“He Who Can, Does; He Who Cannot, Teaches.”

janeyereI don’t care if George Bernard Shaw gave us the greatest modern incarnation of the makeover myth – when it comes to teaching, he’s a pompous twat.  On behalf of teachers around the world, I thumb my nose at you.

Today is National Teacher Day, and in honour of it I decided to blog about educators in romance.  As I was thinking about books with teachers, I realized that compared to other professions, teachers actually get pretty good press.  They know how to relate to children, are held to be intelligent and are usually hardworking; half the time they solve a mystery or two, and nine teachers out of ten figure out what’s wrong with the kid (absentee parent, lack of love, wanting to paint instead of do math, etc.) and use it to unite child with parent.  Sure, there are the occasional boring tutors or cruel headmistresses, but they’re rarely bad enough to qualify as villains or evil.

Is that good or bad?  Well, far be it from me to complain about giving teachers respect where it’s due (notwithstanding the anachronistic psychobabble spouted by Regency governesses).  I mean, I’m a teacher, and I know how difficult it is.  I’ve spent hours preparing a lesson, then have it explode in my face.  I’ve wanted to tear my hair out because 30 kids are doing 30 different things and thinking 30 different things.

But I’ve also had days when the most impossible situations arise, and I handle them without a flicker of an eyelash because I know exactly what to do in that situation.  I’ve had lessons that didn’t go according to plan, but magically worked even better.  And I’ve had moments that remind me why I’m teacher, and why I’m in the best profession in the world.  So yeah, I’m all for a positive image of teachers, because it’s damn hard what we do.  Those three months of vacation?  We’ve earned it.

However, fairness prompts me to criticize the overly miraculous depictions.  Yes, we love it and it’s rewarding – but it’s not as easy as romance novels sometimes make it look.  Where’s the staying late at all hours, the taking marking home?  Where are the hours of preparation and behavioural misunderstandings, and small steps and tiny triumphs?  And that’s just on the vocational side; I’m not even talking about the people who should never, ever have been allowed in a classroom, let alone near a child.

I wonder if the positive image is symptomatic of a larger assumption about teaching, that it is both highly respected and highly misunderstood.  We occupy an extremely important part of a child’s development – I’m not downplaying our responsibilities.  But we’re also not all like Julie Matheson in Judith McNaught’s Perfect, with her super volunteering and organizing and sweetness and goodness and understanding students 150% of the time.

As for stories with a balanced view of teachers and teaching, the two that immediately come to mind are Anne of Avonlea and These Happy Golden Years, the penultimate book in the Little House series.  L. M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder were both teachers, so they knew exactly what they were talking about.  That moment when Anne feels horrible for punishing a student, then discovering that their relationship changed for the better?  Yeah, I’ve had that.  Or the moment as Laura’s trying to teach ten different children at vastly different levels, and screams in frustrations, then finally figures it out?  Yup, I know what that’s like.

In contemporary romances, Janice Kay Johnson’s books (like Snowbound) come to mind as someone who understands teaching.  Also worth noting (especially in today’s legal climate) is Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Ain’t She Sweet?, because a) it’s the hero who’s the teacher, and b) his reputation was ruined by the heroine, a former student.

As for historical romances, the governesses abound, and nothing really sticks out except a general impression of women who subscribe to 21st-century ideas of pedagogy.  But honestly, I gravitate towards them nonetheless, and it comes down to Jane Eyre.  I never loved the book, but the premise behind it hits a bulls-eye.  No, not the bigamy and child abuse.  But the idea that a woman can make a living from her wits, be it Victorian England or 2012 Toronto; that she can be loved not for her fine eyes and dancing grace, but for her intelligence and kindness to children and adults alike.  And that a man can recognize her and value her (even if he pursues her in slightly unethical ways).

Yeah, that appeals to me.  And despite my questions and small concerns, it draws me to teacher romances every single time.

So what’s your take on teachers, schoolmarms, and governesses?  Do you find the theme too clichéd, or do you love teacher romances?

- Jean AAR

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23 Responses to “He Who Can, Does; He Who Cannot, Teaches.”

  1. farmwifetwo says:

    Having slammed my head with great regularity against the education system and it’s Teacher’s – even less fun when you’re in special ed and you local school currently ranks 2455/2695 out of the entire province – I have to side a lot of the time with Shaw. The good teachers are few and far between. Luckily this year I have good teachers.

    As for the romances…. I truly don’t care about the professional status of the heroines except that I’d like them strong, independant, and not desperate.

  2. Jane O says:

    I’ve been a teacher, and have known a number of excellent ones. (I have also known some horrors, but haven’t we all.)

    My problem with teacher heroines in romance is that they tend to be treacly sweet, and I have never known a good teacher who was. Where are the tough-minded realists who demand excellence from their students and won’t accept whines and excuses?

