‘The Good Teachers’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a twenty-four line poem which is written in the second person and does not follow a rhyme scheme. The poet has chosen to write this piece in the second person in an effort to personalize the situations she describes and allow a reader to cast their own experiences on those she speaks of. One is able to place themselves in the story and feel as the main character is meant to feel. You can read the full poem here.
The poem begins with the speaker addressing the reader as “you.” This second person tense will remain throughout the poem, allowing any reader to empathize with the main character. This girl, who is at the center of the poem, feels strongly about certain teachers in her school. Someone get her love and full cooperation, while others inspire her to rebellion.
By the end of the poem she, still speaking of as “you,” has become so fed up with the educational intuition that she takes up smoking, starts talking back, and delves into explorations of her sexuality.
Analysis of The Good Teachers
The poet has written this piece in the second person, meaning that all of the main character’s experiences become “yours.” The poem begins with the speaker, who is revealed to be a young girl, describing “your” excitement over a school photo. This speaker is able to “run round the back to be in it again.” You start out at the front of the photo, in the front row, and then before the camera can finish taking the picture, “you” make it to the back. This allows one to appear twice in the same image.
This action represents the love that this character has for some aspects of the school. There are a number of teachers who will be mentioned in this work who are not held in high regard by this student, but a few are dearly loved. This is the case for the first teacher in the poem, “Miss Ross.”
The student is contemplating her future at the school and thinks that “Soon / Miss Ross” will take her for “double history.” “You” are hoping that this teacher accepts “you” into her class. It is so important to the student that she is dreaming about it outside of class time. “You” “breathe” on some glass and draw a “ghost” of Miss Ross in an effort to remind “yourself” of this instructor and the joys of her class. The student speaks, South Sea Bubble Defenestration of Prague.” This mishmash of different terms has come from the same place, and emerge from the student’s mouth like a mumbled prayer.
In the next section of lines, the speaker continues to refer to the reader in the second person, using the pronoun “you.” She states that “you” feel great love for “Miss Pirie” as well. The speaker’s main character has so much love for this teacher that she has worked her way to the “top / of her class.” She demonstrates her respect for Miss Pirie by working hard and proving herself against her classmates.
The speaker returns to the idea of appearing twice in a photo in the third line of this section. She describes how “you” care so much about this teacher’s good opinion that “you need two of you / to state out from the year.” This photo is going to be appearing in the yearbook and now Miss Pirie will be able to see “you” twice.
The student continues to speak of Miss Pirie’s class and it is revealed that she is the English literature instructor. This becomes clear as the speaker states that “you” memorized the poem, ‘The River’s Tale’ by Rudyard Kipling. This was also in an effort to impress the instructor and make sure she understands how much “you” care.
Clearly, “you” are deeply concerned with this teacher’s good opinion as the speaker describes “you” making up “a poem…for her in your head.”
The following lines introduce teachers who are not held in quite so high esteem. One of these is “Miss Sheridan” who is the French teacher. This is made clear by the phrase, “Comment vous appelez,” which translates to “What’s your name?”
Another teacher who is not liked in school is Miss Appleby who teaches math. Just as has occurred with the other teachers mentioned in this piece a bit of information from their class follows their name or description. In this case, it is the phrase, “Equal to the square / of the other two sides,” referring to geometry.
This is immediately followed by a third disliked teacher, Miss Webb. The following phrases “Dar es Salaam” and “Kilimanjaro” suggest that she is the geography teacher, as “Dar es Salaam” was the capital of Tanzania, and Kilimanjaro is the tallest mountain in Africa.
The title of the poem, ‘The Good Teachers’ appears in the same line. The student is pointing these particular teachers out in the hallway, describing how they “swish down the corridor.” The following line speaks to their personalities and hints at the fact that the speaker does not truly see them as good, but rather as putting on an appearance of goodness. They might be considered good educators, but to her/“your” eyes, they are not good teachers.
They are instead, “snobbish and proud and clean and qualified.”
In the final section of the poem the speaker continues her discussion of these “good teachers” and how they interact with “you.”
She states that they have “got your number.” They know how “you” feel about them and will be watching “you” closely. The next lines describe what the main character, still being referred to as “you” does in rebellion against their practices.
The character is in the hall, and she rolls up the “wasitband” of her skirt. It rolls higher and higher until all that can be seen is “leg.” The student also engages in “dumb insolences,” or backtalk, as well as taking up smoking. She/“you” is doing everything possible to rebel against the good teachers and the type of student they would like her/“you” to be.
The next two phrases seem to come from the teachers themselves. They say, “You won’t pass. / You could do better.” These are clearly things which have been said multiple times to “you” and which the student mocks.
The poem concludes with another phrase from the teachers, being mocked by the main character, she mimics, “The day you’ll be sorry one day.” The instructors have been telling “you” that “you’ll” be sorry for this kind of behavior one day. At this point, “you” do not appear to believe it.