Teaching, like many things in life, is 95 per cent perspiration and 5 per cent inspiration. The My Best Teacher articles in TES always highlight one thing that a particular teacher has given to the author and for many, such as Danny Mills (Mr Nicklin, 11 March 2016 – article free to subscribers), that was the need for hard work in order to achieve.
Mr Nicklin taught Mills that:“If you are prepared to show up, do your best, put the hard work in, then you tend to do alright for yourself,” and that hard work, allied to his talent for football, led to Mills playing 19 times for England.
For many of the celebrities who tell us about their best teacher, it was the inspiration that they gave them that was most important. One example is Stan Grue, who inspired Kenneth Branagh with a love of Shakespeare (TES, 5 April 2009) and still goes to watch Branagh in plays and meets him backstage.
Mo Farah’s PE teacher, Alan Watkinson, has rightly been publicly acknowledged by the athlete for his critical role in starting Mo on the course that led to Olympic success.
Whether for perspiration or inspiration, everyone remembers their own teachers. I remember mine, from those who struggled to teach me Latin and French to those who stimulated my interest in mathematics.
It is a particular pleasure when I meet former pupils, as I did recently in London when two people, now in their forties, spoke to me, one in the cafe in the Department for Education and one in a coffee bar at Paddington station. They remembered me and I remembered them.
The 'feelgood factor'
It is good for teachers to reflect on what they remember from their own schooling and what they would most like to be remembered for by their pupils. When teaching seems an uphill struggle, the workload feels unmanageable and an Ofsted visit is in prospect, taking this longer perspective can bring back the feelgood factor.
It also acts as a reminder that education is about so much more than tests and exams. Every good teacher will be an inspiration to some of their pupils, and for much more than getting them through exams. Nobody can be an inspiration all of the time or to everyone, but sometimes it is essential to remind ourselves that teachers make a difference to the lives of all the young people they teach and sometimes that can be the inspiration that completely changes the life chances of a young person.
The former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, has written recently about his English teacher, Peter Way (pictured), who inspired him with a love of books and of poetry. “It’s no exaggeration,” wrote Motion, “to say that in certain ways he gave me my life." This is the poem that Andrew Motion wrote the day after Peter Way’s death on 30 March this year:
My teacher, who reached down inside my head and turned the first lights on. Who gave me Keats to read, which turned on more. Who made me read. Who made me write. Who made me argue for the truth in things themselves. Who told me manners maketh man. Who let me question even the things he said himself were true. Who gave my life to me, by which I mean the things I chose and not inheritance. Who showed a quiet voice can carry far. Who took the gratitude I owed to him and changed it into friendship. Who was kind. My teacher, who died yesterday at peace – his hardest lesson and the last of these.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford