‘Teacher’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a piece of admiration for a teacher who taught in an exciting manner that the classes are still resonant in the speaker’s mind. Born in 1955, Duffy is a Scottish poet, playwright, and passionate reader. She always wanted to be a poet from an early age—the first LGBTQ poet to be selected as Poet Laureate on May 1, 2009. Duffy’s poems are often anthologized for academic purposes because of their simplicity and natural language. She can make her readers wonder and capture their attention by her phrases and word choice. This poem is no exception; she describes the way her teacher used to teach and how she made the arid facts come into life through her pedagogy.
‘Teacher’ by Carol Ann Duffy is addressed to a speaker’s teacher and her vibrant way of teaching.
The speaker of the poem talks about how her teacher makes the characters of the book come alive and how the historical events seem so real when she describes them. The poem is written from the point of view of a student, and it’s about her awe at the teacher’s way of teaching. It revolves around her teacher, who enchanted spells around the classroom with her magical way of teaching. The speaker is so inspired by her teacher that she can picture all the topics she taught. She is influenced not only by her teaching but also by her voice and manner of talking.
From the very first tercet, it can be assumed that the speaker is pretty fascinated with the teacher’s approach and aura. She says, “your hands bless the air,” which shows the teacher’s blessing is upon everything that surrounds her or comes in contact with her. Thus, the poem centralizes the teacher’s influence on students. As the poem ends, she says, “and learn what love is,” which shows she is so in love with her teacher’s method of explaining. In this way, this poem shows how important is the role of a teacher in a student’s life.
You can read the full poem here.
When you teach me,
stand in the room like bridesmaids,
Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Teacher’ is about an experience of a student when her schoolteacher is elucidating different subjects. Duffy uses hyperbole to explain the influence the tutor has even on her surroundings. The speaker feels like the teacher blesses the air with her presence, and the chalk dust that falls from her touch is also blessed, thus “sparkles.” These lines indicate the magical effect she has on the things she touches. Everything that comes in her contact becomes alive and glitters in the eye of the speaker.
In the second tercet, Duffy depicts the next activity of the teacher that creates life-like images. The speaker describes what happens when their teacher starts to talk. It seems she does not teach instead builds a relationship with her class. As soon as the teacher starts to talk about the history of England, the speaker can picture the wives of Henry VIII standing in the room. She can see the history unfolding in front of her eyes.
These lines can also be seen as a way the student describes her affection towards her teacher. As she pictures the wives of Henry VIII as bridesmaids, the teacher indirectly becomes the bride/groom (the central attention of the class) of the event.
or the Nile drifts past the classroom window,
and pads between desks, black and gold
In the next tercet, the speaker continues by saying that when her teacher not only teaches about the history, but she is also well-versed in explaining geographic features. When she teaches, she can see the Nile River flowing past her classroom window. Even the Pyramids come to their school’s playground. Thus, the complexity in understanding the subjects is reduced to sheer fun by her teaching method. In the last line of this tercet, Duffy humorously compares the Pyramids to “giant cakes.”
The speaker particularly emphasizes the teacher’s “voice” in the next tercet. She says that she not only teaches what’s written in the book, but she also adds her story-telling and oratory techniques to make the concepts more interesting. The speaker admiringly says when the teacher speaks, the characters of the book come to life. She visualizes a tiger from the poem walking between desks, expanding all its black and golden stripes.
in the shadow and sunlight,
and learn what love is.
Readers can see this stanza begins with a small letter indicating a continuation of the previous line. The speaker shows the change in the tiger’s complexion in sunlight and shade. This shows an image of a tiger roaming around jungles. Thereafter, she continues to talk about how the falling apple led Newton to discover the gravitation of earth. She experiences the same but with a different effect, as she imagines golden apples hanging from an imaginary tree’s branch. This line shows how deeply she is involved with her art of teaching.
Duffy ends the poem by coming back to reality. Her speaker describes reality as “tattered, doodled.” It means she finds her book rather dull compared to her teacher’s words. Her teaching is so engaging that when jolted back to reality, she finds everything utterly mundane. The last line again suggests the kind of affection she has for her teacher; as she says, she learns the art of loving from her. It is a reference to the “love” the teacher has for the thing she enjoys and doesn’t get tired of doing each day; it’s teaching.
