so fearsome (Mrs Stein summons ‘Frankenstein’, as in ‘Frankenstein’s monster’) that she makes Dodds’ speaker long for the return of his usual teacher …
10. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’.
There aren’t many modern or contemporary poems which recall schooldays with affection, but ‘In Mrs Tilscher’s Class’ does just that. Duffy paints a fond picture of her time at primary school and on the brink of adolescence, powerfully suggested by the poem’s final image of the sky breaking into a thunderstorm.