Which teachers inspired YOU, as a pupil?

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.

4 thoughts on “Which teachers inspired YOU, as a pupil?

  1. I started at one of the 12 pioneering London comprehensive schools, Forest Hill, conceived, designed and built by the LCC, London County Council in September 1957. I’d failed the 11+ and my parents wanted me to go to a grammar school which meant numerous bus journeys anywhere. FHS was a short distance from where we lived. I went there and never looked back. It was formed by the closure of a two small secondary schools, one a central school & the other a failing school with a diminishing roll.
    The staff were made up of teachers from both who had opted to transfer to the new FHS plus newly recruited young and enthusiastic teachers. They had been attracted by the opportunity, the wonderful new build environment, the space and probably the ability to teach without interference and restriction. The older staff were just that, mainly old and sometimes highly jaundiced about enforced change. I suspect they were not close enough to retirement, but able to bring experience in their teaching. This was mainly how to create enforced order and mostly how to teach in the most uninspiring and dull manner they had been been practicing for decades without intervention. However, there some who were good and encouraging. However, remember, this was post war south London and only two years after rationing had finished, although petrol rationing popped up quite frequently. Social mobility was just a sociological term, not a reality.
    The young staff were passionate, enthusiastic, energetic, full of ideas and totally inspiring. They also brought imagination, pleasure in learning, good teaching techniques and a genuine interest in the individual. Peter Carlen was my English teacher for two years. He knew how to deliver a good introduction, a time to be writing as creatively as possible in class and a celebration of our work shared amongst all of us before we left. He loved his job and the students, all boys, frequently giving them small tokens of appreciation of their work. I have a copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S.Elliot illustrated by Nicholas Bentley inscribed ‘Congratulations and best wishes for the successes to come, Easter 1959 P.J.Carlen. He fostered a growing love of writing and literature that had been started by Mrs Dixon my final year at primary school classteacher. She did so much to develop my passion for books, reading and writing. Peter Carlen was an outstanding communicator who found just the right level to deal with and inspire quite a very mixed bunch of south London lads. He embedded my love of language, writing, reading, analysis, poetry and drama. Dick Stroud taught drama and got us involved in the annual school play. He was laid back, positively critical and engaging. He worked to get us engaged in Shakespere and thus to understand what was going on in his plays. The now Professor Laurie Taylor was also my English teacher for two years. He walked into class looking quite dishevelled, tired and sometimes late. He sat on his desk, pulled out a text and started teaching. He was calm, patient, interesting and absolutely electrifying in the way he immediately captured our attention getting us thinking and expressing our thoughts and opinions. I still have an over pencil annotated copy of Macbeth that he brought to life and plunged us into the play with such passion and fervent admiration.
    My reminisences of FHS are numerous. It was not entirely comprehensive, we were in sets for English Maths & Science. There were 9 classes of 30+ in each year + a sixth form. It was very different to the small primary school I’d come from. But what a staggering contrast in commitment, determination, individual interest, subject speciality and enthusiasm for teaching from some absolute stars of the profession.
    I didn’t leave with a sheaf of GCEs, just four, but I got English Language and Literature a year early, a fourth year triumph for me. I was quite a late developer all round, apart from English. I worked in various jobs for four years, went to teacher training college, Froebel in Roehampton. I took early retirement from London Primary Headship, moved away and I have worked for North London Polytechnic and the Universities of Reading and Kingston since 1996. I have worked for the University of Winchester since then in a career supervising and training students on the BEd, PGCE, BA Hons. My entire career of nearly 50 years has been immeersed in education and a love of teaching and helping to produce some fantastic teachers of the future. The various teacher role models I encountered along the way have all contributed to what my experience and capacity to enthuse students with has been all about. I hope this is useful. I’m happy to write more if it would help. pbhr@me.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I too was at Forest Hill School at the same time as you and I also received a prize from Peter Carlen. Like you I went on to teachers’ training and eventually became the Principal of a London business school.
      Peter was indeed inspirational and great teacher as were other teachers at Forest Hill. I’m pleased to read that you made a career in teaching too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, William. How amazing to be remembered so positively, as Peter Carlen clearly is.

        Like

    2. Many thanks for sharing your story! So good to hear this: “My entire career of nearly 50 years has been immeersed in education and a love of teaching and helping to produce some fantastic teachers of the future. The various teacher role models I encountered along the way have all contributed to what my experience and capacity to enthuse students with has been all about.”

      Very best wishes.

      Like

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