The poem is written in the free-verse, with no fixed rhyming pattern or notable metrical scheme. It consists of 18 lines, divided into six tercets. The speaker of the poem is a student, or the poet herself when she was a student. Duffy begins the poem using the second-person pronoun “you,” addressing the teacher. Then she uses the first-person pronouns “I” and “my” to give a personal touch to the poem. In this way, the text jumps from the second-person to the first-person narrative. Besides, some slant rhymes can be seen in words like “sparkles” and “cakes”; “bridesmaids” and” fields.”
Duffy is known for her technique of dramatizing incidents in such a way that seems so natural and alive. In ‘Teacher,’ she uses the following literary devices for this purpose:
- Hyperbole: An exaggeration of something is termed hyperbole. As the poem begins, the speaker says how her teacher’s blessing affects even the chalk dust: “your hands bless the air/ where chalk dust sparkles.”
- Enjambment: Each line continues to the next stanza without any punctuation or breaks. This device is used to keep the flow of the poem intact; for instance, it occurs in “stand in the room like bridesmaids/ or the Nile drifts past the classroom window.”
- Simile: Duffy compares historical characters/objects from the book to the ones from our daily experiences: “the six wives of Henry VIII/ stand in the room like bridesmaids,” and “the Pyramids baking like giant cakes.”
- Consonance: The repeated sound of “s” can be heard in words, like “bless” and “dust sparkles.” It can also be heard in the lines: “the six wives of Henry VIII/ stand in the room like bridesmaids.” The consonant sounds of “d” and “k” are repeated in the first two lines of the third stanza, respectively: “or the Nile drifts past the classroom window/ the Pyramids baking like giant cakes.”
- Imagery: The poem is filled with vivid imagery from different subject matters, including history, geography, science, etc. Readers develop the same images in their minds as the speaker when they read, “so a tiger prowls from a poem/ and pads between desks, black and gold.”
The poem ‘Teacher’ is said to be written primarily for the GCSE English Literature syllabus (2018). Most of Carol Ann Duffy’s poems are widely studied in British schools because of her simple use of words and realistic imagination. She also started a poetry competition for schools, known as Anthologise. Her poems mostly talk about her experience from childhood and as an adult. She started writing at a very young age. Her contribution to literature is comprehensive; apart from writing poetry, she also wrote a number of plays. She was highly influenced by her teachers at a young age. In this poem, the educator is one of them whose art of instruction first taught her how to enjoy and involve with the things one does for a living.
The message Duffy conveys in the poem concerns how can create a change in the minds of students and how they can make them love the things they read from books. Teachers play a vital role in every student’s life, and their blessing is what keeps the students striving forward. Thus, when they taste success, they always pay tribute to their favorite teachers, the way Duffy does in this poem.
Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Teacher’ is about an educator who taught her students so well that all the words and characters come alive with her words. The speaker can watch historical events unfolding in front of her eyes as she teaches.
The line “I bow my head again” means that in the class, the speaker sails to her imaginary world with all the characters of the book, witnessing the historical events. When the class is about to end, looking back at her book, she becomes dismayed by the existing dullness of the dry facts and figures of the book.
The relationship is pretty unconventional, as, in some lines, it feels like she has a different kind of affection towards her educator. Whereas, in some other lines, it feels like she respects her teacher like every other student in the class does. The ending of the poem makes it hard to describe the actual relationship between the student and tutor.
The main theme of the poem is the deep relationship between a teacher and her students. In this poem, Duffy describes how the teacher infuses life into historical characters, geographical facts, and scientific figures with her voice, talking, and imagination.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Teacher’.
- ‘Head of English’ by Carol Ann Duffy — This piece beautifully describes a class taken by the head of the English department of a school.
- ‘The History Teacher’ by Billy Collins — This clever, humorous, and thoughtful poem considers the implications of altering the past.
- ‘Theme for English B’ by Langston Hughes — This poem is about a young, twenty-two-year-old narrator who speaks about his own experience as a black man in a primarily white community.
- ‘Death of a Teacher’ by Carol Ann Duffy — This poem outlines Duffy’s experiences with a teacher who helped transform her as a writer.
You can also read about some of the best poems of Carol Ann Duffy.