My Facebook wall was littered this morning with the pictures of friends’ children, dressed in pristine school uniforms, beginning term at their various new schools. Their faces all tell similar stories of excitement and nervousness – as much for their parents as for the children. If the books I have been reading over the summer are anything to go by, they all have a right to be nervous. Charlie Carroll tells stories of violence, thuggery and general abuse in “ON THE EDGE – One Teacher, A Camper Van, Britain’s Toughest Schools”. Katharine Birbalsingh recounts a year in the life of an ‘ordinary’ inner London school in her book, “To Miss with love” Her school is also a dangerous place for both children and adults.
But the schools I know (and I do know a few) are nothing like the ones described in the books. The schools I know are in inner cities, leafy suburbs and the countryside; independent and state; hugely successful and answering to the description of ‘sink school’. So they’re a diverse lot. They all have their share of difficult and demanding children (and teachers). But for the most part, the schools I know are full of ordinary, decent young people. They don’t always work as hard as they should. They sometimes play their teachers up a bit. But actually, they buckle down to things when reminded to do so – and they will end up as ordinary, decent adults. Like most of us.
And, again for the most part, those children are taught by ordinary, decent teachers. People who put in long hours, preparing lessons that will gently coax the young people in their charge along the knowledge, skills and attitudes path. Most of the time the lessons will not be stunning. Sometimes they’ll be pretty awful; particularly on a wet and windy Wednesday afternoon – or at least that was my experience when I was a teacher. But sometimes, a lesson will spark something off in a child’s mind (or if they’re lucky, the whole class’s minds) and that child or children will remember the lesson and the teacher for the rest of their lives. It really is true that no-one forgets a good teacher.
Miss Knapp. I only found out her first name was Cynthia when I was about 12 and my mother talked about her as if she was some kind of family friend. (Which she was, but I didn’t realise it.) South African, tall and no-nonsense. She seemed ancient, but was probably in her early to mid twenties when she took the seven year old me under her wing. I learned about pounds, shillings and pence – how to add, subtract, multiply and divide the British currency; all in the same year as decimalisation happened in the UK. I have never forgotten the lessons, even if I have never since needed to work out how many shillings there are in five pounds. (There are 100, just so you know.)
Alec Chalmers, tweed suited, five foot nothing, with a temper that boiled like Vesuvius. He introduced me to drama. Rather precociously, at the age of 10, I played a somewhat diminutive Norfolk in A Man for all Seasons. And then, a term later, I played Androcles in Androcles and the Lion. I’m not sure many primary or prep schools would risk Robert Bolt or George Bernard Shaw today. But I’m glad that Beaudesert Park did. Mr Chalmers got me excited about language and the power of words. And he also helped me to realise that I liked dressing up and performing in front of people. I suppose I now do that for a living.
Michael Stevens, same school, kindly, patient, enormously enthusiastic. At the time I remember likening him to Mr Carter in the Jennings books I so loved to read. He taught me to enjoy writing and to love books. But actually, what I remember most was his approach to teaching French. He used a couple of incredibly high tech pieces of kit to help us learn – a slide projector with a special attachment that allowed him to show a film strip; and a reel to reel tape recorder to provide a commentary from pre-recorded tapes of native French speakers. The first time he showed the slides I was interested. By the tenth showing, I might have been able to repeat the words in an immaculate Parisian accent, but I was bored stiff.
Gary Jones, bespectacled, slightly overweight, balding – Head of music at Wycliffe College. He caused outrage in an English class on one occasion, by awarding me 20 out of 20 in a composition exercise. Big mistake. (And I hope I wouldn’t make the same one with a class of 14 year olds.) My friends agreed that I’d written quite a good story. Even a very good one. But it couldn’t possibly be perfect. I think even I insisted that my marks were reduced. Gary also, unsuccessfully, introduced me to the drums. Even he could not develop in me a sense of musical timing or co-ordination.
And finally, Mark Eagers. Mark was probably only 23 or 24 when he taught me politics at A level. On a number of occasions he was mistaken for a senior pupil by visiting parents. He enthused, cajoled, argued and challenged. He took a group of lackadaisical teenagers, happy to be spoon fed as we had been for O levels, and made us think for ourselves. He was, in short, a complete star. And he still is, according to the pupils who go to the school where he is headmaster.
Five ordinary, decent teachers, who, as far as I am concerned, did extraordinary things. And today, as another generation of pupils (or learners, as the politically correct would have us call them) start their new schools, we should all stop for a moment and salute the hundreds of thousands of ordinary, decent teachers who will transform the lives of the young people in their care. Thank you Cynthia, Alec, Michael, Gary, Mark. Thank you for everything.