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Let's embrace teacher idiosyncrasy

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I had quite a job tracking down a few of the teachers I wrote about in my book, Mining for Gold: Stories of Effective Teachers. Most of them had retired, of course, me now being well into my prime.

Last week, I had an extraordinary phone call with Terry Brooks, who had taught me Latin. He must now be in his early 70s. He couldn’t have been more pleased to hear from me, so my somewhat tentative tone quickly grew more confident. He shared with me that he had lost his wife only two years ago and that one of his two children now lived in South Africa. He found it difficult to believe that I had written about the effectiveness of his teaching.  He wasn’t top of the tree in terms of professionalism, as I write in the book:

'If a teacher’s walk, dress, body language, teaching style and voice were all seen to be strong indicators of teacher effectiveness, Terry would have had a big red cross next to his name in the inspector’s mark book. He typically arrived several minutes late for lessons, often with his shirt out….In terms of lesson planning, there didn’t seem to be any.'

But, as I go on to explain, he was brilliant, and many of us former pupils owe him a huge amount for what he did to shape us as learners. I don’t think he will mind me quoting the email he sent me the day after he received the copy of the book I sent him:

I have just read your recollections of your lessons with me at The Downs and am amazed you remember so much. I was amused and extremely flattered by what you wrote and it made me proud to think that I had such an influence on you - something I would not have thought of at the time. You have made me a very happy man and I thank you for this …

I was really taken by that response. Wouldn’t it be great if we all tracked down those teachers who had had such an impact on us and told them so? Don’t we owe it to them?

Like so many of the teachers I wrote about, Terry was eccentric, quirky, left field. Surprisingly, perhaps, it isn’t that difficult to think of some of the things that I remember about other teachers I’ve come across:

  • Brigid Hardwick’s charm bracelet that she always wore and which had a twinkly sound that would warn you of her approach to check your work
  • Anthony John (brilliant musician) who would suddenly pull out a breath freshener from his pocket in the middle of a long speech about why Bach wrote a particular phrase the way he did, and apply it (the breath freshener, not the phrase)
  • Bernard Fogarty, the brilliant teacher of metaphysical poetry who wore John Lennon glasses and whose fringe was so long, he’d throw his head back to try and get it out of his eyes approximately every three minutes and grin at us
  • Colin Hall, headteacher at Holland Park, who enters a classroom and stares in silence at two children who are talking to each other during a lesson while the teacher is explaining from the front. He allows them to realise the head is now in the class, lets them become embarrassed as the whole class looks at them, watches intently as they become even more uncomfortable; taking on board the realisation that they have seriously erred, then directs the total silence for at least ten seconds. Colin says nothing. The point has been made. Dramatically, if silently. Acting par excellence
  • Paul Cheater, whose pupils loved him, raising his voice in mock fury, achieving the impact he is looking for from his year 4 class, but somehow entertaining them at the same time
  • Paul Nicolaides, who wrote an entire requiem mass in Latin and expected his choir of 11 year olds to learn the whole thing without any scores. If we expressed any concern, he’d simply make us laugh, while conceding nothing, smooth down his moustache and carry on. We performed at St Clement Danes, the RAF church on the Strand
  • Chris Berriman, whose choir of 9-13 year olds was amazing, who refused to create prima donnas and instead expected every child to be able to sing solo and who would point out to a child during the performance that they were to sing the solo in the next verse. No one ever refused!

I’d better stop. There are so many examples of teachers I’ve been taught by, or worked with, that I could write far too much.  I guess what I love are the idiosyncrasies of teachers who have learnt their own craft and style, who are totally themselves, are highly effective, but who don’t try to adopt any straight-jacketing norm. We should celebrate these.

Teachers are personalities who have a great understanding of their subject matter, and who are gifted and determined communicators. As Becky Allen wrote in the Guardian recently, it’s time to have a re-think as to what we expect from them. Encouraging them to develop and enjoy their very own style might not be a bad start ...

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