Obituary: John Smiddy

18th September 2009 at 01:00
John Smiddy 1949-2009

The spontaneous outpouring of internet tributes and the hundreds of mourners at his funeral were not enough for those who knew John Smiddy and wanted to say thanks for his inspirational work.

In fact, Mr Smiddy's colleagues have taken to the hills to honour him after he died this summer following a long and distinguished career at some of the country's most famous schools. The head of sixth form and history teacher at Teignmouth Community College helped a generation of students fall in love with the coast and Dartmoor. Fittingly, local teachers have trekked around it to raise money for cancer charities in his memory.

Mr Smiddy was planning his retirement when his illness was diagnosed. He died on his 60th birthday. Instead of a wake, his family threw the party he never had.

As news of his sudden death spread, Devon pupils began leaving heartfelt tributes on the internet, explaining how much Mr Smiddy had inspired them to make the most out of life - something that brought comfort to his family, wife Jane, and children Jack, 21, Edward, 18 and Alice, 16.

Surviving through hardship was the main lesson Mr Smiddy tried to teach pupils during his 35-year career, perhaps inspired by his own experiences. While growing up in Cheshire he failed his 11-plus, despite his obvious intelligence. It was not until sixth form that he got the chance to go to a grammar school and for the rest of his life, Mr Smiddy despised selection, believing instead in the tremendous power of the community school. Perhaps this influenced his career, for which he trained after graduating from Swansea University.

Mr Smiddy first taught at Holland Park School, the comprehensive that was the darling of the liberal left. His pupils included Melissa Benn, daughter of Tony. Parents' evenings for the young teacher were consequently terrifying. After working in Stepney Green School, he moved to Hackney Downs where he was head of humanities at a time when the school was famously described as the worst in Britain by the Conservative government. Its closure, in 1995, is still controversial, with teachers convinced that children achieved a great deal considering their backgrounds. Mr Smiddy was immensely ambitious for them, and, as well as teaching history, tried to teach them how to be good citizens.

His work inspired a future secondary school teacher of the year, David Torn, who recalls him not only reminding everyone that exams were a passport to a better future, but also to give up seats on buses and to look out for each other. During his time in charge of the sixth form at Teignmouth Community College, whose former pupils include the rock band Muse, the number of students doubled and, this year, the school had the highest number of university entrants ever.

His assemblies were legendary, attracting applause from even the most cynical 18-year-olds. He was keen to entertain, making sure to "add a few funnies" into each and judging its success by the number of claps.

Teenagers thrived due to his support. After exam results, Mr Smiddy would spend hours on his home phone, trying to help them with clearing or other issues. His aim was for teenagers to experience life outside the quiet seaside town, although he was also keen for them to appreciate the world- famous environment around them, leading teams in the Ten Tors challenge.

Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in July 2007, Mr Smiddy remained positive, telling his family he could accept his condition because he had enjoyed a good life.

Ever the teacher, he sorted all his affairs and even wrote a reading for his funeral in the style of his assemblies. The only flower Mr Smiddy wanted at the funeral was a red rose from his garden, which he and Jane were planning to renovate. His family could not find any, until the day itself when a single bloom came out.

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