An illustration of a blackboard at the front of a classroom with objects floating around it
An illustration of a blackboard at the front of a classroom with objects floating around it

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.

Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)

Roald Dahl’s much-relished children’s stories regularly showcase his knack for concocting splendidly grotesque authoritarian figures – and some inspirations might be traced back to his own boarding school experiences (as documented in his autobiography, Boy). In Matilda, Dahl presents us with the ultimate double-whammy of good/evil teacher characters, both encountered by the titular young heroine at Crunchem Hall Primary School.

Tyrannical headteacher Miss Trunchbull is the monstrous baddie (“when she marched along a corridor you could actually hear her snorting as she went, and if a group of children happened to be in her path, she ploughed right on through them like a tank, with small people bouncing off her to left and right”), whose bullying ways meet a satisfyingly sticky end. In contrast, the mild Miss Honey exerts a bright empathy, sweetness and determination: a dream vision of the ideal teacher (“some curious warmth that was almost tangible shone out of Miss Honey’s face when she spoke to a confused and homesick newcomer to the class”). If education means an “extraction” of potential, Miss Honey empowers Matilda to realise her brilliance, and channel her telekinetic powers into a positive force.

Mr Browne in Wonder by RJ Palacio (2012)

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.

Mr Ricky Braithwaite in To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite (1959)

“I did not become a teacher out of any sense of vocation…” admits narrator “Ricky” Braithwaite in ER Braithwaite’s unabashedly autobiographical post-WWII novel. A highly educated and well-travelled engineer from British Guiana (contemporary Guyana), Mr Braithwaite has served in the Royal Air Force, yet finds the 'Motherland' considerably less accommodating following his demobilisation, when racial bigotry repeatedly thwarts his attempts to find a job. He does find work as a teacher, at a predominantly white working-class high school in East London – and he tackles the role first with a steely resolve, and then a heartfelt commitment.

While the themes of anti-black prejudice still resonate today, other aspects of To Sir, With Love do feel like period details: the anthropological observations of working-class life and the unruly teenage phenomenon; the undeniably archaic asides (Mr Braithwaite’s horror at seeing students mess around with a sanitary towel; the staffroom gossip about possibly lesbian teachers). Even so, there is something distinctly spirit-lifting about its characters’ transformations, as both teacher and students learn to relate to one another, as Braithwaite realises: “now there had occurred in me a new attitude, a concern to teach them for their own sakes, and a deep pleasure at every sign that I had succeeded. It was a delight to be with them, and more and more I had occasion to wonder at their generally adult viewpoint.”

William Stoner in Stoner by John Williams (1965)

There are frequent moments of quiet revelation and devastation in John Williams’s 'campus novel', Stoner – and its pivotal realisation comes early on, when farm boy Stoner discovers a love for literature while studying for the agricultural degree he has promised his parents. It is Stoner’s own professor, Archer Sloane, who points out his destiny - “But don’t you know, Mr Stoner?” Sloane asked. “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.”

Stoner presents teaching as a vocation, but also explores the conflicts between its purest ideals and unfulfilled potential. As Stoner grows older, and generations around him are lost to different American wars, teaching offers a refuge from the unhappiness of his married life, a dedication despite faculty rivalries, and the fleeting possibility of true love. We remain alongside him until he graduates from this life, and the intimacy feels understated yet heart-breakingly poignant.

‘Botchan’ in Botchan by Natsume Soseki (1906)

We never learn the real name of Botchan: the nickname, meaning “young master”, is adoringly bestowed on this novel’s narrator by his maternally devoted maidservant Kiko. We do, however, become fondly acquainted with Botchan’s personality: against the sea-change backdrop of 1890s Japan (a transformative era from feudal state to global power), this hot-headed and “reckless” 22-year-old man-child spends a brief yet turbulent spell as a middle school maths teacher in an island town far from his native Tokyo.

Much less time is spent on Botchan’s classroom sessions than on his extra-curricular spats with students and colleagues (whom he immediately gives colourful nicknames, even in translation: Porcupine, Redshirt), or his moral dilemmas (“It was a wonder they didn’t run out of teachers. I guess it’s a job for people who are tremendously patient and thick-skinned as well”). The book might be slight compared to Soseki’s literary masterworks, but it remains a staple of Japan’s school curriculum, and Botchan endures, as both wayward teacher and student of life.

Miss Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)

“Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” Within the first pages of this story, set in 1930s Edinburgh, schoolteacher Miss Jean Brodie has cast a sweeping spell, both on her pre-teen charges (the besotted “Brodie Set”) and the reader. Spark’s deliciously crisp, wonderfully camp prose is arguably at its finest, in the alacrity of Miss Brodie’s turns of phrase, her formidable spirit (her passion for art over science; her unsettling admiration for Mussolini’s fascisti), and the increasingly unnerving events that ensue (and lead to her downfall), as she embroils her girls in her romantic schemes. We’re privy to the knowledge that Miss Brodie will ultimately be “betrayed” by her most intent devotee, Sandy, but that her mesmerising and ruthless influence will remain timeless, suspended in her prime.

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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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