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My best teacher

June 7, 2010

Giving a presentation on Friday, I had reason to reflect on my inspirations in teaching, and, after 35 years, there are many. In my own schooldays, a number of teachers left a lasting effect: Cliff Phillips gave me a lifelong interest in Geography, Ernie Spencer probably made me an English teacher and, in primary school, Bill McCann was more than just a teacher. I can see him now – in more ways than one, because, when I look in the mirror, I realise I’ve rather spookily grown to look like him!

He was very much of his time, all tweed suits, rugby and ex RAF, but he was a gentle man with a continuous twinkle in his eye and probably just what the only son of a widow was needing in the late years of primary education. Every Friday afternoon he would read Wind in the Willows to us: a wonderful, peaceful, fulfilling memory, and even today, if I pick up the children’s classic, some fifty years later, it’s Bill’s voice I hear when each of the characters speaks. I have no doubt it was Bill McCann who gave me such a passion for reading.

Years later I got to thank Ernie when our paths crossed, when he, as an HMI,  inspected me teaching a Wilfred Owen poem, in a lesson that paid homage to his own teaching from my schooldays, but I never got to thank Cliff or Bill, and I do regret that.

However, there were two  more teachers who were hugely influential in my decision to be a teacher and my method of teaching – and they weren’t even real!

During my postgrad teacher training, they showed us the Ken Loach film ‘Kes’, and Colin Welland’s English Teacher, Mr Farthing, provided me with a template for how I would approach pupils, particularly those in difficulty, for the next three decades or more.

The particular scene that still lives with me involved Farthing splitting up a fight in which Billy, the film’s central character, is being bullied. Having sorted out the bully quite fiercely, the teacher turns to Billy and pays him the respect of listening to him, acknowledging how hard he finds life and, ultimately, offering to come to his home to see  him flying his pet hawk.

The crucial moment comes when he offers to come round to Billy’s house, and then adds, ‘If that’s alright with you?’ The boy’s reaction is priceless: in his world, adults seldom, if ever, ask his permission. It was a well placed reminder to those of us setting out on our careers that listening, respecting and valuing every pupil should be central to our approach to the job.

However, I wouldn’t have been sitting in that college  hall at all if it hadn’t been for another fictional dominie.

In 1966 and 67, when I was an impressionable mid-teenager, the BBC carried two seasons of a Glasgow made series called ‘This Man Craig’. Living in England, homesick for Scotland, and in a school where surnames were de rigeur and staff were not encouraged to be close to pupils, this series, about a prototypical guidance teacher was a tonic for me. It showed how teachers could be and started me thinking that, if I could be like Ian Craig – friendly to pupils, supporting their parents, committed to each and every child, then teaching might well be a career worth pursuing.

Of course, there were other reasons for becoming a teacher, but I’ve always been honest enough to admit that the real kick start to my ambition was this well made BBC Scotland series.The late  Leonard McGuire, as the headteacher, was predictably excellent, but the whole show was really carried by the charismatic John Cairney as the eponymous science teacher who went the extra mile for his students.

Preparing for my presentation, I discovered that John had recently signed up to Twitter. Seizing the chance, I followed him, got a return follow, and sent him a message thanking him for that inspiration in the sixties. This was something I’d always wanted to do and I was delighted to fulfill the ambition.

Even better was the speedy return message in which he commented how lovely it was that his vocation for acting should have sparked off a vocation for teaching in someone else.

I was delighted that my hero had recognised my thanks and that his response had been so gracious.

I like to think it would have met with the approval of that man Craig!

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