When a teacher's influence never ends

By Moira Billinge

It was a blisteringly hot day and, as a ten-year-old prefect on lunchtime duty, I noticed with a heavy heart that the drinking fountain, just inside the school foyer, had a long queue of children patiently waiting their turn.

In those days we didn't walk around with containers of water in our bags but had to be content with the little bottles of milk taken from the classroom crate in the morning and a glass of water on the dining-room table at lunchtime. If there was any milk left over in the afternoon break and you had a sufficiently robust constitution to withstand consuming the – by then – smelly, curdling liquid, then life was fine.

On this particular occasion I was feeling very thirsty and it was obvious the school bell heralding the end of playtime would be sounded long before many of the children would get their turn at the fountain – and far more importantly, before I'd had mine! There was only one solution. I turfed everyone in the queue unceremoniously into the playground and had the fountain all to myself.

It so happened, however, that neither the satisfaction I had gleaned from assuaging my thirst, nor the smugness of the power I had been able to exert in jumping the queue in such an appalling way, was to last. I hadn't noticed that the headmaster was nearby and had witnessed the whole sorry episode. I glanced up – mid-gulp – to see him standing there, watching my every move in utter silence which in itself was unusual for him. I knew this meant only one thing – this wasn't going to end well for me.

Eventually, he broke his silence just long enough to utter one short sentence before turning on his heels. I can still quote it verbatim: "Moira, that was a complete misuse and abuse of authority!" The wise way that the headmaster dealt with the situation eliminated the need for further punishment, because the shame I felt taught me an invaluable lesson. To have been given lines or detention – common in those times – may well have triggered resentment or frustration rather than prompt the personal remorse and awareness concerning my selfish behaviour that instead ensued.

Naturally, the horror of being caught out was in itself enough to guarantee that such conduct would never be repeated. It was also the first time I was to become aware of the fact every wrongdoing has consequences and, whether we realise it at the time or not, does affect others in one way or another.

The responsibilities facing teachers are onerous, extending way beyond academic considerations. Teaching is a vocation which isn't entered into with either the salary or the proverbial long holidays in mind – not least because most teachers use their breaks to prepare for the next term. One word out of place or the unintentional mishandling of a situation by a tired and increasingly overworked teacher having an off-day has the potential to last forever in the heart of a pupil – just as a word of encouragement or the intelligent, measured and thoughtful response to a problem will also leave an indelible and positive footprint.

As the American historian Henry Brooks Adams wrote: "A teacher can affect eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." Or she too for that matter.