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Voices: Adele has reminded us all of the power of a good teacher

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If you were moved to tears by the sight of Adele being reunited with her English teacher on live TV, you’re not alone. An Audience with Adele proves that when you have someone who inspires you, it’s impossible to forget them – even if it’s been 20 years.

In the singer’s case, this mentor was Mrs McDonald, from Chestnut Grove School in Balham, who taught her before she moved to the prestigious Brit School as a teenager.

“She left in year eight but she got me really into literature,” Adele told the A-list audience at the London Palladium, where the ITV concert special was recorded earlier this month. “I’ve always been obsessed with English and obviously now I write lyrics.”

The star, who also name-checked her in a tweet about the event, added: “She was so bloody cool, so engaging, and she really made us care, and we knew that she cared about us and stuff like that. She used to have all these gold bracelets and gold rings. She was bloody cool and so relatable and likeable, that I really looked forward to my English lessons.”

When the show host Emma Thompson revealed that Mrs McDonald was actually there at the show, and Adele saw her for the first time in decades, she burst into tears – and she wasn’t the only one. People were sniffing into their sofa cushions at home; Twitter was awash with cry-face emojis. One tweet, by the writer Bolu Babalola, said simply and sweetly: “It’s always the English teachers isn’t it”.

And she’s not wrong. From Dead Poets Society to Dangerous Minds and even (yes) School of Rock or Nativity!, the well-worn trope of a teacher who inspires their charges to be better, brighter (or the other way around) is perennial for a reason: because we remember those who were particularly kind to us, who inspired us; just as much as we remember those who were cruel.

I lived abroad in Japan for a couple of years, and (predictably) thought a lot about home while I was away. One of the people I found myself thinking about, shortly after reading a book – Tuesdays with Morrie, a deeply-affecting memoir by US author Mitch Albom, about a series of visits he made to his former sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz – was my English teacher, Mr Jones.

Mr Jones was tall, funny, interesting – he once set us homework to listen to David Bowie’s Changes and to “think about the lyrics”. He also told me I should become a writer, and it felt as though he had managed, impossibly, to see right into the secret window of my heart.

I even wrote him a letter from Tokyo, five years after I’d left school, to tell him I was (then) teaching English myself and that I still hoped to achieve the dream only he seemed to have recognised in me. Like Adele, I’d dearly love to see him again one day and tell him that I have.

And, if the past 18 months of the pandemic have shown us anything, it’s that it takes someone special to be a teacher. Those of us who struggled to homeschool our kids now have a deeper appreciation of just how hard it is to teach – how it’s not a case of, “oh, anyone can do it”, but a profession that takes years of intensive training, skill and experience, as well as empathy, understanding and bucket loads of patience.

It’s a vocation that is consistently (at least in the UK state sector) overburdened, under-funded and undervalued – and it should be the opposite, because there really is no more important job than inspiring the next generation of minds.

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Yet teachers suffer more stress that those in other careers, studies have discovered, and two in five newly qualified teachers experience mental health problems. What’s more, 1 in 10 teachers were found in 2017 to be taking antidepressants to cope with work stresses – and that’s even before Covid-19, a period of time in which our teachers were expected to continue working and to keep schools open (or, to educate children remotely) on the frontline of the health crisis; despite their own fears over illness, lack of vaccination and the need to provide pastoral care for kids experiencing loss, bereavement and loneliness.

So, if this poignant TV moment with Adele teaches us anything, let it remind us that we should, truly, value those who give our children an education; that their legacy lasts long and can be profound. Let us recognise the mammoth effort our teachers have poured into the nation over the past year-and-a-half of the pandemic to keep our kids happy, inspired and safe.

In 20 years time, our kids will remember them and want to thank them for it. Isn’t it time we did the same?

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