Past master of performance

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Continuing our look at the finalists for this year's Teaching Awards, Michael Duffy talks to lifetime achievement nominee Michael Weaver.

Mention his nomination for the lifetime achievement award, and Michael Weaver winces. "If I'd been a horse," he says, "they'd have shot me by now. But I struggle on." The smile tells you he doesn't mean it. He enjoys teaching, he says, as much now as when he started, 35 years ago. And 31 of those years have been spent at his present school - the very school, he tells you, where William Balgarnie, model for Mr Chips in James Hilton's novel of the same name, started his long career 100 years ago.

But there is little of Mr Chips in Michael Weaver. It's true, he's something of a fixture at Woodbridge school in Suffolk: an ancient foundation, now independent, with 800 pupils and its own distinctive character - "just like an old town grammar school". But he is equally part of the town of Woodbridge itself, immersed not just in its past (though he founded its museum and campaigned successfully to rescue its tide mill) but as town councillor and recent mayor.

He is also a guide at the Saxon burial site at nearby Sutton Hoo and, with his history teacher wife and Woodbridge colleague ("the amazing Mrs Weaver"), the author of a series of local histories and handbooks.

That doesn't explain, though, his remarkable record as a teacher. He has brought history to life for generations of his pupils, and spurred them to remarkable achievement. Last year, for example, 35 per cent of them got A* in GCSE history. "That was their doing," he says, "not mine." He then quietly tells you his greatest pleasure was sharing the delight of a less talented girl, proud to have attained a B.

So what's his secret? It's a question he is too modest to answer directly. But he does suggest, recalling his own schooldays in Swansea (and betraying his passion for Swansea City FC and the Welsh rugby team) that being Welsh is a factor. "The Welsh have always looked up to their teachers. Because they wanted to emulate them they have often become teachers themselves."

And then hetells you about his own history teacher, Hans Gross, a refugee from Nazi Germany - "a wonderful man, a wonderful teacher".

He admits a sense of drama can be useful. "I think there is something of the performer in me. I suspect that is true of all teachers - certainly all of them who enjoy their teaching. It could explain," he adds, "my taste in ties." His distinctive ties have clearly become a sort of trademark - so much a part of him that friends and pupils vie with each other to present him with ever-more colourful examples. He once had a huge collection - he auctioned 800 of them in aid of the local children's hospice that his sixth form was supporting.

And that tells you something else about him. He's a superb historian, but it's his ability to generate enjoyment that marks him out as special. How many history teachers are prepared to turn their classroom into a bomb shelter to lend realism to a lesson on the Blitz - or to model the charge of the Light Brigade with bottles of light and dark ale to show the different units? And it is enjoyment, he says - in this case his own - that has kept him in the classroom, happy to be head of department but untempted by out-of-classroom promotion. "I am in a grand school in a delightful town and county. It is a privilege, not a chore, to work with young people who, though not always perfect, are always bright and breezy."

In other words, a contented man. He is fortunate - and so are his pupils.

The national final of the Teaching Awards at the Millennium Dome on October 29 will be broadcast live on BBC TV

MICHAEL WEAVER'S TOP TIPS

* Be yourself. Children are astonishingly quick to spot pretence.

* Love your subject. Children will relish your enthusiasm.

* Keep your pupils guessing. Don't be predictable - surprise your classes whenever possible.

* Don't expect gratitude from pupils or their parents, even when you've made that special effort. But don't be surprised by the grateful response of many others.

* Prepare carefully - and file and label your notes and resources. Good organisation saves time.


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