    • Jean Wan says:

      Jane O: I’ve been a teacher, and have known a number of excellent ones. (I have also known some horrors, but haven’t we all.)
      My problem with teacher heroines in romance is that they tend to be treacly sweet, and I have never known a good teacher who was. Where are the tough-minded realists who demand excellence from their students and won’t accept whines and excuses?

      Jane O: I’ve been a teacher, and have known a number of excellent ones. (I have also known some horrors, but haven’t we all.)
      My problem with teacher heroines in romance is that they tend to be treacly sweet, and I have never known a good teacher who was. Where are the tough-minded realists who demand excellence from their students and won’t accept whines and excuses?

      Yes! That’s it exactly! Smiles and frowns have a time and place.

  3. maggie b. says:

    I can’t remember any of the Simply heroines from the Balogh series being overly sweet. They were teachers at a girls school during the Regency period and I found them to be quite good.

    I dislike the books where an untrained heroine gets hired on as Governess and cures them of whatever ails them. And probably the worst teacher novel I ever read was one by Andrea Kane where she threatened to have a child taken away from their parents because they were going to fly with a child who had an ear infection. The state barely takes a kid if you beat them regularly. They will not snatch them for something that minor. And my ENT has told us how to fly with ear infections. It can be done.

    RE real life teachers. In most professions the average or down right bad out number the good. As a child I had some fantastic ones. As a parent I’ve had the same. But far, far more of the time they are at best uncaring and some of them have rivaled Snape in their inability to teach their subject matter. I spent my sons eigth grade year livid with his English teacher – who didn’t like to read and knew nothing beyond what the teachers manual told her of the subject matter. Others have been even worse. But then, I’ve had doctors who were awful and car mechanics who were negligent and salesman who lied. I think people notice it more in teachers because they work with the children we treasure.

  4. dick says:

    Two comments: Too many teachers have been trained to value method over matter. And, too few love the matter they methodically teach.

  5. chicadorlando says:

    I’m really tired of the snide comments I hear from people when they learn I’m a teacher. Especially the one in the title. Usually the people who make these comments have no idea how hard we work or how much we actually care for our students. I teach English as a second language to a group of 31 seniors. Six of those seniors were special ed and needed extra help but I don’t have a teaching assistant. It is very difficult to meet your lesson goals and making sure that the needs of each and every student were met, that the class was individualized so that each student got the most of it. When you have sucessfully done what I do then I’ll pay attention to your comments or criticism. Until then keep them to yourself!

  6. Eliza says:

    @chicadorlando: Either you misread the article or you read only the title. The writer herself is a teacher and she refuted the title (which is a quote) in the very first paragraph. What you said is far more hurtful, especially being a teacher yourself, not helping your case. I presume it was just a mistake, though.

    @dick: I concur. My very best teachers were the ones who transmitted their passion for their subject. And for the love of learning period.

    I love reading about dedicated, inspired and inspiring teachers of any time period. The emphasis on teaching methods, especially via tests, though? None whatsoever.

  7. Lynda X says:

    I thank God everyday that I’ve ended my teaching career, not just beginning it. I loved (mostly) being a teacher, but today’s teachers have it so much worse. I’m amazed that more than a third don’t drop out within the first five years. At my sister’s school, all math (her subject) teachers within the state and certainly within the school are expected to be on the same page, so that a kid can reach the wonderful goal of transferring from one school to another and just take up on the right page. In the meantime, she’s supposed to teach each kid as an individual. Even Dickens’ Gradgrind didn’t think this was possible. And don’t even get me started about the constant, stupid, unstandardized tests and administrators who are on the treadmill of constantly reprimanding teachers who teach special ed kids or kids who have recently come to this country for their lower test scores than the kids in honors classes. The department of education and the government (Republican AND Democratic both) have almost fatally wounded education in our country. It is only the valiant teachers who trudge on, every day, who keep it half-way decent.
    It is my belief that there are fewer poor teachers than individuals in other professions because the really bad ones are driven out, usually, by the kids. It’s a myth that a really good teacher can reach all kids. Teachers that I didn’t respect much always reached some kids that I couldn’t.
    The portrayal in romances of teachers is so romanticized that they probably walk on water during their five minutes of free time. They not only work 90 hours a week, take in orphans, change the lives not only of the worst (but misunderstood) kid, but they usually revitalize the whole town, bringing employment, universal compassion, an end to all bigotry, and the return of bluebirds.
    I’d like to second Jane O’s plea.

  8. Jean Wan says:

    @maggieb – That’s the crux, eh? Teaching is just like any profession, with good and bad sides, and good and bad apples. But there’s a huge difference between teachers and car mechanics screwing up.

