My best teacher

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Mrs Howes took such an interest in her class that she unearthed talents that no one else, least of all us, had recognised

After 10 years and 11 schools, my family returned to settle in Loughton, Essex, from the Middle East, where my dad, Fred, worked for the World Health Organisation setting up immunisation clinics. It was in Staples Road junior school that I met Lesley Howes.

She was my teacher in my final year of primary school and introduced me to a new way of looking at things. She'd show us a piece of art, or play a piece of music, then get us to write poems on the feelings these works inspired. There was never any right or wrong. She taught us that our reaction to art forms was as valid as any given piece of factual information.

Mrs Howes introduced me to acting. For some reason, she suggested I would like the children's workshops run by the local drama school, E15, and took me along. She didn't have to do that, but I know it wasn't just me she went out of her way for; many of my friends were given similar opportunities because of her dedication to us. I became a regular at the workshops, which really only involved raiding the costume cupboard and running around pretending to be that character for a few hours.

In school, you could talk to Mrs Howes about anything, not just poetry and art, and she would always answer as truthfully as she could. We'd discuss world events and she would encourage us to think about things for ourselves. I still remember a lot of what she talked about. I'd be excited about going to school because I would never know what would happen; what we would be doing. I'd always enjoyed school, but not like this. With so many different schools before we settled in Loughton, I had obviously developed mechanisms for settling into new classes. But Mrs Howes made me feel that I belonged, and although I had another teacher in Staples Road before her, she is the one I remember.

I don't remember doing anything in particular that suggested I would enjoy acting. But she took such an interest in her class that she unearthed talents in many of us that no one else, least of all us, had recognised. It wasn't until I was much older and in the Guildhall that I realised I could actually be an actor.

It took another teacher, Dr Phillip Casman, who taught me in sixth form, to suggest I apply to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. When I got my A-level results, which weren't great, I couldn't decide what to do, but he encouraged me to apply. I assumed such places were for the sons and daughters of actors - the Redgraves or the Barrymores. No one in my family had such a background. Mum, Mary, was a teacher, and Dad was still a WHO administrator. Although I was in lots of plays with E15 and at school, I never thought it possible to make a career of acting.

I still can't believe how much support and encouragement I received from the staff at Loughton county high, which later became Roding Valley high.

When I was 16, my friend and I put on a musical. We did everything: casting, acting, directing. Students and staff, including Dr Casman, took part. The head even agreed to move a mock exam out of the hall so we could rehearse. How many other schools would have put up with us tripping around the school in our tap shoes making demands? It seemed natural at the time that they should, but even then it must have been extraordinary.

Now, from what I hear about schools, I can't imagine it happening at all. I did get my A-levels, but those teachers seemed to think there was much more to learning than formal education. I was lucky to have so many teachers who had such a positive influence on my life, but teachers can do that in lots of ways, beyond what they actually teach.


1969 Born in Liverpool 1979 Returns from Middle East; Staples Road junior school, Loughton, Essex 1989 Loughton county high school 19991-94 Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London 1997 Plays Rachel in This Life on BBC2 1998 Plays Becky Sharp in BBC1's adaptation of Vanity Fair 1999 Plays Edith Thompson in the film Another Life and Fanny in the film AClandestine Marriage 2000 Plays Anne Boleyn in the film Kevin and Perry Go Large 2002 Plays Gina in About A Boy on BBC1 May 2003 Plays Dr Vicki Westbrook in Spooks on BBC1

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