Diary

Miriam Gross’s diary: As a qualified teacher, I say let in the ‘untrained’

Sir Richard Evans should know that many great teachers are natural talents

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

I knew that the historian Sir Richard Evans was a rather abrasive and quarrelsome man, but I was staggered by his vicious attack on Michael Gove in the Guardian last week. Here’s Evans’s first sentence: ‘Gove presided over the disintegration of our school system; he opened up teaching to untrained people in state schools, because he had contempt for professional educationalists. The restoration of professional teaching in our schools must now be an urgent priority.’ What? Those who follow these things will know that the two men have a history of exchanging insults, but how bizarre of Evans to vent his spleen on untrained teachers. Many great teachers are untrained enthusiasts for their subject, or people with a natural talent for working with children. But in any case teacher training is often painfully inadequate. I know whereof I speak because I myself am a qualified teacher. The only useful part of my course was the term spent as a student teacher, learning on the job — which is Gove’s preferred method. And by the way, Richard Evans teaches at a university — was he trained as a teacher?

Whenever I see an obese person, my first thought is ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. All of us who suffer from a tendency to compulsive eating know that gorging oneself is not just extremely pleasurable and comforting, it also acts as an effective anaesthetic — keeping depression and feelings of inadequacy at bay. Of course becoming very fat is in itself distressing (whatever obese people may say to the contrary) so the need for comfort food gets ever more urgent. But can the chief legal adviser at the European Court of Justice be right in his recent opinion that the severely obese should be classified as disabled? If this advice is adopted, people whose vast size affects their work would have to be protected like other disabled persons, and be entitled to such benefits as disabled parking places. In other words, the consequences of their overeating would be borne by their employers. The argument is that risk-takers, sports people for example, also bring disability upon themselves and that the origin of the disability is irrelevant. A spurious analogy, it seems to me. I feel sorry for the obese, but should they be rewarded for a lifetime’s failure to exert self-restraint?


Listening to various media discussions in recent days, I have heard the word ‘issues’ countless times. It has become an all-purpose euphemism. Euphemisms always reflect the attitudes of the society in which they appear. The function of ‘issues’ is to fudge and make the speaker seem non-judgmental. As in: ‘He has comprehension issues’ (is not very bright), or ‘she has skin issues’ (spots, wrinkles). If someone says they have ‘issues’ with, for example, David Cameron, they may mean they despise Cameron because he demoted Michael Gove, or they may mean that they don’t like his haircut. What a cop-out.

I have been reading Adam Zamoyski’s gripping 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow. Its graphic details of the sufferings of the 500,000 or so soldiers who embarked on this ill-prepared campaign are horrific. On the way to Moscow, when thousands died in the sweltering heat, soldiers would be forced to drink horses’ urine, or to dig holes in the ground and wait for them to fill with water — but it was full of worms. On the retreat, when thousands froze to death, ice formed in their noses, while their lips were stuck together so that they couldn’t breathe. Their toes and fingers fell off. They had to cut away bits of gangrene from their own bodies. As for food: ‘No fallen horse, or cattle remained uneaten, no dog, no cat, no carrion, nor, indeed, the corpses of those who died of cold or hunger.’ About three quarters of Napoleon’s grande armée perished. But many of the survivors still continued to chant ‘Vive l’Empereur!’

It’s almost impossible to get a doctor to visit your home on a Sunday — you have to go to A&E. But I was suffering, last weekend, from a non-medical emergency. We had ten people to stay when our dishwasher broke down. I tried many plumbers, but no luck. Finally, I rang someone listed as a ‘Drain Doctor’. Could he be real? He was. Within minutes a George Clooney lookalike appeared. He had a reassuring machine-side manner and cured the dishwasher with great aplomb. All the women present swooned.

In my last Spectator diary, I gave some examples of mortifying gaffes I’ve made by not reading my emails carefully. Unfortunately I failed to follow my own advice. I invited someone — not a close friend — for lunch. ‘I hope you won’t have difficulties parking’ went out as: ‘I hope you won’t have difficulties partaking.’

Miriam Gross’s memoir, An Almost English Life, is published by Short Books.

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Show comments
  • you_kid

    Who is the bloke in the picture?
    Who cares who the bloke in the picture once was?
    How could you possibly believe that putting up the picture of a bloke that no one remembers for his performance but only for his polemic would get you to find punters to agree with you?

    • post_x_it

      His performance was rather drowned out by the polemic against him.

