Wednesday, 5 September 2012

How to change a life – teachers that make a difference

A long time ago in a classroom far, far away, I was taught a valuable lesson in humility.

Writing had always been my ‘thing’. It was something that came easily to me, I’d already decided I wanted to become a journalist, and by the age of 14 I had received enough praise from assorted teachers to become a bit cocky (or unbearably smug, depending on your point of view).

That changed the day our English teacher, Mr Gear, asked me to read out one of my essays to the class.

I can’t remember what the assignment was, but I had written a story in which I made heavy use of a recurring metaphor. And I say ‘heavy’ I mean the weight of anti-matter that can only been found on this planet hurtling round a huge subterranean tubes in Switzerland being monitored by over-excited physicists.

Think Adrian Mole at his pretentious worst, after being force-fed Barbara Cartland.
Yes, it was THAT bad.

My chosen metaphor was blossom being blown from a cherry orchard by cold spring winds. By the time I'd read the first three paragraphs, there was a mountain of metaphorical petals at my feet and I was sniggering at my own absurdity. By the end of my 'masterpiece', the entire classroom was howling with hysteria, tears were streaming down everyone's cheeks and I could hardly speak (nay, breathe) because I was laughing so hard.

Luckily, I got the point about my own ridiculousness, though the occasion held the potential for the kind of public humiliation that most adolescents would rather eat their own buttocks than face. 

But what else could I expect? This was the teacher where studies of Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot came to an abrupt halt when he got bored and decided to hold a Pop Quiz that sparked a heated debate about the colour of Noddy’s car (yellow), call in the school nutter from another classroom to show us his charging bull impersonation, stage desktop fashion shows if he spotted new shoes and have us seeking out the smutty bits in 'Twelfth Night'.

He was, in short, a brilliant teacher, though I believe some of the more timid in our school were terrified of catching his eye. To this day, after nearly three decades of earning my daily crust with words, I always keep the “less is more” mantra in mind.

Mr Gear was the third of four teachers I believe helped change my life. The first was the headmaster at my Middle School, an enthusiastic scientist who rewarded good work with boiled sweets and the privilege of cleaning the school pond of algae (yes, that was a reward!) or holding the smoke machine when he opened up the school beehives. Like Stephen Hawking at the opening of the London Paralympics, he urged us to “be curious”. The second was a mellifluous Welsh woman with a heart of gold and a voice of molten honey who planted in my heart an abiding love of words and music. The fourth was a radical college tutor who loved nothing more than provoking a furious political or philosophical argument while we were supposed to be picking 'Volpone' to pieces, who firmly planted the "question everything" seed.

I was lucky. Four is probably much more than I deserved. But I believe that most of us encounter at least one teacher during our school career who help change our life for the better by passing on their passion for their subject, encouraging us when no-one else believes in us or simply by challenging us to cultivate something within.

So, as children across Europe get back into the school year, I’d like to offer a small tribute to those great teachers, and a small word of thanks to those who touched my life, even if it did mean making a fool of myself.

Who influenced you the most during the school days? I’d love to hear.


  1. Mr. Walker, my beloved high school english teacher who had us attack the prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with such passion that we ended up knowing every tiny detail about all the characters and we competed fiercely to show who knew everything the best.

    What a difference a great teacher makes.

  2. Ms Tambiah my history teacher brought the Renaissance to life and I think this was the beginning of my love of anything historical - architecture, art, books everything in the past.

  3. Miss Carrick, my GCSE English teacher, gave me the most practically useful advice I've ever received from a teacher: "Your handwriting is dreadful. Do something about it." From that I took a night-school class in touch-typing and it's a skill that's stood me in good stead ever since. Programming is so much easier when you don't have to look at the keyboard. Mind you, couldn't do much programming on the old red/black ribbon manual typewriter I had then!

    The only down-side was that a 3-sides-of-A4 assignment is a heck of a lot more words when typed than it ever would be hand-written!

  4. Mr. Armenio - junior high English teacher. Razor-sharp wit, a sense of humor that definitely flew a few thousand feet under the principal's radar, and the ability to make students push the boundaries and do things they were afraid to try, while also making them think it was their idea. Not afraid to expound on the grittier subtext of Shakespeare, and The Scarlet Letter. Would also sit and talk to me after class for as long as I liked, on any topic in the world. A regular occurrence in his class was the arrival of some now-graduated former student of his, dropping in to give him a huge hug. An absolute GEM.