My best teacher

Aubrey Pope wore John Lennon glasses, a tweed cap and cycled to school on one of those bikes with very small wheels. He rode a bike for environmental reasons, not because he didn't have a car. He was very "green" long before it became fashionable.

He was unlike any other teacher I ever had. He taught me German and Russian at Royal Liberty school in Essex, and I still remember his first lesson. He taught us a complete sentence in German, which would translate: "After the two children had left the house, they go into the park to play football."

It was an extraordinary thing to learn on your first day, but a very good sentence because it contained many of the rules of the German language.

In French, we began with numbers and verbs and six weeks on had learned virtually nothing, yet with him we were straight into sub clauses. He taught us the rules of grammar, but he marked our work in the German style. Instead of eight out of 10 or whatever, it would be one (excellent), two (good), three to four (average) and five (useless). He would also give credit for length on essays.

You knew the route map with other teachers, but you never did with Pope. His approach was always unexpected. He knew I was keen on The Beatles, for instance, and came in one day with a half-hour tape of a radio programme discussing the lyrics of one of their songs in German. I don't think he was into pop music, but he knew it would interest me and I listened to it and learned from it. He was very creative that way.

He was also ahead of his time in the way he used language labs before they became fashionable. He would take us to see Brecht plays performed in German, and was good at explaining why the author wrote as he did and what he was trying to say, which I found very interesting.

He didn't indoctrinate or push you into doing things, he just made things available and encouraged you to think, as a good teacher should. In Russian lessons he would have Soviet Weekly lying about because he thought if you were going to learn a language, you had to learn the culture as well. Once, off my own bat, I entered a competition in the paper and he said: "You shouldn't have done that, you'll be on the security service's database now." I think he was joking, but having subsequently become home affairs spokesman, I'm not sure he wasn't right.

I have probably used my German twice in about 25 years, and I haven't used my Russian at all since I left school. However, the good thing about learning foreign languages is that it broadens your mind. You learn about different lifestyles and ways of thinking, and pick up concepts that have no English equivalent, like the German word bildungsluecke (a sort of cultural gap).

Having him as a teacher made me more open-minded and taught me to question things. I was growing up thinking that the Soviet Union was a big bad place and the West was good, and he explained that there was good and bad in all countries and gave me a more mature outlook. It wasn't until sixth form that I discovered he was political. He was very leftwing and green, and often wrote to the local papers about environmental issues.

I shouldn't think he knows I became an MP. If he does, I think he would be surprised. I remember him saying to me in class when I was being particularly obnoxious: "I've never hit a pupil, but I've come nearer to it with you than anybody else".

MP Norman Baker was talking to Pamela Coleman


1957 Born in Aberdeen

1968-75 Attends Royal Liberty school, Essex

1975-78 Studies German at London University

1981 Appointed regional director of Our Price Records

1985-97 Teaches English as a foreign language

1989-90 Environmental campaigner for the Liberal Democrats at the House of Commons

1991 Elected first Lib Dem leader of Lewes district council

1997 Elected Lib Dem MP for Lewes

2001 Becomes Lib Dem spokesman for home affairs

2002 Voted best Opposition MP by MPs; continues to ask questions in the House relating to the Hinduja passport issue

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