  • GraveDave

    feel sorry for the obese, but should they be rewarded for a lifetime’s failure to exert self-restraint?

    You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.

    • Good grief. Look in the mirror, you ignoramus. Self-restraint has almost NOTHING to do with it. Why do you think there has been an explosion of fatness and obesity? Because for the past half a decade (at least), public health bodies have been exhorting people to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and grains (esp. whole grains, but any grains would do) as opposed to oils and fats and meats. They told us that ‘a calorie is a calorie’ (which has to mean logically that a calorie from a Mars Bar is just as good as a calorie from an egg, and of course it isn’t). They told us that fat has more calories than protein and carbohydrates, and therefore we fatten on fat. They told us this despite nearly 200 years of evidence from around the world that argued otherwise: that bodily fat is not caused by dietary fat: to the contrary: those that eat fat in place and instead of refined carbohydrates are the leanest, fittest, most disease-resistant people on Earth.

      • GraveDave

        I’ve actually got a fast thyroid and am skinny as the proverbial rake. So putting on weight would be a bit of a blessing to me.

        • Well there’s always the muscle option.

      • GraveDave

        feel sorry for the obese, but should they be rewarded for a lifetime’s failure to exert self-restraint?

        That was a quote from the author above.

        • Oh I see. I thought you were saying that we shouldn’t feel sorry for them on account of their failing to show self-restraint.

  • CO Jones

    “The argument is that risk-takers, sports people for example, also bring disability upon themselves and that the origin of the disability is irrelevant. A spurious analogy, it seems to me.”

    Most definitely spurious.
    1) Becoming injured or disabled through sport is something that sportsmen and women seek to avoid. The injury / disablement is an accidental and not an inevitable outcome of their sporting activity.

    Obesity, on the other hand, is in no way accidental: it is the inevitable consequence of consistent and gluttonous overeating. Those who engage in it, do so in the full knowledge of how they will end up.

    2) Unlike the genuinely disabled sportsman or woman, the obese have available the means to cure their “disability”: eat less and/or exercise more. In other words, they are “disabled” because they choose to be so.

    • IainRMuir

      “Becoming injured or disabled through sport is something that sportsmen
      and women seek to avoid. The injury / disablement is an accidental and
      not an inevitable outcome of their sporting activity.”

      I think that’s a very elegant way of putting it. However, in the eyes of the relativists, sportsmen and women still have the option of avoiding the risk.

      I’m not a relativist, I’m judgemental and I’m prepared to discriminate. IMO, dangerous activities such as rock climbing are worthwhile pursuits, bringing out the best in people, whereas eating like a pig is not a valid lifestyle choice.

      There, I’ve said it.

      • John Lea

        Hello. I find your post insulting. I am 19 stone, but this is due to a rare eating disorder and has nothing to do with being a pig as you would say. I have glandular biteriumitis, which means that when I eat food the fat is not distributed as per normal but is held in my body. I would describe myself as disabled and in fact currently receive £60 per week in benefits to help with my transport costs, as travelling by bus and train makes me nauseous. The fact that I eat 3000 calories a day is a direct result of the stress I feel, living with a biteriumitis.

        • John: Have you tried the New Atkins diet? If you haven’t, I recommend it wholeheartedly. It’s not just a diet but a way of consuming food that can give you sensual satisfaction (fullness, good flavours) while making you healthy. Best wishes.

          • post_x_it

            Enjoy this week’s fabulous new diet, there’ll be another one along next week.

          • Actually, the understanding that a high-carb diet is bad for you is no longer controversial. In fact, it’s what people prior to the 1960s used to think! Ever heard of the researcher, Ancel Keys? He has a lot to answer for.

          • John Lea

            Yes, Fenton, irony is often used by educated people for humorous purposes, and clearly lost on someone like you.

          • I didn’t find you the least bit amusing, but never mind. Educated people — if such you are, and we can’t verify as you’re a liar — also can be considerate, gentle, and mature, don’t bait people just for the hell of it.

        • IainRMuir

          If you don’t eat like a pig, my post is not directed at you.

          However, if you’re determined to feel insulted regardless, go right ahead.

          • John Lea

            You said people like me were pigs. I eat because of my condition which is not my fault. I try and keep my calorie count to under 3000 most days but then I get depressed thinking about not being able to eat and end up eating more food as a consequence. I’m at the end of my tether, because the more I eat the hungrier I feel. Last week, while I was being examined by the doctor, I took out some ice cream and started eating it. Can you imagine how embarrassing that was? And it doesn’t help being called a fat pig by you!

