Thanks for the memories.

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One of the interesting by-products of writing I find, is that whilst contemplating a topic or issue it causes some interesting idea or memory to come to mind that might otherwise have passed by. This serendipitous phenomenon is I suppose, a little like a Freudian word association test, delving into the subconscious in order to retrieve some long lost snippet of information. I have found, to my cost, that these fleeting windows into the past fade as quickly as they arrive, unless I take the time to write them down.

One such occurrence of this strange associative thinking happened yesterday when writing the piece about library closures and the protests by children from a Devonshire primary school. Whilst contemplating how important books have always been to myself, I recalled a number of influential teachers who had shaped my whole approach to reading. That is, reading for pleasure as much as for learning or information. I mentioned three of these in the text – Mrs Evans, who as Miss Kearsley had previously taught both my parents, Mr Passey, who had been a contemporary of my father at the same Gloucester boy’s school, and Mr Needham, a much loved and respected history teacher. Bringing these three to mind evoked fond memories of their approach to teaching and their personal philosophies which, whilst having subtle differences, were all founded on a belief that effective learning was a shared experience between the teacher and the pupil, rather than simply a process of knowledge transmission.

I remember a few years ago when there was a shortage of teachers, the UK Government ran an advertising campaign under the slogan “everybody remembers a good teacher”. As part of the campaign, various individuals would appear on the television fondly recalling an inspirational teacher who had shaped and  influenced their lives and inspired them to change or to achieve. Of course there were many cynics during this time who responded by saying “yes, and most of us can remember a bad teacher too!” Generally speaking however, it was good to see teachers gaining such good publicity.

So what is it about teachers that make them good? I suspect that there is no one particular factor that can be applied to all, but after naming three teachers in yesterday’s blog (two of whom are sadly no longer with us, and I have no idea where Mr Eric Needham is, but hope he is alive, well and enjoying a well-earned retirement), I began thinking about what it was I liked about them.

Mrs Margaret Evans, was affectionately known by us irreverent teenagers as “Faggy Maggie” because as soon as breaktimes came she reached for her packet of cigarettes. She was my first form teacher and English teacher at secondary school and I remember that one of the first books we read with her was John Buchan’s Greenmantle. Whilst I am sure that not everyone in the class enthused about this book, she recognised that I did and before I had reached the final page I was being given a copy of The Thirty Nine Steps to take home and read, as she put it “if you can find the time.”  This was not activity by command, but rather through encouragement. Find the time I certainly did, and for the remainder of that formative year Mrs Evans fed my new found habit, leaving me addicted and creating a long-term dependency upon literature. Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen and several other denizens of literature followed. Not once did she test me on any of these, other than as each was returned asking me if I had enjoyed the book, and if so why? She made time to talk about these texts and more importantly, she valued my opinion.

John Passey was a completely different character. At times he could be stern and even slightly intimidating. It was in his English class that we studied Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. We had read a little of the great bard before, but Mr Passey brought each character and every scene to life. Not only were we introduced to Elizabethan England but also challenged to see the relevance of the play to today. “Had we ever treated anyone so cruelly as Malvolio had been dealt with by the debauched Sir Toby Belch and Maria?” “Even though he was a pompous and irritating buffoon, could we really say that what befell him was justice?” These and other questions enabled us to live through Shakespeare where I’m sure that others simply followed the text to pass examinations. It also helped us to develop some kind of moral compass.

Eric Needham taught me to love history. For A level examinations we studied eighteenth and nineteenth century English social and economic history. He again had the ability to enable us to see how every aspect of the period affected our own lives. But what I remember most was that he refused to be constrained by the examination syllabus. About once a fortnight he would take a lesson in which he went completely off task. During these sessions I remember he taught us about a vast range of topics, including the rise of the Chartists, the D-Day landings, Simon Bolivar and the 1949 Chinese revolution. I remember some of my school mates feeling that this was a distraction from getting us through the examination, possibly even putting us at risk of failure, but Mr Needham’s response was, “I’m here to teach you history, not simply to jump through examination hoops. That involves a broader understanding than that imposed by the examination.” Well certainly it worked for me, leaving me with a strong  and continuing historical curiosity – and incidentally I passed the A level examination as did all others in Mr Needham’s class.

What brings these three teachers together as influential individuals in my life is the ability that each had to think beyond the conventional approaches to teaching and also to recognise my individuality. Each encouraged me to read and interpret the world way beyond the set text and in so doing to derive pleasure from my learning.

These teachers, whilst unique for me, may well have prompted your own memories of influential teachers. If so, I would love to hear about them. We should be celebrating such unsung heroes more often than we seem to want to do today.