The young woman sitting opposite me at a dinner in a French town had a pleasant, smiling face and perfectly manicured fingernails. She was a teacher, she said: she taught English and English literature at a lycee and at a college too.
Ah yes, I said. Simone de Beauvoir was a teacher in a French lycee, where academic standards are traditionally so exacting.
Then her face darkened. "Things have changed, believe me," she said. "The status of teachers has dropped to rock bottom in France. The government, the politicians, the policy-makers – they've failed us now for decades."
And the pupils? "Dreadful problems! They have no respect. A cheeky and insolent attitude. Recently, there was an art exhibition in a nearby school, and the paintings consisted of horrible, even pornographic, depictions of the teachers. And the authorities did nothing about it! Okay, free expression is one thing, but there are limits. And there should be respect." "Moreover," Nicole went on, now fired up, "you cannot properly correct a pupil nowadays. No, you cannot say that the student is below standard, or no good. You might lower their sense of self-worth! They might be traumatised for life if a teacher says negative things!"
I called to mind the red ink corrections which adorned my school copy-books, where lay teachers and nuns had appended caustic remarks about the inadequacy of my homework. "Disgraceful!" "Sloppy work!" And then the verbal sally, made in the classroom: "You'll end up as a shop girl, Miss Kenny!" (A fate worse than social death.)
Back to the present. How about the parents, these days? Do they support the teachers? "A minority only," said Nicole. "The parents frequently lack respect too."
Over the past week or so, French pupils have been taking their Baccalaureat, the famously difficult equivalent of the A-Level. "Pouf!" said Nicole witheringly. "It means nothing any more! They've devalued the exam so much that it's only worth something if it's a Bac plus a mention." That is, "with merit". The "all must have prizes" mentality has taken over. I've often read about teachers going on strike or mounting demonstrations because of the various problems in the teaching profession – frequently the gripes being about pay and pensions.
But Nicole's was a more existential complaint. It wasn't about pay and pensions, or overcrowded classrooms: it was about the philosophical condition of being a teacher in this day and age. Her greatest concern was that the profession had simply lost caste.
"Yes, indeed it has," says another teacher, who has wide experience in Europe and the Middle East. "Teachers have definitely lost status, universally. I think this is because in the past the teacher was often the only source of knowledge, learning or assorted wisdom, in their community.
"Today knowledge is everywhere at the click of a mouse. Anyone can look up anything, via the internet, so there's often a feeling that teachers don't know any more than anyone else, so why should they be respected especially?"
Moreover, learning something is often advertised as "easy" and "free": whereas in truth, the acquisition of true knowledge is often hard work and even expensive (try getting an MBA at Harvard).
And teaching young people from primary up through secondary also presents special difficulties, says our second teacher. "Because teachers are not simply teachers. They are parent substitutes with all that entails – playing the role of guardian, mentor, girl guide, boy scout, friend, friendly uncle/aunt, nurse, doctor, adviser – you name it. The happiest primary and secondary teachers, in my experience, are not those who are in love with their subject but rather those who love organising, leading, and inspiring young people. The subject matter comes second to the relationship established."
And then there's another social factor to be considered: the collapse of authority and the use of power. Almost the worst thing anyone can be called these days is "authoritarian". Because this means bossing everyone around and trying to control their choices. Power used may be power abused. Even "respect", which Nicole feels that a teacher should be accorded, must now be "earned". It is not automatically accorded to anyone because of the position they occupy. The age of deference is over.
I suspect teaching has always had its difficulties. There have always been callous and cruel teachers who brutalised young lives, and incorrigible brats who made a teacher's role a misery. But the knowledge available via electronic media has almost certainly undermined the status of the teacher – which was once held here in high esteem. Recall Oliver Goldsmith's fond admiration of the teacher in his lovely poem The Deserted Village: "And still the wonder grew/That one small head could carry all he knew."
Once, the teacher had studied and read books and knew more than other people. Now there's a feeling that whatever he – or she – knows can be accessed through the acquisition of the right software.
But yet, so many still seek out teachers, coaches, mentors, guides. Andy Murray makes it clear one of the most important figures in his life is his tennis coach. Rich women pay for personal trainers and parents pay for tutoring for their offspring. And could Robin Williams' inspirational teacher in Dead Poets' Society ever be replaced by an app, a downloaded tutorial or clicking on to Wikipedia? All is not lost for the pedagogical arts.