Celebrating World Teachers’ Day with the best and worst teachers in literature

More than a few famous writers started their professional lives as teachers, or taught at schools or universities between books.

Before Dan Brown wrote his bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, he taught English and Spanish, while William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies might have been inspired by his experience teaching high school English and philosophy. Frank McCourt, Joanne Harris and Philip Pullman were among the other best-selling writers to have spent some time as teachers.

So, there is little wonder that teachers have frequently appeared in books, often inspiring or protecting their young students. But, not all fictional teachers are presented in such a favourable light.

To mark World Teachers’ Day, here are some of the most memorable teachers in literature.

Miss Honey (Matilda by Roald Dahl)

Matilda was surrounded by horrible adults, from her self-absorbed parents to her terrifying headmaster, Agatha Trunchbull. But Miss Honey provided a ray of light for Matilda, protecting her from the worst of her parents and the cruel headmaster. Every child dreams of a kind and gentle teacher like Miss Honey taking them under their wing.

Miss Temple (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte)

What is it about teachers standing in for absent or neglectful parents? In Jane Eyre, Miss Temple gives Jane one of her first tastes of kindness and love, doing her best to shield her from the cruelty of the headmaster and showing her small kindnesses that Jane has rarely experienced before.

Miss Harris (The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson)

Like the best teachers in real life, Miss Harris is kind and patient, and identifies Gilly’s intelligence. While Gilly, like Matilda, had few solid and reliable sources of support at home, Miss Harris provided a sense of benevolent stability.

 

These teachers were respected and adored by their students. However, not all depictions of teachers in literature are quite so positive.

Sheba and Barbara (Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller)

Both Sheba and Barbara have their own flaws in Notes on a Scandal. While Sheba embarks on an affair with her student, Barbara also displays worrying behaviours, from her obsession with her colleague to her vindictiveness on finding out about the affair and satisfaction on reporting it. Sheba might be unstable, but Barbara is cruel. They are two teachers that most parents would prefer not to have in front of their children’s classroom.

Julian Marrow (The Secret History by Donna Tartt)

In some ways the perfect teacher – passionate, inventive and knowledgeable, in other ways, Julian Marrow is one of the worst. He draws his students in, ultimately betraying them. Was he the mastermind behind the book’s central crime? Or was he merely a narcissist? Either way, he is far from the ideal teacher he might seem to be.

Agatha Trunchbull (Matilda by Roald Dahl)

Matilda might have eventually come under the protection of the lovely Miss Honey, but before that, she fell victim to Agatha Trunchbull. With her heaving chest and her huge presence, she despises children and dolls out cruel punishments including making a student eat an entire birthday cake on his own, in front of the class, and spinning a girl around by her pigtails. Miss Trunchbull is the stuff of children’s nightmares.

Who do you think are the best and worst teachers in fiction?

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