A teacher’s teachers…

August 13, 2016

In some of my recent posts I’ve been reflecting on the five years since I left the teaching profession, and on my career. Sometimes, a comment from a reader has made me wish I was still in the classroom, by indirectly reminding me of something I used to enjoy, or felt I did quite well. And, as a consequence, I’ve ended up thinking about my own education and my teachers, some of whom clearly must have had an influence on the teacher I went on to become.

For a year at primary school we had Mrs Dixon as class teacher. Her husband was in the RAF so they had travelled widely, and she used to tell us tales of the different countries where they had lived. You can bet I was curious and very interested. Somewhere, in a dusty box, I think I still have a small pebble she brought me back from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

My secondary schooling was rather non-standard. I passed the 11+ and went to grammar school, but only for two years. As a good young Catholic my parish priest had marked me down as a potential priest (!) so I was despatched at diocesan expense to a junior seminary where I enjoyed an education of very variable quality, but in rather small classes, and came under the influence of three teachers who I still remember very vividly.

George (his actual name was Bernard Shaw!) was aloof and patrician, regarding us students as peasants hardly worthy of the crumbs he threw our way. But he succeeded with me at Latin and Ancient History, because he saw I liked the subjects and had some aptitude. However, it was his love of J S Bach, his cello and organ-playing that impressed me. He refused to play us any of his collection of Bach’s cantatas, because we would not appreciate them; the cello we heard because his study window was open when he played; the organ he played in the school chapel, and he couldn’t resist playing the good stuff. End of term was always ‘Nun danket’: Now thank we all our God. With fervour from him and us.

J.O, our French teacher, was a wonder. A member of a minor religious order, and from the Basque country originally, he spoke English (curiously), French, German, Spanish, Basque, Italian, Latin, Classical Greek, and was learning Russian, which he used to enjoy trying out on my father. He taught us French using textbooks from French schools – so no English explanations – and there were endless and repetitive grammar drills. But, most amazingly in those days, because it wasn’t generally done, he had us speaking the language regularly and worked very hard on our pronunciation. When we were in the sixth form, he’d record the news off French radio and use that as the basis for our lesson. He helped set me up with a pen friend and thus I got my first two visits to France. In short, he convinced me that French was a language to be spoken first of all, and that I could speak it. And I could: I set off to university to read French as part of my joint honours degree.

Joe, my English teacher, was young, recently ordained, sporting longish hair for a priest. He made Chaucer and Shakespeare work for me, another two languages I could access, if you like. At A level, he was wonderful. He chose – from the relatively limited selection – texts he liked and could enthuse about. Again, we benefitted from the teaching group being very small: he asked questions and you couldn’t hide, you had to think: later I came to realise how important this was. He questioned very well: open-ended questions, encouraging us to explore. And he knew the importance of what is now called ‘wider reading’. He encouraged us to read anything and everything; he had a huge and eclectic library from which he would lend us anything, sometimes what we chose and sometimes things he felt we ‘ought’ to read. To be handed Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn at the age of seventeen by a Catholic priest seems curious, to say the least, but what it taught me was that the teacher and the classroom shouldn’t censor anything.

All these teachers were very definitely individuals, characters who weren’t ashamed to be themselves, and let their students see them, warts and all. I left school with a love of reading which I’ve never lost, an enthusiasm for languages which sustains me now, and great curiosity about the world. I didn’t, however, go off to become a priest, but that’s another story.

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