All of us remember inspirational teachers – or do we?

24 Apr

I           Why Teach?

It is rarely the case that young people and mature folk decide to become teachers because of the monetary rewards.  Most do so to create a positive impact on future generations of youths and leave a permanent legacy. This is what attract recruits to the Teach First programme.   Jane, in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, must have been talking with tongue-in-cheek when she told Bob, who lamented that he was discouraged by his writing teacher who told him his novel was hopeless: “Those who can do; those who can’t teach!”

While teachers are quite well remunerated in this country, the teaching profession, per se is poorly rewarded.    Teachers work long hours.  Their salaries are not in line with those in the financial sector.   A survey carried out by the DfE in 2013 revealed that, on average, a primary teacher worked for 59 hours and 20 minutes every week and the average secondary teacher for almost 56 hours.  The 13 weeks’ holiday a year for which they are pilloried is well-deserved. 

In other countries the situation for teachers is more dire.   I, myself, grew up in India where teaching is not regarded as a worthwhile profession. Indian teachers are poorly paid, especially those working in maintained schools.   My parents were refugees from Burma during the Second World War, fleeing the Japanese who brushed aside the British troops.  Life was not easy for my parents and two older siblings, even though India provided a welcome haven for my family.

Financially, the going was tough for my father and mother.  It was economically difficult for them to bring up their four children – when, eventually, I and my younger brother landed on this planet.  My parents invested generously in our education in the hope that we would become solicitors, doctors or (perhaps, and high hopes) venture capitalists.  However, my older brother and I had other ideas.   We had been bitten by the teaching bug because of the inspirational manner in which the principal of our school not only led the staff and pupils but also taught us.   Accordingly, much to the horror of our parents, particularly our father, we decided to become teachers – in India.

The intrinsic pleasure we derived from teaching was sufficient because the salary was derisory.  In fact, because of the enjoyment we experienced from pedagogy, we were inundated with requests to give private tuition and through that mechanism ramped up our monthly salaries.

The years have rolled by since those times. Both of us still have former students recalling the times when we taught them and that gives us immense pleasure.

The reason why I remember those times is not so that I may be commended by you, dear reader, but rather to draw your attention to the importance of members of the governing body getting to know the teachers in their school – both at a formal and informal level – and understand what motivates most if not all of them.   Their teaching is the black box of the educational provision made for our youngsters.

II          The Olympians

Who can forget the London Olympics of 2012 and the part that inspirational teachers played in nurturing our world famous competitors?    Mo Farah arrived in this country from a war-torn Somalia at the age of 8 years. Farah was out of his depth and underachieving in everything because his English was poor.  However, his life was transformed by his PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, at Feltham Community School in West London, when playing football. Watkinson was impressed with his stamina and encouraged him to engage in cross-country running.   He soon won national medals for his school and began commanding the respect of his peers.  Success bred success.  Later, Farah officiated at Watkinson’s wedding as his best man.

Graham Hatch was the PE teacher of Bradley Wiggins, the Tour De France champion and multiple Olympic gold medallist, at St Augustine School in Kilburn. Wiggins said that when he told his teachers he wished to win an Olympic gold medal, they laughed him out of court.  Not so Graham Hatch who took him seriously and encouraged him to enter competitions.  Wiggins became a professional cyclist after taking his GCSEs in 1996 and said of Hatch: “It was very important to me that at least one teacher took my dreams seriously.”

Jessica Innis was a pupil at King Ecgbert School in Sheffield.  She was very much an all-rounder – good in academia and sport.   Her PE teacher, Chris Eccles, noticed that she never boasted of her achievements.   By year 9, she jumped 1.71m.  For her A level in PE she had to submit video evidence for her practical examination.  Eccles simply wrote a letter to the Exam Board mentioning that Innis was fifth in the World Youth Championships.  She was successful.  After securing three A levels in English, Psychology and PE, she graduated in Psychology from Sheffield University.    Along the way, she was awarded the bronze medal in the women’s pentathlon at the Commonwealth Games.   In 2012, she was the poster girl of our London Olympics.

We are deeply indebted to this cadre of PE teachers who work frightfully hard to combat the culture of the play-station generation.    Eccles sagely remarked: “It’s not just about producing the next Olympic gold medal winner.  It’s about getting children confident and engaged.”

III        Jon Snow

The Times Educational Supplement features a weekly column where the world’s movers and shakers speak about the teachers who had an abiding influence in their lives.   The column gives teachers – who have the time to read it – reasons to continue in the profession and serves as a reminder to the rest of us of how much poorer we would be without them.

Jon Snow, the broadcaster, newsreader and anchor for Channel 4 news since 1989, ruefully recalled in the column that his school reports were nothing to write home about.   One of his teachers at his preparatory school, the Pilgrims’ School in Winchester, wrote once in his report: “He sets himself low standards, which he then fails to achieve.”

