It was another time, another place and I was another person. Way before I was a teacher and I could sit in the pub in the afternoon. This time in London, somewhere, I can’t remember, wasting time with an old friend. The radio played a local station and we more or less ignored it. Until, after a sports report which told us nothing, we heard that Mohammed Ali was signing books in Tottenham Court Road that afternoon. An opportunity not to be missed, we finished our drinks (probably) and got a ludicrously expensive cab across the city. Sure enough, half an hour later, a large man shuffled out off a limo and blinked in the afternoon sunshine. It was Ali. We turned into little children in his presence.
I’d never been so close to greatness since – as I found out later – I’d barged passed a young Diego Maradona to get Asa Hartford’s autograph at Hampden Park. Yep. In awe of Ali, we stood on a wall, joining in with the chant, ‘Ali!, Ali!’ as he mock sparred with each fan as he passed. And then he looked up: he stared directly at me; he threatened a punch, before grinning that incredible, life-affirming, beautiful grin of his. I could have cried, probably did a little. He was well into his illness but it is a moment which I think about a lot.
The other punch that Ali never threw was the famous one when, standing over a falling George Foreman, he could have battered him again. Lesser boxers would have done; Foreman certainly would have. But Ali stood back, the dignity and respect for his losing opponent more important than causing him more pain. He had done his job; he didn’t need to hammer home the point. He had no need to show off further and flaunt his superiority. What an incredible human being he was. But if you look around your school staff you will see similar qualities in your teachers. The ones who quietly, but wonderfully, teach kids all day every day.
They share that quiet dignity that means we never hear from them. They don’t need to shout loudly because they raise the bar for kids every day of their lives; perhaps not comfortable in the limelight, certainly unlike Ali, but they don’t need to push themselves into that limelight. I’ve recently been in the position of attempting to organise whole school CPD and it becomes clear that many of our best teachers are the best teachers because they don’t reveal themselves to us. I get frustrated when they don’t want to share their talents but have come to understand and respect them all the more for it.
So, keep in mind that those who push themselves to the front of the crowd, who stand on the wall and chant, if you like, are not always the best people to listen to. Sometimes they are. But think of those quiet geniuses who turn up every day and approach their teaching with a dignity and respect for others that we should all learn from. They have a punch but often choose not to use it.