Liz Pichon: 'Everyone wanted to be in Miss Taylor's Class'

The author behind the beloved Tom Gates series remembers the Year 6 teacher who encouraged her to be creative

Liz Pichon, Tom Gates, my favourite teacher

It was exciting when we discovered what Miss Taylor’s name was – it was Anne. Everybody wanted to be in Miss Taylor’s class – everybody. The kids in her classes got to do really interesting, creative things. I finally got into her class in the final year of Brookfield primary school, in North London, when I was 10.

I’m an August baby, so basically I was a year behind everyone else. It’s not something I’ve ever thought about, but in primary I think it probably does make quite a big difference. With me, I was always bright, enthusiastic, interested and I tried my hardest, but it never quite materialised in spelling, in grammar – in conventional academic success.

Now, having seen my dyslexic son statemented, I realise that there was a reason for that. Lots of professionals have since told me I am probably dyslexic too, but I was like a lot of children in the Seventies – we just got on with it.

Maths was awful for me. Times tables were terrible – all that mental arithmetic and being under pressure in the classroom. I’d have to get my hand up fast for a sum I’d remembered, parrot-fashion. I’d be thinking, “Please choose me – because this is the only one I know!” I think this is a typical coping mechanism for dyslexic people.

I always had a problem with spelling. I remember with reports – it was always, “Liz is so bright, but that spelling!” Sometimes I’d write a story and do a great drawing. And it would always be, “Well, that’s a lovely picture, but it’s really all about the story, isn’t it?” and I’d think, “Why?”

But with Miss Taylor, because she put emphasis on more creative stuff, there was a feeling that at least I could do something and I could flourish in this class. I always felt like that when you were good at art it was treated as a sort of “remedial” subject. But with her, it was like, “Wow, this is something special.” It wasn’t even the creative stuff she got us doing – it was about involving everybody. It was a lovely feeling. It would make you feel good about something that you could do, in the classroom, with everyone. 

Liz Pichon

I remember making an entire New York skyline along the back wall of the classroom in collage. Everybody made buildings and trees – we did Central Park – and she showed us pictures of how it was built. It was history and geography all rolled into one. Even if you weren’t brilliant at drawing you could do cutting out buildings and sticking. It was spectacular.

It never felt that she was constrained by the curriculum – there was always time to explore things. Sometimes it seems as if school can squeeze all the fun out of things. Creativity is great in this country and teachers like Miss Taylor help nurture it.

Miss Taylor was young and trendy – I remember her in nice clothes and jewellery. She was funny, but she wasn’t a teacher you’d mess about with. There was a sense of order, and you could tell that no one wanted to disappoint her. It was the worst thing if she got cross with the class, we felt terrible. She was encouraging – everyone’s skills were nurtured in a really nice way.

I went back to the school quite recently, to talk to the children about Tom Gates. It was peculiar walking up the stone stairs, because I can remember running down those stairs, leaping from the top, and it was still the same.

Some dyslexics are very visual and they solve problems in a different way. That’s something I’ve had to do all my life. When I started to write my Tom Gates books, all I wanted to do was create something I would have loved as a child. That’s why I did different fonts, drawings and patterns, to tell stories using not just words. Kids can pick up a book, collaborate with me on the pages which are blank and make their mark.

Tom Gates: Epic Adventure (kind of) by Liz Pichon (Scholastic) is available now.

Liz Pichon was talking Camilla Palmer 


CV

Born: 16 August 1963

Education: Brookfield Primary School, St Augustine’s CE High School, Camberwell School of Art and Design.

Career: Pichon is the author of the best-selling Tom Gates children’s book series, which has sold 2,000,000 books in the UK. Tom Gates has been translated into 36 languages, selling 1 million in Australia and New Zealand and another 1 million around the world.  

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