Those teachers got the work done, and they did it with enthusiasm, and inspired us. That's difficult to do well with teenagers

6th February 2004 at 00:00
I went to Glengorse prep school in Battle, East Sussex, where I remember being taught by Mr Corbett. He was great. He knew how to make things fun.

If we were flagging on a rainy afternoon, he'd teach us how to sweep mines in bad weather in the north Atlantic, because that's what he'd done in the Second World War. We wondered if it would ever come in useful.

From there I went to Cranbrook school in Kent, and got great teaching. The school was academically first-rate. I had this troika of teachers who taught me so much, although I'm not sure I appreciated at the time what good teaching it was, and how much they put into it.

There was Geoff Balaam, who taught me biology. He was inspirational. He taught me everything about evolution, and it knocked my socks off. It was the first time I'd managed to grasp a complicated scientific theory so that I could understand it and see how very beautiful it was. He did it by giving us a tour of people's thinking. He said: "These are the ideas people had in the lead up to Darwinism, then there was Darwinism, and then there is genetics on top of that," and I suppose what he did was make it into a story so we could understand it.

Les Johnson, who wasn't there long, taught me physics. He gave us a sort of quick romp through the lot, from mechanics to nuclear physics. He touched on everything, and taught us to pass the exam, which was important.

Then there was Tony Swinson, who taught maths. He must have worked together with Les Johnson, because there was this beautiful arrangement where he would teach us something one week and a week later it popped up in physics, so we knew what we were doing and felt we could do it. Tony Swinson gave us those tools, and if he did something, he did it properly. If he was teaching us a subject such as calculus, we did it and we were done. We were confident and competent. And it's something I don't always see in kids today when they're being taught maths.

But I take my hat off to whoever devised those A-level courses because they were good. They fitted together, and they gave you a good basis across a broad spectrum, so when you left, you were well prepared for university.

Another teacher I remember was Peter Allen, who taught Russian. He had a tremendous intellect, and taught me well. I did O-level Russian, which gave me a base in the language, and I worked for two-and-a-half years in Russia, so it was nice to be able to dig through the detritus of the years and find that that base was still there. But all the guys who taught me were good.

My French teacher was great. So were lots of the others.

I wasn't sporty at school, but I did start flying there. I joined the cadet corps, went gliding when I was 16, and took up powerflying when I was 17, although I didn't know what I wanted to do. It only emerged slowly, in the usual way.

From school I went to Edinburgh University, where I took a sidetrack and did ecology, and then a PhD in climate, so I've wandered between the biological and physical sciences all my life.

But all my memories of the people who taught me, and laid down the foundation for me, are of Cranbrook. Those teachers got the work done, and they did it with enthusiasm, and inspired us. That's difficult to do well with teenagers. I thought they were great, and I'm not going to be shy about saying it.

When I knew I'd been assigned to a space mission I thought: "Here's my chance to do something for the school." I rang up the head and asked if I could take the original Elizabethan school charter into space, but they couldn't peel it out of the frame, it was stuck in there with 500 years of gloop - or they didn't want to lose the only copy they had, although they never said that. So they took a photograph of it for me, and it was rolled up and stuffed under the floor of Atlantis, and it went up with us. I've got it in a cardboard box next to my desk now.

Astronaut Piers Sellers was talking to Hilary Wilce

The story so far

1955 Born Crowborough, Sussex

1968-73 Cranbrook school, Kent

1976 Degree in ecological science from Edinburgh University

1981 PhD in biometeorology from Leeds

1982 Moves to US to do research

1991 Becomes US citizen

1994 NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award

1996 Chosen as astronaut candidate by NASA

1997 Elected Fellow of the American Meteorological Society

1999 Liaises on Russian space programme

2002 Third British astronaut in space. Flew on Atlantis space shuttle to the international space station. Performed three space walks.

2003 Assigned as a spacewalker on NASA mission. Launch date uncertain.

February 2004 Visits Cranbrook school

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