My best teacher

28th April 2000 at 01:00
In my early days with the BBC I was trying to be a novelist, and I would regularly go back to my old school, Downside, taking a guest room in the monastery to write for a week. Downside is a Roman Catholic public school set in the countryside near Bath.

If you're brought up in a monastic school, you tend to take the monks for granted. They're the establishment, the power structure, the people you react against. Some years back I would have said that they hadn't transmitted much to me of their way of thinking about the world, but as I've grown older I've realised that's not true. I think it had a very powerful effect, and I'm not talking directly about religious instruction.

Dom Illtyd Trethowan taught me English. The monks, because they were almost like extra teachers, taught what they liked, something they felt passionate about, which of course is the optimum way to teach. Illtyd (who was a philosopher - he wrote books on philosophy and theology, a very very intelligent man) taught us Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the metaphysical poets. I don't remember him as a teacher in the sense of somebody telling us things. I just remember him talking about how much he loved whatever it was we were doing.

I can distinctly remember in his class - I would have been about 15 - suddenly getting Shakespeare. Till then I think I'd treated Shakespeare dutifully. I knew this was a great pinnacle of culture and I was really too conformist to throw it out the window, but I didn't get it. But we were doing King Lear, and Illtyd was talking about some line, like "Pray you undo this button" and suddenly the emotion came flooding through.

If you have a teacher who is a monk, part of the teaching doesn't come out of his mouth, it's just seeing him walk into the room. Here is somebody who didn't want to become a merchant banker, didn't want to become a millionaire (not that there were any then), didn't even want to find some gorgeous girlfriend, who had made a coscious decision to pursue a completely different path. And that made me think that what teachers give you is themselves. Pupils respond to you as a person, as a human being, without realising it.

It's had an effect on me as a writer, on my sense of what's important in life, and therefore what I write about. In The Wind Singer, by the time you get to the third volume, you meet a whole group of people who are referred to in the first book, called the Singer People, and I realised I was creating a modern version of these monks, people who made a choice to serve their society and not themselves.

Increasingly, with the lousy pay that teachers get, that's what teachers are doing. You don't become a teacher to get rich; you become a teacher to serve. I find that very powerful. I want my children to be in the presence of good people. I want that more than for them to get high exam results.

A monastery school is an odd place, but I think there's an underlying common connection that any teacher would recognise: that you are passing on a part of yourself, and your enthusiasm. You're obliged by the system to force the children to respond and give back. That can be arduous, but at the end of the day it is that quality of you that you're sharing with them, and that will do them the lasting good. I'm sure that's true.

The story so far

1948 Born January 12 1961 Aged 13, enrols at Downside monastic school, near Bath 1970 Graduates from Christ's College Cambridge with double first-class degree in English literature 1975-85 Writer-director-producer at BBC 1985 Writes script for TV production Shadowlands starring Claire Bloom and Joss Ackland 1993 Film version of Shadowlands is nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay 1995 Writes screenplay for Nell, starring Jodie Foster 2000 First children's novel, The Wind Singer, published by Egmont; writes for the films Grey Owl and Gladiator

William Nicholson was talking to Michael Thorn

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