My best teacher - Sir Stuart Rose

13th November 2009 at 00:00
Not `intellectually blessed' and lacking in confidence, the Mamp;S boss found salvation in a paternalistic French master at his Quaker-run school

I went to school in Tanzania until I was about 11 or 12. It was a convent school, St Joseph's, and was run by Swiss priests and nuns. It was pretty strict and taught everything by rote. It went as follows: come to school, learn the times table, go home, come to school, learn the catechism, go home. It is not my happiest memory. Sadly, what I remember most is being rapped over the knuckles with a ruler and not being inspired by my teachers.

Then I went to Bootham, a Quaker-run school in York, which had a completely different ethos. It went from the ridiculous to the sublime. The teachers were absolutely focused on understanding that it was not all about academic achievement per se but what you could do to make yourself a more rounded human being.

Anthony Pym was a French master and he was also my housemaster. He was a teacher of the old school: he cared about the development of young people, he cared passionately about teaching, he recognised that everybody was not on the same level and if you were not intellectually blessed you still had some potential.

He was quite old by the time I got there. He was very paternalistic towards me and he recognised what I was good at and what I was not good at.

I tried very hard and did my work, but I was not an academic. I was more of an all-rounder. I liked what the school offered in terms of sport and the social side - I was in societies, I was into acting, astronomy, all sorts of things.

The school gave me self-confidence, absolute belief in myself, that I was not necessarily going to be a brain surgeon but I could be good at something. You have to do it because nobody is going to do it for you. I had that work ethic because people encouraged me.

If I didn't get all the certificates I wanted, I got a notion of being a normal, rounded individual. If I had gone to a school that was not quite so laid back I would probably have done better academically, but because I had been forced to work earlier I probably reacted against that and I enjoyed myself. I did more of what I liked doing and less of what I needed to do. Would I now send myself to that school? To get my academic results, no. To get my human results, yes.

I didn't go to university and I regret that, but I don't know what I would have missed or whether I would have been successful. If I had to choose, if I could only be one - a better academic or a better human being - I would choose to be a better human being.

I didn't know what to do when I left school. My mother was anxious that I should go into one of the professions, probably to be a doctor, but I would have been completely useless at it, even if I had got the right qualifications. I wrote to all sorts of companies and the first one to write back and offer me an interview was Mamp;S.

Life is full of luck. If somebody opens the door for you, look through it and if you cannot see a bear trap on the other side, go through it. It is easy to say no, but what is the worst that can happen?

Sir Stuart Rose is executive chairman of Marks amp; Spencer. He is chairman of Business in the Community and this term launched The Big Conversation, which aims to make work experience more meaningful. He was talking to Nick Morrison.

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