Skip to main content

Sir William Atkinson: My best Shakespeare teacher

The headteacher who turned around a struggling London comprehensive was inspired by an English teacher who passed on a belief in the power of education, along with a love of Shakespeare.

News article image

In common with many of the teachers of his day, Mr Floor was extremely enthusiastic about and committed to his subject.

He taught me English language and literature with some drama on the side at the wonderful South London comprehensive that I attended between 1961 and 1968.

His main passion lay in introducing his working class students to the joys of great authors and great literature. As a former grammar school student he believed that his life had been significantly enriched by the study of the best and most respected authors whose work had stood the test of time.

Post-war teachers

The teachers at my school in the mid-sixties fell into three main age-related categories. The first had served in the Second World War as combatants and owed their teacher status to completing a two-year teaching course introduced at the end of the war to quickly fill the vacancies caused by the war.

The second category consisted of teachers in their late thirties and mid-forties who had attended grammar schools before progressing to university. Members of this category were often to be seen wearing academic dress during school hours.

The third category was made up of very young teachers in their early twenties who had attended grammar school and generally red brick university. This latter group had chosen to work in a comprehensive because they believed in the comprehensive ideal.

Well-rounded education

The overwhelming majority of the teachers believed that a good, well-rounded education was not only a necessity for all but an essential requirement for a fairer and a more healthy society.

It could be said that Mr Floor approached his work with a certain amount of missionary zeal. Although he went to great lengths to support and encourage his students he was also a strict taskmaster who did not tolerate or accept second best. His classroom was always a hive of productive activity where genuine mistakes and errors were presented as opportunities for personal and shared reflection. Having a go was positively encouraged with no opprobrium directed at the risk taker.

Mr Floor not only made Shakespeare accessible and thought-provoking, he also made the plays enjoyable. Shakespeare was fun. Mr Floor used Shakespeare to extend horizons, ignite imaginations and in the process secured a place in our hearts for Shakespeare forever.

Sir William Atkinson is a headteacher who turned around the struggling West London school, Phoenix High School. His services to education and community relations were recognised with a knighthood in 2008.

My Best Shakespeare Teacher

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. It is estimated that around half the world’s population first encounter the playwright’s work while at school.

To recognise this, TES has joined forces with the Royal Shakespeare Company to celebrate the role that teachers play in making those early experiences as inspirational and enjoyable as possible.

My Best Shakespeare Teacher explores the influence that teachers have had on some of the country’s brightest talents, honouring people whose passion and drive can ignite an appreciation of Shakespeare and the arts that can last a lifetime.

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you