Mr Kusner by Sarah Brown

28th March 2014 at 00:00
The charity campaigner recalls an art teacher whose kind and encouraging approach was a magnet for every student

I went to Acland Burghley, a huge mixed comprehensive in Tufnell Park, North London. Reggae musician Eddy Grant had been a student there before me and hip hop artist Ms Dynamite was enrolled later.

Joe Kusner taught me art from age 11 to 16. His art room was literally at the heart of the school - which had perhaps 1,200 students - but it was also emotionally at the heart. It was a magnet for every child. People flocked there. I wasn't an artist, I was far more focused on science, but I still found myself drawn there all the time.

I feared that because I did academic subjects I would never be any good at art but Mr Kusner always encouraged you. He always made you believe that whatever you were expressing, whatever you were creating was as good as anyone else's work, irrespective of raw talent.

And he used to be in school all the time. Even after hours, children could go to his classroom and do their maths homework before youth club. It was a social centre for the school.

Mr Kusner was very connected to his students and interested in what they had to offer. When I was editing a book about people who had been an inspiration, I had the opportunity to go back and interview him. His personal story was amazing. He was born in Lithuania but his family had to flee because of the Holocaust, in which he lost his mother. He ended up in South Africa during apartheid and, like many who were there at that time, he gravitated towards London.

I asked him what had been his inspiration and he simply said that inspiration was a two-way process. He drew as much from the students as they did from him.

Unsurprisingly lots of students took art A-level and I remember one year he got something like all 36 of the cohort an A grade. He was eventually appointed MBE.

At his core, Mr Kusner was both a good artist and a good teacher. He took care in his own profession but what made him unique was the extra effort and energy he put in to understanding the best in each and every one of his students.

I still have two of the pieces of art I did in his class, one of which is on the wall of a spare bedroom.

I was lucky to go to Acland Burghley. The students could be disruptive from time to time but not in Mr Kusner's classroom. They respected him too much. He had a quiet authority about him. It was a school where we would go to the National Theatre if there was something on there - we were encouraged to go out and experience all the arts. Appreciate the arts.

Mr Kusner understood that everyone had the right to fulfil their potential and the right to go to school and learn. I'm a patron of a UK charity called the Shine Trust, which is all about identifying those extra opportunities for children. They run amazing after-school and weekend programmes and I remember how much I benefited from similar opportunities myself.

Sarah Brown was talking to Tom Cullen. She is a patron of UK education charity the Shine Trust, which runs the annual Let Teachers Shine competition to find and fund innovative teacher-led ideas to raise attainment in the classroom. To apply for a grant of up to pound;15,000, please visit The closing date is Sunday 27 April

World in action

Sarah Brown

Born 31 October 1963, Beaconsfield, England

Education Acland Burghley School and Camden School for Girls, both in North London; University of Bristol

Career A patron of the UK education charity Shine, founder of A World At School and the wife of former British prime minister Gordon Brown


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