In a world where school staff are treated with suspicion, we should remember that teachers transform lives

1st February 2016 at 16:47
The best teachers
Teachers are some of the most influential members of society, writes the government’s mental health champion, and I'll never forget my favourites

This time last week, I was at a swanky hotel drinking champagne being poured out of gigantic magnums proffered by men and women in white waistcoats. I has just been named one of the 500 most influential people in the UK (and specifically one of 20 most influential people in education, alongside my hero Sir Ken Robinson) by the Sunday Times and Debrett's. Debrett's also has a foundation, whose key aim is to encourage more social mobility. Which made me think.

I might be mixed race, a third generation immigrant on one side of my family, white working class on the other and have attended a comprehensive, but I still grew up in the relatively affluent South East of the country (even if I did have less money than my friends) and managed to wangle a place at one of the best, single-sex state schools in the UK (according to me and *ahem* Michael Gove – it’s one of the few things we agree on).

Having said that, my life could easily have turned out very differently. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a wise, supportive family as well as truly exceptional teachers. The influence of my favourite teachers remains with me today.

Not one actual teacher made it into the Debrett's list. So I wanted to take this opportunity to remember my favourite teachers and what each of them taught me (which was far outside the remit of the national curriculum).

Mrs O’Sullivan

Mrs O’Sullivan taught me English in Years 7 to 9. She had a truly beautiful Scottish accent (and would get really offended if you said she sounded like Lorraine Kelly, which makes me think it must have been quite a broad Scottish accent as opposed to a "posh" one). I can still remember her reading Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky poem aloud to us and it was the best thing I’d ever heard.

One day, Mrs O’Sullivan found me wandering about the school hall looking all frustrated and asked me what was up. I was kicking myself, because I’d just made it to the final of our school’s hugely prestigious annual public speaking competition and, for the third time running, had been pipped at the post.

That’s because you’re not a public speaker” she said. “You’re a debater. Mark my words. You wait until you’re allowed to do debating competitions in Year 10. You’ll be magnificent”.

I went on to become a champion Oxford Union debater and my university Debating Society’s first ever female chairperson. Because I was a debater. Mrs O’Sullivan said so.

Mr Biggins

What a legend Mr Biggins was. He taught me A-level history and somehow managed to make learning about the Cold War (when, lest we forget, nothing ACTUALLY happens) interesting. He had this sort of Jack Dee-esque fake grumpiness about him, but a wicked, dry sense of humour underneath which made him instantly appeal to his teenage audiences.

Someone in our class (I can’t remember who) said “Yeah but there’s no propaganda any more” during a class about the Third Reich. At the time, Mr Biggins just said “Right” but the next lesson we were told that we were going to watch some TV adverts. What Mr Biggins taught us that day, about the emotions we associate with certain celebrity’s voices and how we can be made to think positively about a brand without even realising we’re being manipulated still forms the basis of the social media/advertising section of my Self-Esteem Team lessons today.

Mrs Sheppard

Mrs Sheppard taught me A-level English but happened to come into my life when I was struggling with my identity. During sixth form I began to realise I was really "different". I genuinely loved reading and would request extra research material from my teachers because I found everything endlessly interesting. At a time when most of my peers were entrenched in romantic dramas and discovering alcohol, I was acutely aware that this was not normal.

It was Mrs Sheppard who made me realise it was OK to be myself. We had a tiny study room up by the computer labs, which was about 3 inches square and therefore no one ever used. I would lock myself in there for hours reading about philosophers and authors and making reams of notes I’d never use again. Mrs Sheppard used to stick her head in and ask me what I was reading. She was simply interested in me and what I thought about things, at a time when not many other people were. And that meant the world.

Dr Cochran

Dr Cochran was the epitome of an eccentric academic. He wore tweed trousers and had the bushiest eyebrows I’ve ever seen before or since, which he used to brush upwards into elaborate peaks. He was obsessed with Lord Byron and had a million books, which he stacked up around him in his office (which also featured a poster of Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction). He had this magic ability to engage the naughty but clever girls in my year, who were remarkably intelligent but also thought they were too cool to study. 

More importantly, Dr Cochran directed the schools’ annual Shakespeare productions, and in my final year he cast me as Macbeth. I still remember how elated I felt (I’d never managed to get a main part before, I’m not a natural actress, but had spent ages pouring over VHS tapes of other people playing Macbeth, including Dr Cochran himself, and mimicked them for the audition).

Dr Cochran taught me many things – that Shakespeare was bisexual, the power of eyebrows and most importantly that it’s OK to swear as long as it’s within the context of beautifully constructed sentences.

Mrs Buchanan

The headteacher for my final few school years and still one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. She looked almost exactly like David Bowie, used to wear leather trousers and come and sit with us at lunchtime. She wouldn’t usually say anything, just listen to us talk and smile wistfully.

Mrs Buchanan was my first feminist icon and for that I shall forever be thankful.

In a world where teachers are treated with suspicion, where the increasingly tick-boxy nature of your days suggests that someone out there thinks you aren’t doing your job properly, I wanted to remind you all what we know to be true – and probably the reason you entered this profession – good teachers change lives and their kindness, wisdom and guidance stays with their students forever.

Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion and tweets at @NatashaDevonMBE

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