Four who helped to fan the flame

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Nigel Gates recalls three men who fed his youthful enthusiasm for the profession and a fourth who makes him cry.

They inspired me to teach

I have four favourite teachers: three of them are real (and deceased), the other is a fictional character. All have influenced me, and still do - in all sorts of ways.

When I was at school in the 1950s, I was taught physics at Kingswood school, Bath, by a man called Robert William Trump who, with his colleague, Cyril Kearsey, produced several popular physics textbooks. Mr Trump taught at Kingswood from 1921 to 1961. How many teachers stay put for 40 years these days? He was an outstanding teacher. He had a long list of qualifications and a Military Cross that he won in the First World War.

Unlike some academics, he was a brilliant communicator and conveyed the complexities of physics with enthusiasm and apparent ease.

He was all that a great teacher should be - and 50 years later, I still recall his lessons. They were meticulously prepared. He had duplicated fact-sheets, hand-written in his immaculate script. I recall his perplexing statement that the railway line from Paddington to Penzance was some 50 feet longer in summer than in winter. As the buffers at each end never moved, how could the railway line get longer?

Later, I went to Westminster College, Oxford (then a teacher-training college, but now part of Oxford Brookes university). After some salesmanship from James "Joe" Simms, the PE lecturer, I changed my teaching subject. Mr Simms had charisma. I recall his commands in the gym, such as, "When I say go, I want to smell burning rubber."

He had excellent class management techniques and pupils learned a lot from him, including how to make best use of their peripheral vision. In my teaching career, I have passed on so much of his teaching.

He was in his late 50s when he taught me, but he was a great runner.

Westminster College was on top of a steep hill and a cleaner, seeing him return from a run sweating and gasping, told him he would have a heart attack. But he just shrugged and uttered his frequently stated maxim: "A grave only differs from a groove in its depth."

In 1970, after several years in the classroom, I returned to higher education to do a geography degree at Cambridge. The subject was going through a "quantitative revolution" and was becoming increasingly mathematical. While there, I was privileged to be lectured by the geographer Professor Henry Clifford Darby.

His lectures were accessible even for my non-mathematical brain. Though erudite and professional, Professor Darby - he became Sir Clifford in 1988 - was an entertainer. From him, I learned many techniques which I went on to use in my university career. I was captivated by his course on the changing English landscape. These transformed the way I saw the countryside. Wherever we go in the UK, what we see is almost always a man-made landscape, and he showed us how to interpret it.

In my later career as a geographer in a teacher training institution, I taught historical geography among other topics, and I hope those I taught have, in turn, passed on these insights into the English landscape. I also hope Professor Darby's legacy lives on.

But my favourite educationist - and my fictional role model - is Mr Chips, the lead character created in 1934 by James Hilton, a schoolmaster's son, in that beautiful story Goodbye Mr Chips. Of course, it's dated a little by now, but I believe the book could be read usefully by anyone who teaches or aspires to teach. I read it frequently. It always leaves a deep impression on me and I usually finish it with tears in my eyes.

Goodbye Mr Chips is the inspirational story of Mr Chipping, a gentle, unassuming man who teaches almost all his life at Brookfield school. He overcomes early difficulties to become a much-loved teacher. His wife and child die in childbirth. At the end of the story, Chips is dying and he hears a colleague say, "Pity he never had any children." In reply, Chips murmurs, "Yes I have... thousands of 'em... and all boys."

Could any teacher fail to be moved? Goodbye Mr Chips reminds me of why I entered teaching. It is, without question, the book that I would take with me to that famous desert island.

Nigel Gates is principal lecturer in education at the University of Hertfordshire

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