    @dick – You’ll hear no argument from me. But there were also too many teachers who were trained and/or valued for matter over method. And they go hand in hand.

    @Eliza – Thanks.

    @Lynda X – I’ve never taught in a system with standardized testing, but I sympathize nonetheless with the fight between curriculum, policy and politics.

  9. Eliza says:

    Lynda X said:
    “And don’t even get me started about the constant, stupid, unstandardized tests and administrators who are on the treadmill of constantly reprimanding teachers…”

    “The department of education and the government (Republican AND Democratic both) have almost fatally wounded education in our country.”

    I couldn’t possibly agree more.

    Jane O said:
    “Where are the tough-minded realists who demand excellence from their students and won’t accept whines and excuses?”

    I agree with this too; my best teachers–the ones I mentioned as being passionate about their subjects–were also tough, accepting only the best back from each of us. And being tough and so formidable in their mastery of their subjects, we had to run and to work double hard just to keep up with them. They had our respect and I’m grateful to this day for how good those individual teachers were.

    Does the teacher today have to fight the current system tooth and nail to be that good these days, I’ve often wondered.

  10. Lisa says:

    Something which frustrates me as a secondary teacher is the fact that teacher + heroine basically always equals elementary, and then gets all wrapped up in the angelic child lover archetype. There are some of us who teach older kids. I have a ton of respect for elementary teachers – I could never get through a day of 30 nine year olds. But many of them couldn’t survive marking a pile of my 10-page essays – in fact, sadly, many of them could not pass my class. I can’t believe the lack of reading and writing skills I’ve seen from elementary teachers where my child goes to school.

    But the point is that despite what novels seem to suggest, teachers also teach people over the age of 10. The only book I’ve read with older teachers was “Learning Curve” by Terry McLaughlin, which also dealt interestingly with a burned-out teacher hero. (Unfortunately the heroine was a bit of a spunky elf type).

  11. Virginia DeMarce says:

    A lot of people forget that Shaw’s comment was made in the context of how people trained as classical musicians could earn a living — with performance being the preferred option for most, if they could.

  12. Corinna says:

    As has been said, teaching is no different than any other profession in that it includes a few rare gems, a large number of those average in skill and attitude, and some truly rotten people who have no business being in the profession. Unfortunately, the latter far outnumbers the cream of the crop.

    In their defense, though, we’ve seen a lot of power ripped away from teachers. (Granted, some of them shouldn’t have had any power in the first place.) My mother was a teacher, and she always said that the very people who screamed loudest about any form of discipline being handed out to their little darlings were the ones who didn’t discipline their kids at all. It leaves the teachers in a no-win situation. They are often left with true little monsters who rob the other children of the learning environment they deserve. My heart goes out to the teachers in that respect. I can only imagine the frustration involved.

    I did have to raise my brows a bit at the statement about the statement, “Those three months of vacation? We’ve earned it.” Yeah, well, I don’t begrudge teachers their summers off–it’s one of the perks of the job–but neither do I believe that they are more deserving of three months of vacation than those of us in other fields. Yes, you’ve earned it, but so have plenty of the rest of us who aren’t fortunate enough to be able to time our year’s work in that way.

    As for teachers in romance–sorry, but I tend to steer away from teacher and nurse stories alike. They are just a bit of a turn-off for me. I’m not sure why.

  13. Virginia DeMarce says:

    Corinna, in regard to “three months of vacation” please factor “three months of mandatory continuing education” into your thinking.

    When I started school (1-room rural, 1946), rural elementary teachers in Missouri only needed a “two-year certificate” to teach. By the time my brother graduated from 8th grade (1959, IIRC), there was a requirement for a four-year degree in place. They either spent their vacation in summer school (which they paid for themselves out of the previous winter’s earnings) or lost their livelihoods.

    Please review current continuing certification requirements.

  14. Corinna says:

    Of course, Virginia, I understand that. Several friends of mine teach, and I’m familiar with how much time is spent on continuing certification. But again, this is something required in many other fields—only it must be done at night and on weekends rather than during three months of time off. Also, because I have teacher friends, I know that while a good deal of their summer is sacrificed to this end, a goodly portion of it really is free time.

    Again, I don’t begrudge teachers this at all. It’s one of the great things about the job. I’m just saying they aren’t any more deserving of it than the rest of us simply because of what they do. It’s nice that they are able to have that time, but they aren’t more deserving.

  15. Ann Stephens says:

    I read Jean’s article with interest, as my oldest just earned her degree in secondary education. I’ve always thought that teachers don’t earn near enough, and I know from observing friends who teach that those summers ‘off’ are spent working another job and/or going to school full time.

    Yes, there are horrible individuals in the profession (who all too often leave classrooms to make life hell for families at the principal or higher admin level), but most teachers are in the average to good range.

