My Best Teacher: Emily Maitlis

14th August 2009 at 01:00
A sophisticated and intelligent man unlocked the world of English literature for this newsreader

Jon Gallagher probably changed the course of my life. He was an English teacher at King Edward VII School in Sheffield who primarily taught me at A-level.

Until I had him as a teacher I was all set to do languages, probably Spanish and Italian, at university. But he changed my mind and I ended up studying English literature at Queens' College, Cambridge.

He taught me to read in a new, exciting way. We read things by Henry James from a broad Marxist and economic perspective, and we read The Tempest from the view that it was Shakespeare's last play. We looked at all the mortality and death in it, even though it's usually regarded as a comedy or romance. It completely changes the tone and depth of the play.

Understanding that broader context was so important, whether we were reading John Donne, Shakespeare or Arthur Miller. He really emphasised the psychological side of literature and the historical setting. It made everything so interesting.

Mr Gallagher unlocked the door to literature. I wanted to please him so worked harder for him than I'd ever done before. He was inspirational.

He gave so much and I wanted to reciprocate by doing well. I certainly wasn't his favourite; I think I wound him up too much for that by trying to sound all grown up, but that didn't stop me from trying hard to please him.

He was quite a young, trendy teacher. He wore very narrow ties that would be quite dubious in the fashion world by today's standards. He looked like an overgrown, sharp-suited student, but he didn't act like that. He was passionate about his subject and that really came across to me and encouraged me to work harder still.

He knew he had the power to embarrass people and I was probably quite scared of him. I was aware of trying really hard all the time not to sound silly. He could be provocative and he could be sharp and cutting when he wanted to be. But he was generous in sharing his huge wealth of thoughts, ideas and knowledge.

Unique teaching style

It's incredible to think that we were studying the Restoration comedies in such depth at just 16 years old. I'm not sure anybody else taught them quite the way he did. Mr Gallagher never forgot that we were looking at plays that were meant to be performed and not just books that were to be read. It was important to him that we knew about the historical context of the plays, how the audience would think at the time and what was going on around the plays during the Restoration or Enlightenment.

Some of the plays were so bawdy and filthy, but Mr Gallagher was never embarrassed. He'd tell us, quite frankly, if a play was based entirely on a venereal disease. We thought we were all pretty modern and trendy in the 1980s, but compared to those 300-year-old plays, we were all pretty old- fashioned and staid. He made it clear that they were more cutting edge than we'd ever be.

The most important thing he taught us was that not everything is as it seems. He taught us to be sceptical. That is massively real and relevant to what I do in my life now. Government, politics and current affairs are rarely what they appear to be. You have to take a closer look and see what's underneath.

His style of teaching was sophisticated at the time and would be considered that way now as well. It was never patronising. Instead, it covered all the big themes, making you want to re-read something to see if everything is as it had first seemed, or whether there was anything buried in there.

It was probably better teaching than anything I experienced at university. I gleaned more from him than any other teacher.

I kept in touch with Mr Gallagher for five to 10 years after I left school, but I don't know what he is doing now. I wrote to him for a while from the Far East, but you've got to let go at some point. He knew at the time how important he was to me.

There were so many great teachers at King Edward, but Mr Gallagher stood out, not least because what I learnt from him is so relevant and related to what I am doing today

  • Emily Maitlis is a BBC newsreader, journalist and presenter. She is currently supporting the Usborne Young Writers' Award. She was talking to Hannah Frankel.

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