When teachers can’t write

This smiling woman is evidently proud to call herself a teacher. But she cannot punctuate a sentence.

She wants this picture to be reproduced as as many times as possible in order to demonstrate the power of the Internet. Even though she is hoping that millions of people will read her message, she hasn’t bothered to write it properly. And she’s a teacher!

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This woman is responsible for the education of children in ‘Year 7’ which means 12-year olds or what we would call Lower 4ths. So it’s quite alarming that her English is this bad. One would hope that, by the age of 12, most children would have learned how to use punctuation and be able to correct the efforts of this teacher.

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I was by no means an exceptional scholar but I did go to a school where they took English seriously. By the age of nine, I could divide a sentence into subject and predicate and was familiar with nouns, verbs and adjectives. A year later, I could tell you about pronouns, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions. I could construct sentences using main and subordinate clauses and I knew where to put apostrophes and commas.

Once we knew how to construct proper sentences, we moved on to ‘composition’. We read extracts of work by a variety of writers and learned about style. All this was before we went to ‘big school’. Many years later, working as a journalist, I realised that Mrs Tattersall’s ‘Blackboard English’ in my old prep school was the most valuable part of my education.

In a typical afternoon on a daily paper, I would write about 130 sentences. I didn’t need to stop and think about tenses, verb agreements or apostrophes; I knew them all intimately. I knew what they did and how they worked. If you watch a bricklayer building a wall, or an Italian baker making pizza dough, you see speed, fluidity and grace. You don’t notice the precision. But it’s there. If it wasn’t, the wall would collapse and so would the pizza. My sentences did not collapse. No-one had to correct the punctuation. My sentences didn’t flop, break or backfire.They were good and strong. Their meanings were clear. Thankyou Mrs Tattersall.

Now, why isn’t the teacher in the photograph like Mrs Tattersall? It may be that this modern-day teacher was taught to write but didn’t care. More likely, though, is that she had a poor education when it came to English. The rot began back in the Sixties when some teachers, who were well versed in grammar, decided not to teach it. They were idealists who believed that allowing children to express themselves was more important than teaching rules. This selfish decision was such a dereliction of responsibility that any surviving perpetrators should be tracked down and prosecuted for child abuse.

In any other field, such an irresponsible attitude by teachers would not be tolerated. Imagine if driving instructors adopted the same approach.
“Don’t worry about the rules. Push any buttons and pedals you like. Drive on the left or the right. Traffic lights are just decoration nowadays. Please yourself. Be free!”

For those of us who learned to drive properly, the rules are our friends. It’s by learning the rules and mastering the machine that one gains true motoring freedom. If I want to drive to Scotland, right now, I can do it. By learning the rules and acquiring the knowledge, I have gained the freedom to travel anywhere I please with speed, comfort and safety. Similarly, if I want to write a newspaper story, a magazine article, a sonnet, a limerick or this blog, I can do it.

Learning to write is great. It gives you the power and freedom you need to change your world. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword. But not by itself. A sword has no might until it is held by someone skilled in swordsmanship. The same principle applies to the pen. In the hand of an idiot, a writing tool won’t do anything more than update a Facebook status with some petty fact or observation such as ‘Them kitte’ns cute!’ or ‘All tory’s are b*st*rds’. But in the hand of a master, a pen can change the world.

Fascist-killing pencil

But only if you learn to write.

The world we live in today was determined by both the pen and the sword. It was military might that crushed the Nazis and repelled fascism but our post-war civilisation is protected  by the European Convention on Human Rights – a work of the pen. A greater work, in literary and political terms, is the Constitution of the United States. This splendid document, including the first ten amendments and the Bill of Rights, amounts to just 4,440 words. The fact that it is written in good, pithy English may have something to do with the fact that it’s still going strong – the oldest, working written constitution in the world.

So, in an attempt at pithiness and clarity, here is a modest proposal:

Anyone who wants to be a teacher should be required to learn to read and write. If they fail a literacy test (as our woman with the sign would), they should not be paid out of taxpayers’ money to educate our children.

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