    As a parent, I have always believed that I am primarily responsible for duties that are too often handed over to teachers.

    1. It’s the parents’ job to be sure that the kid comes to school ready to learn. Feed ‘em, make sure they understand that the teacher is in charge of the classroom and the other kids must be treated with respect. Listen when they’re unhappy with something, and sympathize, but it may not be as bad as they’re painting it.

    2. I’m going off 20 years as a public school parent here. School should provide a good BASIC education. Encourage your kids to learn more outside of the classroom by reading. Use class lessons & events (like the cross-dressing ‘Romeo & Juliet’ skit that students came up with) as a chance to convey your family’s thoughts and values. The teacher is not responsible for raising your children.

    3. Like ever other area of life known to humanity, there are fads in education. Keep an eye out for them. Some are useful, some are not. Chances are the teacher is on your side on the subject, but in order to keep their job, must go along with poorly-thought-out policies and laws. Use the voting booth, not sniping at the teacher, to enact change.

    Teaching is the job everyone thinks they can do, but as one teacher I know says: “Here are my 30 kids. Half of them are horny 14 year old boys. Make them care about reading.”

  16. chicadorlando says:

    @ Eliza my comment wasn’t meant to be hurtful. When I wrote my comment especially the “keep comments to yourself”, I was referring to those people who pass judgement on teachers without knowing how hard we work. I was in no way attacking the writer of the article, in fact I agree with what she said.

  17. MD says:

    The comment about “governesses subscribing to 21st century ideas on education” is something that has been on my mind. I found that several recent Mary Balogh’s books grated – the governesses there go on and on about how teaching has to not be didactic, they have to go on nature walks or what not to learn. I found that preachy and not very believable in context.

    Another thing is, while I don’t teach myself, part of my work involves evaluating effectiveness of different educational approaches. One thing that you learn is that, sadly, educational ideas are often influenced by ideology more than research. So, for example, many ideas about learning through exploration that are popular these days are actually scientifically proven not to work, or even bring worse results than traditional teaching methods. Not to say that everything is bad – we certainly have made a lot of progress compared to the XIX century. But somehow a lot of Balogh stuff comes across to me like that – preaching 21 century ideology and miraculously solving problems, but not necessarily convincing.

  18. MD says:

    I wrote what I wrote, and then I realised what actually bothers me about Balogh governesses. It’s really about taking shortcuts. So, we need to establish that our heroine is a great teacher (whether it is important for the story or not). Hmm… how to do that? Oh, I know. XIX century was all about rote learning. So let’s have her take the children on a nature walk, and declare passionately that that learning is more effective in the real world, they don’t need to be cooped up in the classroom. Yay! Check! She is a great teacher! After the third book in which it happens, I start thinking “Well, can we go for more subtlety, please? Surely good teachers use a variety of strategies, and there is more to it than the simple declaration of grounded learning.”

    I think the book where it worked for me was Liz Carlyle “Beauty like the night”. Helene is a governess who deals with troubled children, but she studied in Europe specifically for this, and she is grounded in teaching philosophy of the time. Even if her ideas were modern for the time, enough background was established to make it believable that she was experimenting and improving based on the experience of other good people, not just inventing wonderful teaching ideas when all other teachers around her are wrong and somehow making them work wonderfully well.

  19. Jennifer R says:

    I have been teaching for 13 years, and I absolutely despise the quote/title. I feel that some people are far too ready to disregard the importance of the teaching profession while quick to rely heavily on teachers to raise their children. Teachers can be positive and peppy, kind-hearted and hard working. It does happen. I know many of these fantastic types of teachers. On the other hand, just like in any profession, teachers are human beings, and human beings can be flawed and ignorant, unkind and selfish. I have had my experiences with both types. In my belief though, most teachers are good people who try their hardest to help children under amazingly difficult conditions. Until you have done the job, please do not make rude assumptions about an entire group of people (teachers). Instead, address the specifif party you have issue with. Finally, Jean, I enjoyed your article.

  20. Jennifer R says:

    Whoops- just caught my typo. Specific not specifif!!

  21. Grettel says:

    Great post!
    I’ve admired teachers all my life.
    Teachers know, and learning from someone who knows is as amazing as reading from a book we love.
    For now, I’m enchanted with Grace (Too good to be true, Kristan higgins). She sure love history and shows it. And with Jennifer (His son’s Teacher, Kay Stockham) If there is anyone more dedicated than a good teacher is a good teacher of people with learning problems.
    I hope you spent a very happy teacher’s day.

  22. PatH AAR says:

    My favorite historical teacher romance: The Bad Man’s Bride by Susan Kay Law. Entertaining, poignant, and funny.

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