We should hire more people like Miss Rusty, not fire them

It is rather early in the year to be making nominations for the annual Pride of Britain award for heroes of everyday life, but it would be a surprise if there are stronger candidates than the teacher known to her pupils as “Miss Rusty”.

Three years ago, Miss Rusty, who in the outside world is Mrs Leonora Rustamova, agreed to take on a class of Year 11 boys at Calder High School, near Hebden Bridge.

It was a tough gig. The boys were described at the time as being “uncontrollable”. A teacher warned Mrs Rustamova that they were “overtly racist, violent and misogynistic”, that they “were a pack and hunt like a pack”. In class, she decided to write a novel with them – one which would reflect their world in their language. Not only was the book eventually completed, under the rather brilliant title of Stop! Don’t Read This, but working on it changed the boys’ attitude to reading and writing. They were proud of their novel; it raised their self-esteem as well as improving their literacy.

Mrs Rustamova was commended and promoted by the head teacher. There was a plan to get copies of the novel bound up for the boys to keep after they left school. According to one parent, it was the first book her son had ever read.

Hurrah for Miss Rusty, then? Hardly. She was sacked, and so was another English teacher associated with the project. This week Mrs Rustamova has been presenting her case to an employment tribunal, claiming wrongful dismissal.

As the hearing continues, the decision to dump a brave and successful teacher, probably ending her career in education, will doubtless be explained in terms of privacy. The novel became available online – accidentally, according to Mrs Rustamova – and, since real names were used, there was said to be a breach of confidentiality. The name of the school, it was argued, was brought into disrepute.

The case raises bigger questions about what we expect from teachers. For some time, there has been routine hand-wringing among politicians and the concerned classes about the yob culture, the failures of education to reach large numbers of alienated, leery young males, but the sad story of Miss Rusty suggests that, on the whole, we favour the old-fashioned my-way-or-the-highway approach to dealing with them.

The idea of engaging teenagers by talking and writing in their own terms is regarded as dangerous, perhaps because it makes adult authority figures apparently complicit in young dodginess. The traditional approach – to instruct from a safe distance – may be hopelessly ineffective, but at least it involves no risk.

Teachers like Mrs Rustamova are rare. It takes nerve, imagination and energy to face a class of moody teenage boys, and engage their attention and their imaginations. Those who have the creative talent and courage to teach in this way may be less good at the drearier side of their job – filling out forms, ensuring that the correct procedures are followed at all times.

It is sad that the box-tickers are now in charge, that, in a rule-obsessed society, allowances are rarely made by head teachers and school governors for the unconventionally brilliant teachers – those remarkable individuals who can make a lasting difference to young lives.

Nor is the attitude of the outside world any more helpful. Newspaper coverage of the case of Mrs Rustamova has been predictable and depressing. “An English teacher was sacked after writing a racy novel for her pupils about their sexual fantasies and truancy,” reported the Daily Mail. “Miss Rusty’s novel too lusty for school,” said the Daily Express. Journalists eagerly combed Stop! Don’t Read This for references to drugs, sex or violence. Swear words were counted.

When are we going to grow up? It may make adults feel more secure to punish those who try to understand and work with difficult pupils, but it is the teenagers who will pay the price – and the grown-up world which they will be entering.

Independent, Saturday, 15 January 2011