My Best Teacher - Jemma Redgrave

5th March 2010 at 00:00
A primary teacher who ignored timetables and sent the actress home to pick up a pair of socks for her may have been quirky, but she taught powerful subjects brilliantly

I have mixed memories about my school life. I went to an all-girls' secondary school (Godolphin and Latymer in west London) and all-girls' schools are a coven of hormones, manipulation and bitchiness. It wasn't a pleasant experience but I did find my feet by the fifth form.

All-girls' schools can be very tough environments. It doesn't have to be the case, but I think I would have thrived in a mixed environment.

I had done very well at my primary school. I must have felt confident academically and when I got to secondary it was an enormous shock. I was nowhere near the top of the class and it was very dispiriting to find myself having to struggle. I rather gave up. My teachers found me quite difficult and they had to really push me.

But my primary school (Bousfield Primary in west London) was a very happy experience. I loved it and my favourite teacher was in my fourth year, Jane Lawrence. She was completely inspiring.

We were her first class. She had helped struggling children out of class but she had never taught a class before us.

She was very unpredictable. We didn't have a rigid timetable anyway, but she would tear it up at a moment's notice and do something else. She would just say, "I'm bored. Let's go and play rounders." I remember she had read somewhere that children could no longer name all the Beatles, so she put it to the test with our class. We didn't know whether this was part of the syllabus or whether it was important but it was good fun.

One day it was quite chilly and she didn't have any socks. I was the pupil who lived nearest the school and she sent me home to get her some socks. I saw her a few years ago when she came to see a play that I did and she said she still thought about that. No child today gets sent home in the middle of the day without the parent knowing about it. She was horrified with herself.

She came in one morning and told us that laws had been passed that meant brown-haired, brown-eyed people would no longer be able to live in certain places and would have to carry a pass. She was introducing us to the concept of fascism and Nazism but she did it by making us feel it.

She divided the class in half and I remember distinctly the feeling of abject terror as she described what would happen to us mousy-haired, brown-eyed members of the class. I have never forgotten how brilliant it was to make us feel before you start to tackle a subject.

She obviously taught brilliantly because I passed the 11-plus and I passed maths; maths was a horror for me.

Her daughter was in my class at secondary and she told me that the question she always asked herself was: "Would this be good enough for my own daughter?" That was a driving principle of hers.

She had three children and she talked about them a lot. She was very funny and made us laugh. She wasn't eccentric but she was unconventional and she was always surprising us.

What she did was light a fire underneath all of us. She made us curious and thirsty for education. It is sad that teachers have had their hands tied by endless diktat and legislation. Incredibly imaginative and creative teachers like Mrs Lawrence would not be able to do that now. She went off-piste. We went for an extraordinary slalom; it was exciting and thrilling.

Jemma Redgrave is patron of Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank, a programme for key stage 3 pupils at Shakespeare's Globe in London. For details, visit and for free resources, visit She was talking to Nick Morrison.

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