Why does teaching have an image problem? I’ve written here before about society’s problem with teaching as a profession – the sense that it’s a merely passable fallback if all else fails, the tacit understanding that it’s not a true profession like medicine or law, the belief that it doesn’t take much skill and anyone could do it.

And the question of where this comes from is one I tackle in my recently published book, Must Do Better: How To Improve The Image Of Teaching And Why It Matters. Why, as a society, do we continue to look down upon a profession of such obvious societal importance?

It’s unsurprising that most people’s stock response to this is to talk of the money associated with teaching – or rather, the lack of it. And yes, there’s of course something in that. Something too in the fact that everyone has been to school and therefore thinks they know what teaching’s all about – even if their own days in uniform were in the previous century, when schools were considerably different to how they are now. The teaching profession has moved out of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and is now just waiting for its image to catch up.

Yet there are other factors at play too, of which one of the least often remarked upon – but arguably among the most influential – is the role of books. Because when you stop to think about it, how many unequivocally positive portrayals of teachers and teaching can you actually come up with from the canon of great English literature?

You might be thinking for a while, because there really aren’t many. Take Dickens. Writing at a time when society was just starting to move into the embryonic stages of the sort of institutionalised education that we recognise today, Dickens’ books are full of teachers – it’s just that hardly any of them are even vaguely sympathetically portrayed.

There’s the sadistic Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, for instance, and cold Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times, pompous Dr Blimber and limp Mr Feeder in Dombey and Son, and hapless Mr Mell in David Copperfield. It’s a dispiriting roll-call, and one which indicates a society ill at ease with the new profession gradually coming into existence during the period. As one of the most widely read writers in the Anglophone world, both then and now, Dickens does teaching no favours.

Things don’t much improve for teachers when you turn your attention to the literature of the 20th century either. One book which collates all the hoary old stereotypes about teaching and sends them up more brilliantly than perhaps any other is Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. For all that the novel is obviously a parody and not to be taken seriously, it nonetheless reinforces precisely those negative perceptions that continue to dog teaching to this day.

This short episode sums it up perfectly. It’s early in the novel, and the central character, the ill-fated Paul Pennyfeather, goes to interview for a teaching post at a small private school in Wales, after his expulsion from Oxford. The headteacher of the school, Dr Fagan, asks why he left the university:

‘I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.’

‘Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the scholastic profession for long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal.’

And there’s much, much more in that vein throughout the book.

Dickens and Waugh are just two examples, but there are many others who could be cited. The wider point from this is that we live in a society whose literary traditions are impregnated with characterisations of teachers which, almost universally, are ambivalent at best and outright injurious at worst. And this matters not just because the works of the canon capture and reflect contemporary attitudes towards teaching, but also because they have helped to shape the attitudes of generations of readers since – and continue to do so.

What’s more, the same observation could be made more recently of films and plays. Where do you look for positive representations of teachers on the big screen or the stage? Are Dead Poets Society and School of Rock really the best we’ve got? The History Boys? Answers on a postcard please.

In short, teaching needs to break free from the shackles of the past and the burden that the literary canon has come to represent for the profession. Modern literature could help with this, but it takes a special writer to shape society’s attitudes, and they don’t turn up every day. J. K. Rowling might have come close, but even Dumbledore isn’t exactly your average classroom teacher, and most of the others on the Hogwarts staff are hardly renowned for earth-shattering pedagogy either.

So there lies the challenge, and the reward for anyone who does fancy taking it up would be significant – they’d be doing a service not only to literature, but also to the very society that that literature nourishes and sustains. Get writing!

‘Must Do Better: How To Improve The Image Of Teaching And Why It Matters’ by Harry Hudson and Roy Blatchford is out now.