My best teacher

Paula Barnett

I went to West Buckland school in north Devon, an independent school about 10 miles from Barnstaple. It was a fantastic place, a lovely building surrounded by playing fields. Living in Ilfracombe at the time, I faced a good 40-minute round trip on the school bus every day.

School was an extremely positive experience for me. Sport played a large part in my life, but I enjoyed my studies too. I got on well with all the teachers at West Buckland and, as I was a good, hardworking student, they generally got on well with me.

I guess the most dramatic change for me involved a physics teacher. I had not enjoyed physics, in fact, I hated the subject. But embarking on a new timetable one year, I met my new teacher, Mr McHarry. Suddenly, physics was great. It's hard to explain why but my whole view changed. He was a very good teacher, he was enthusiastic and he made the subject come to life. I ended up taking physics, maths and French A-levels and then actually took my degree in physics.

Teachers can make such an impact on you. If it wasn't for Mr McHarry, I certainly would not have chosen to study physics at university. Who knows what I would have done instead? I often think I would have liked to take history further, but the subject at school just didn't inspire me, similarly with English literature. An academic, deadpan approach does not work; it is so important when a teacher enthuses about a subject. Mr McHarry was inspirational.

But my experience with everyone at West Buckland was genuinely positive. Picking out names is difficult as I had such a great relationship with all the teachers there. Corporal punishment was still allowed, and I was whacked on a few occasions for my misdemeanours. But on the whole I was well behaved.

I remember being a bit of a worrier. I used to play rugby and the practice sessions were after school. There was always the choice of two buses, the 4.15pm or the 5.30pm, but our rugby master used to keep us out on the field in the freezing cold until 5.25pm, when we had to race in, grab our things and run for the bus. I used to get anxious that my poor parents would have to trek all the way out there to pick me up, and end up waiting.

The head of sports during my time at West Buckland was a great man called Lawrence Whittal-Williams. Triple-jumping was new to me and he was very encouraging right from the start. I represented the school and county even though I wasn't fantastic and didn't always win. Being a late developer, I was a lot smaller than other boys at school. But Lawrence Whittal-Williams picked up on my natural talent early. I imagine he found me very frustrating, as I put all my efforts into studying, and didn't train hard. I did continue with the triple jump throughout university, but it wasn't until after graduating that I began to take my sport much more seriously.

Lawrence is still the head of sports at West Buckland and we keep in touch. I have been back to the school a few times, and much has changed since my day. It used to be all boys, apart from the sixth form, and is now completely mixed, so it does feels quite odd. I am due to visit this November and to present prizes at speech day in 2002.

Athlete Jonathan Edwards was talking to Paula Barnett

The story so far

1966 Born in London

1984 Wins English schools championships

1988 Competes in the triple jump at the Seoul Olympic Games

199094 Wins silver in the triple jump at Commonwealth Games

1992 Wins the World Cup triple jump at the world championships

1993 Wins bronze at the world championships

1995 Wins gold at the world championships in Gothenberg. Breaks triple jump world record twice

1996 Wins silver at the Atlanta Olympics

1997 Much of season curtailed by bruised heel

1998 Wins European indoor and outdoor titles. Undergoes surgery

2000 Wins triple jump gold at the Sydney Olympics

2001 Wins D NGalan grand prix in Stockholm

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Paula Barnett

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