          • IainRMuir

            Look, you seem determined to believe that this is about you. It isn’t.

            You have a glandular condition. However, I’m sure that the large increase in obesity is not down to a sudden increase in medical conditions, it’s about the lifestyles that people are choosing and refusing to face up to.

            It’s quite clear that Miriam Gross’s article is about people who, unlike you, have a choice (“….a lifetime’s failure to exert self-restraint?”). My comment was made with that in mind.

            My local pizza chain recently started advertising a large, thick pizza with a row of hamburgers around the edge. It’s difficult to be sympathetic towards people who are attracted to this sort of excess. One can only go so far in trying to help people.

          • CO Jones

            While being examined by the doctor, you took out some ice cream? Where from, for heaven’s sake?

            If it is true, I cannot believe you have so little self control, whatever the reason. Frankly, I think you’re ‘avin a larf, aincha?

        • Dave Cockayne

          I find it difficult to believe you have ‘ glandular biteriumitis’ as that phrase does not appear to have been written down and indexed by any search engine.

          I could understand one thai-poo, but you mentioned ‘biteriumitis’ twice in your post, are you sure you aren’t just making stuff up?

          • John Lea

            People don’t understand glandular biteriumitis or care about it. They only see a ‘fat pig’ who eats at inappropriate moments. Three months ago, for example, I was at a funeral. My best friend’s wife had just passed away and I felt so awful for him and his lovely lads, yet my stomach kept rumbling and I couldn’t do a thing about it. Twenty minutes into the service, I found myself eating a family-size bag of crisps, followed by a kit kat and some roasted cashews. I could see people looking at me, thinking I was insensitive, but I was absolutely gutted for Derek and the boys – no one felt sadder than me I can tell you; the problem was that I was starving hungry at the same time. That’s what this illness does to you. It makes you feel really stressed. And again, the more stressed I became, the more I started eating. After the cashews, I reached into my carrier bag and found a bag of scampi fries, which I demolished in about 10 seconds, and these were followed by a bag of pickled onion space raiders, a crunchie, and a bottle of fanta.

          • Dave Cockayne

            Perhaps you have misdiagnosed yourself, the symptoms you describe sound more like chronic ‘gluttonous bullshititis’, sadly there is a current epidemic.

        • GraveDave

          My sister was 5′ 7″ and eight stone, up until she got cancer and put on ten different course of tables and steroids. Then she ballooned – got fat. Obese – and then she died. But no doubt to those who never knew her she would have been just another overstuffed pig.

  • Goodness, you’ve apparently never heard of the way that carbohydrates fatten by elevating insulin levels, which both pack fat into cells (insulin is the fat-producing hormone) and inhibit the release of free fatty acids for use by the body as fuel.

    It has nothing to do with gluttony: the need to eat is dictated by the fact that the body can’t release its own fat stores for fuel (research triglycerides if you don’t know what I mean). Many obese people are malnourished, if not all. See Gary Taubes, Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It.

    • GraveDave

      I think we might be in agreement .

      • So I see now. Sorry for calling you an ignoramus.

    • Dave Cockayne

      You can change your diet to eating a lot of low calorie veg and roughage though. Gorging yourself on lettuce every day isn’t going to make you obese, burgers, pizzas and cakes washed down with fizzy pop will.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Those guys that came out of the camps, they were really skinny fellows. No one was saying, “It’s my glands” or “I’ve got big bones”. You are what you eat, Britisher pals. Back off on the sugar, which means cut out those soft drinks.

    • ‘You are what you eat’: Actually that’s true and yet not true. People think they will get fat from eating fat. But the weight of the evidence is that starches and sugars do the fattening, partly because of their metabolic effect (i.e. releasing lots of insulin) and partly because they are so easy to eat to excess (eating a slice of pie is easy but eating six apples at one sitting is not).

  • namegamer

    I tend to be puzzled by the untrained, unqualified teacher discussion because it always seems to be either/or. I am (was a qualified teacher who spent many years as a Further Education lecturer). Many of my colleagues were untrained and unqualified when they began but were expected to train and get qualified on the job. Surely if you’re serious about any career training and qualifications are worthwhile if they are appropriate and practical. Training for teachers who have great subject knowledge and life experience should obviously not be the same as for new graduates. If someone is untrained and serious, I say, get trained.

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