Let obituary cheer lighten your working week

26th February 2010 at 00:00

There are countless pages in this newspaper that should be read before wading through anything written by me. But there is one weekly column that I would particularly recommend readers never to miss - the obituary. It may sound like a rather sombre read but in practice I find it to be one of the most cheering and inspiring couple of minutes in the entire week.

I have rarely even heard of the person who has died, but that's probably the whole point. I somehow feel that each one was once a colleague.

We have all sort of known, for instance, the former music teacher from Wales who would regularly ask pupil volunteers to push-start his elderly car down a hill in Abergavenny. Familiar, too, was the proudly undomesticated scientist from Essex who used to tell her pupils: "I am to housework what Yehudi Menuhin is to ice hockey."

Most of us will also have a distinct image of the ultra-practical technology teacher who set his pupils the ultimate shining example by single-handedly building and furnishing his house.

Equally recognisable is the typically less practical humanities teacher whose ambitious field trip experiment with pupils and kite-cameras had such distressing consequences for the power supply lines to a section of East Anglia.

These familiar accounts are, therefore, not just honouring the people featured but also acclaiming the impact and achievements of thousands. Their accomplishments also frequently remind us of the key teaching principles that we should try to cling on to, as opposed to exam and electronic data-driven principles from elsewhere.

It is surely significant that the most inspiring practitioners remembered are nearly always admired for their fun, creativity and natural enthusiasm, rather than for any particular facility for, say, target setting, exam coaching or data handling. Incidentally, you can find similar confirmation of this in the memories found in the TES Magazine's "My Favourite Teacher" column. I don't comment on this as some kind of old-school sentimentalist - in fact, I can bore with the best of them over the potential for spreadsheet analysis in schools.

However, the excellent obituary column has a frustrating side. It reminds me that we nearly always leave the most important words until it is too late. We reserve our fullest, from-the-heart tributes until teachers are either dead, retiring or - at best - moving schools. I teach in a very supportive, positive and successful school where I think line managers acknowledge good deeds, but why should we rely on the formal communication system? Why stop there? We should all take time to praise fully, at length and to whoever warrants it - however remote our professional connection and whatever their and our status in the school.

I say this now because I dearly wish I had taken a few minutes last term to tell one young teacher "over in English" how lucky my appreciative tutees were. But instead I just vaguely thought that I would get round to it. She died after a car accident in the Christmas holiday, which of course doesn't begin to describe the profound sadness here.

We know pupils are lifted by praise. So let's offer the same to each other, where it's due and probably overdue.

Obituary, page 39

Stephen Petty, Head of humanities, Lord Williams's School, Thame, Oxfordshire.

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