And what did that teach you about what matters most in teaching?
A couple of years ago, I recorded a short piece for the DfE in which I described a teacher who had inspired me. I chose Mr Malyan, my primary school Year 6 teacher (or Junior 4, as it was called in 1968/9). When I wrote ‘Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head’ in 2016, I dedicated it to him, as he had always said, “Send me a signed copy of your first book, Jill!” when I was 10/11 years old. Sadly, Mr Malyan had died long before I got there. But I remembered how he had always had faith in my ability to write, and how that encouraged me to have faith in myself.
It was creative writing I particularly enjoyed, and I’m sure it was fiction Mr Malyan was thinking of, rather than a book about education. I think about that now, as I’ve experimented with writing fiction in lockdown, and I’ve really enjoyed the process (after a gap of approximately half a century…. I’ve written relatively little fiction since I left school). I think he would be pleased and proud that I’m trying again.
I moved to my secondary school in the autumn of 1969 and, if I’m honest, I think much of my teaching there was relatively mundane. However, I found my A level English teacher, Mr Faulkner (I am able to call him Stephen, now…) inspiring. We were a strong group of eight students – two boys and six girls – and we are all still in touch today. We did some challenging texts (eg Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the first two books of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’), and Stephen Faulkner pushed us and expected a good deal from us. But we also enjoyed each other’s company and we laughed a lot, I remember. We worked hard, and we loved it. Stephen had a relaxed approach that still managed to be academically rigorous. He made us think deeply, and we had some stimulating discussions.
I remember his giving each of us the opportunity to present an unseen poem or prose piece to the rest of the group and to lead the discussion; I chose a passage from Mauriac’s ‘Le Baiser au Lepreux’ (in translation. I was studying French at A level, and was loving Mauriac’s ‘Le Noeud de Viperes’, so I’d read several other books he’d written). I’m not sure how well I led the discussion, but I do remember how much I enjoyed the experience, and wonder now whether that was the point at which I decided that becoming an English teacher was what I really wanted to do. I do know that I used the same passage in unseen criticism exercises with my own A level students when I was teaching them a few years later. I also remember two other friends in Stephen’s A level class – one girl and one boy – bringing, for their unseen choice, poems they had written themselves for us to discuss. How confident must they have been, and how successfully had Stephen built that confidence and nurtured the culture within the class so that they had the courage to do that? I’m still in touch with Stephen, and his wife Margaret, and we see each other from time to time. We seem to be the same generation, now! I will always be grateful to him for how he pushed me, and expected so much from me.
Lastly, I remember the best tutor/lecturer I had at Manchester University when I was studying my English Language and Literature degree. Her name was Leah Scragg, and she was quite terrifying. I left school feeling confident with my AAB grades, and arrived at university to find everyone around me seemed to have gained AAA. Certainly those on the English course seemed scarily bright, and I spent much of my first year trying to prove to myself that I was good enough to be there.
Leah Scragg was my literature tutor. She was very precise and formal (we called her ‘Mrs Scragg’, and she called us by our titles and second names too). We studied some demanding authors that first year – I remember we started with Spenser’s ‘The Fairie Queene’, which I had never heard of before. I realise now that I wasn’t particularly widely read when I started my degree. I certainly was, by the end of it. Mrs Scragg could be quite brutal with those within the tutorial group that she felt weren’t working hard enough, or who weren’t achieving the standards she expected. But at the same time she could be enthusiastic and encouraging when we contributed well. I remember offering something tentative in one early discussion and she exclaimed, “Well done, Miss Barker! Have a Polo mint!” I don’t recall what it was I said, or even which text we were analysing, but I remember her words, and the Polo mint she gave me.
It was because, as with Stephen Faulkner, she pushed me so hard, and I worked my socks off that first year, that in the end of first year examinations I won an academic prize “for the most outstanding run of results at Prelim!” I hadn’t even known such prizes existed. But in the summer of 1977 I received a letter from Leah Scragg (which I still have) to tell me of the achievement. I realise I’d worked so hard because I wanted to please her. I was certainly not the most academically gifted student in my year group.
Leah Scragg was passionate, and highly intelligent. In my third year she gave lectures to us all on Shakespeare which made me want to stand up and applaud at the end. (I didn’t.)
So thinking about the three teachers who inspired me – as a primary school pupil, a secondary school student, and an undergraduate, what have I learnt?
I’ve learnt that, for me, what mattered was that these teachers, though all quite different from one another, pushed me and expected the highest standards from me. They had faith in me. They encouraged me and that drove me to be the best I could be.
What about you? Which teachers inspired you, and what did you learn from them about how to be successful in this amazing profession?
Photo: The staff from my secondary school captured in 1971, at the end of my second year there. Stephen Faulkner hadn’t yet joined the school, but I remember a fair few of these teachers.