There is no doubting the power of a teacher; we never forget our best (or worst) or their capacity to change our lives. Over the past year, as many of us have attempted 'home-schooling', their job and the difficulties they face have never been more front of mind (I write this having been graded “rubbishest teacher in the universe” by my own six-year-old).
In fiction, teachers are no less vivid. Across generations and genres they have been depicted as both heroes and villains; they cast magic spells or seem comfortingly “everyday”; they play complex central protagonists, or seemingly incidental catalysts. A novel that unfurls the secret life or thoughts of a teacher holds particular intrigue, just as they did in our childhoods.
Here are some of the most memorable teacher characters, from a variety of classic books, which linger beyond the pages in our minds, as indelibly etched as graffiti on a wobbly school desk.
First impressions are vital in the classroom. In the tender-hearted yet frequently hard-hitting contemporary US children’s novel Wonder, central character Auggie Pullman was born with pronounced facial disfigurement, and confronts widespread ignorance and cruelty as he tries to settle into fifth grade at a private school. His English teacher Mr Browne immediately creates a reassuring presence; within the first lesson, Auggie realises that Mr Browne has quietly noticed his physical difference, and that he won’t present it as an obstacle. While the teacher is a peripheral character, his ethos and monthly “precepts” (“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind”) underpin the novel’s themes of acceptance and inspiration – and he is depicted with an unaffected warmth, ensuring that his precepts feel genuine, rather than like throwaway internet memes.