He languished at the bottom of his class until he met Mr Blake who gave him a love for English, enabled his “essays to flower” and “taught with encouragement and never a threat”.    When he moved to secondary school in Oxford, he, again, failed to achieve much.   Only much later, when the family lived in the north of England and he was at the Scarborough Technical College, did he meet Bob Thomas, who was both, a teacher and a long-distance lorry-driver.  Thomas got Snow through a couple of A levels.   They were enough.  He had been bitten by the language bug.  Blake had sowed the seed and Thomas helped him reap a harvest.

III        Sir Alex Ferguson

Elizabeth Thomson was Sir Alex Ferguson’s inspiration.   The area of Glasgow where the former Manchester United’s legendary football manager grew up was renowned for the highest truancy rates in the city.  When Elizabeth Thomson became a teacher at Broomloan Road Primary School, where Sir Alex was a pupil, she went round to the house of every pupil who had not been in the class that day and said: “If your kid isn’t in school tomorrow, I’ll be back at your door.  If your kid is in school, I’ll make something of him/her.  That’s all you need to do. Get the child there.  I’ll do the rest.”

Sir Alex described her as a fierce woman with an incredible drive.   He was 11 when she decided to marry.  Six of the pupils travelled across Glasgow to the posh side to attend the wedding.  Thomson was the supreme teacher who endeavoured to make her pupils want to be the best they could.  She had a gritty determination about her and brooked no excuses when her pupils underperformed – whether it was in their academic work or in the sports field.  Sir Alex remembers the occasion when he was batting while playing a game of rounders.    He merely tapped the ball to get to first base.   “Ferguson!” Thomson roared, “you tap the ball again and I will have you!”  So he battered the next ball out of sight “and ran like hell.”

Is it any surprise that Sir Alex has left such a legacy at Manchester United (having hair-brushed several highly talented footballers when they underperformed) – making it very difficult for his successor to emulate his achievements and resulting in his having to leave the club a mere 10 months after joining it.

IV        Anthony Sher

Anthony Sher, the Shakespearian actor, who grew up in a sports-mad South Africa, felt like a failure at school.  He said he was short and weedy and had no talent for sport.  His parents sent him to Esther Caplan for elocution lessons.  Esther went beyond elocution; she also taught him to act and gave him a love for the theatre.  At high school teacher, another teacher, John McCabe, “saved his life”.   McCabe taught art.  He spotted talent in Sher and encouraged him to set his sights on an arts college.   He was aggressive in his mannerisms, and pupils found him scary. With Sher, he was gentle and encouraging.

However, Sher had been bitten by drama and acting bugs, which had left an indelible impression on him.   He had developed that love from Esther Caplan and decided to attend drama school in London. The rest is history.  He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982 and performed lead roles in Richard III and Macbeth.

V         Robert Coe

Towards the end of the Spring Term 2014, the national press was buzzing with the story of a teacher at the Royal Docks Community School in Newham, Robert Coe, who donated one of his kidneys to 13-year-old Ayla Ahmed Ali who was suffering from renal failure and desperately needed a transplant.  Ayla, a pupil at the school, also had hydrocephalus – i.e. water on the brain, which left her with severe learning difficulties.

When Robert Coe heard that the teenager was on dialysis, he put his name down as a donor.  “I knew what being a donor meant and I knew there was a possibility it could go ahead and I knew the implications,” he told The Evening Standard. The doctors’ tests showed that his kidney would be a fitting match.  The transplant took place at London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in February 2014 and was hailed a success. Both, teacher and pupil, were expected to return to school after the Easter holidays.

Alya’s father, Ahmed Ali (47) described Mr Coe as “a hero and life safer”.   He said: “Ray has given Alya much more than just the gift of life.  He’s an amazing man. We owe him so much.”  His headteacher, Wendy Bower, added: “He (Coe) is a very humble and modest man.  The whole staff are in admiration for his kindness.  He has given a new life to Alya and her whole family.”

VI        Reflections

Teachers are constantly subject to adverse criticisms from government, press and other segments of society.  These critics are given credence by some teachers who sell the profession short and let down youngsters.

Steve McQueen, the Director of Twelve Years a Slave, the film that won the Oscar award in 2014, grew up in Drayton Manor High School in West London. He was placed in the lowest of three streams, i.e. non-academic, the two higher ones being middle-ranking and academically gifted.   Years later, the new headteacher admitted to him that the school had been institutionally racist to black students like him.  It appears that all the teachers who had anything to do with him spectacularly failed him. Fortunately, he wasn’t put off by poor teachers who had no right to be remembered.

However, there are many more teachers, such as the ones described above, who have been inspirational and take a pride in leaving their schools in a better state that they found them.   It is one of the functions of governors to ferret out such people, celebrate their work and buoy them up in doing so.  Some of these teachers also happen to be headteachers.

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