29th May 2009 at 01:00
Chris Bennett 1955-2009

Asked to sum up Chris Bennett, his colleagues do not hesitate: "sport, sport and more sport". There is a pause. "He was into bikes and biking. But that's sport, too."

Between coaching the trampolining team and taking pupils skiing, however, the PE and maths teacher also fostered a deliberately childish sense of humour and a fondness for practical jokes.

Christopher Bennett was born in Essex in 1955. From an early age, sport filled his spare time: he played rugby, cycled, skied, played squash and competed in triathlons.

By the time he finished school, he realised that his spare-time obsession could become a full-time profession, and enrolled at Cardiff University to study maths and sports.

It was while at Cardiff that he met fellow trainee teacher, Lynnette. They married shortly afterwards, and their first son, Tomos, was born in 1985; Rhys followed three years later. The boys' names reflect Lynnette's Welsh heritage, which was shamelessly appropriated by her husband during the rugby season.

Returning to his home county of Essex, the couple both found jobs in local schools, Bennett working as a PE teacher at Chalvedon School in Basildon.

In the late 1980s, he took a job as head of PE at the Deanes School, in nearby Benfleet. He immediately volunteered to lead a number of school teams, ranging from the conventional - rugby and football - to the off-beat, such as trampolining.

And he led these teams to victory: the trampoline team, for example, won national competitions for several years in a row.

But he was a good sport off the field as well. He had a quick, slightly childish sense of humour, and loved practical jokes.

Each year, when new Year 7 pupils arrived for their first PE lesson, he would plant a fake turd on the changing-room floor. While pupils screamed in horror, he would crawl in on his hands and knees and pick it up in his mouth.

This same fondness for deliberately silly humour characterised his relationship with staff. Passing colleagues on the way out of the staffroom, he would catch their attention and beckon them back. "Yes?" they would inquire. "See you later," he would return.

But he always took his teaching responsibilities seriously. Pupils saw him as firm, but fair: a stable, trustworthy presence. They wanted to be taught by him because they knew his classes always did well.

He also saw it as his duty to welcome and encourage newly qualified teachers: he always invited new recruits to join him for a pint at the local pub.

He was not only interested in winning teams. He passionately believed that sport should be available to pupils of all abilities. So he established a series of non-competitive sports clubs, including archery, orienteering and swimming. And he introduced compulsory GCSE PE for all pupils, regardless of ability. It was, he emphasised, the taking part that counted.

As with many PE teachers, age had begun to take its toll. So, when in 2003 an opening came up for a maths teacher at the Deanes School, it seemed an opportune time for a career shift.

In maths, too, Bennett emphasised accessibility for all. Colleagues would regularly walk into his class to find pupils trading chips over a pontoon board. The card game, Bennett believed, was a helpful way of teaching basic addition.

But he continued to coach school teams during his spare time. He regularly cycled, buying up bike frames and building them into functioning machines. It was this relentless activity that made it obvious when he developed myeloma, a form of bone cancer. Accustomed to high levels of fitness, he struggled to recover from colds and coughs.

But he had always said that he did not want to live to decrepit old age. His wish was granted: he died before old age forced him to abandon the sports he loved.

Chris Bennett is survived by his wife, Lynnette, and two sons.

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