We are what they made us

24th December 2004 at 00:00
A favourite lesson or valuable piece of advice can stay with us forever. 'TES Friday' magazine regularly celebrates schoolday memories in its My Best Teacher slot. Emily Whitchurch picks the best of 2004

What is it that makes a person one of "those who can"? For many students, memorable teaching is not simply about being taught a subject well. It's not just about being or becoming good at that subject. The teaching that transcends the walls of the classroom is the stuff that sticks with them.

That's why, week after week in My Best Teacher, the famous, infamous and downright notorious queue up to testify to those people who have inspired them. Whether it's about planting belief in your potential, being taught to appreciate your limitations, or just making you laugh, some lessons are priceless. Here are just a few of the best memories of 2004.

Sir John Mortimer was taught by Francis Wylie at the Dragon school, Oxford.

Francis Wylie, who taught me English, was a handsome man who was pleased to listen to himself reciting poetry and, as I was also terribly pleased to hear myself reciting poetry, we got on well. I needed no encouragement. Mr Wylie would recite in a John Gielgud voice and was, I think, a frustrated actor. He realised I was allergic to any form of sport or games so he used to send me, with a bar of chocolate, to the Oxford Repertory Theatre, which was then near the Dragon school. Instead of playing sport, I sat in the matinees eating chocolate and enjoying Bernard Shaw plays. I think everyone was pleased I missed games. I once played cricket, and every time they said "Over" I moved further away. I just sat in the long grass reading Ibsen.

Julie Fernandez, actor, producer, disability consultant and campaigner. Mr Terry at Lord Mayor Treloar college, in Alton, Hampshire.

My French teacher, Mr Terry, was so amazing that two classmates and I wrote to Jimmy Savile to "fix it" for him to go on a helicopter ride. Our school was near Odiham airbase and every time a Chinook went over Mr Terry would stop the lesson and speak into his watch: "Pick me up in the back field in five minutes, Harry." So we wrote to Jim'll Fix It to take him up in a helicopter, and they did.

Mr Terry was short with greying curly hair, in his mid-forties. He was strict, but he had a great sense of humour and he helped us to laugh. He often played practical jokes on us. He was mad about Samuel Pepys.

During his lessons you could always throw him a red herring by mentioning Pepys; that would put him off the scent of teaching French.

Amanda Redman, actress. Rudi Shelley at Bristol Old Vic drama school.

Mr Shelley once told me: "You have a voice like a fart in a wicker basket: it has no idea which hole to come out of." He really made me laugh.

He was inspirational, the most gifted, natural drama teacher. Often at drama school, your teachers can be failed actors, but Rudi was just phenomenal. He was very clever, very understanding of everybody and everything. He got to know all the pupils individually and all their foibles, and he brought the best out of every one of us.

You can always tell somebody who has been to Bristol Old Vic because they all do impressions of him. He had these saying like "squeeze your lemons" - which meant you had to imagine you had a lemon between the cheeks of your bum so you'd stand up straight - and "pull down your bolero", meaning "keep your ribs high".

Pippa Funnell, Olympic equestrian. Ruth McMullen, "trainer mentor and friend".

Ruth is a perfectionist and so am I. Several times I remember being quite pleased with my performance in a competition, and she would point out where I had gone wrong and what I could have done better. I might have felt a bit flat for a few days, but looking back, I see that was what set my standards so high. Looking at the video of my performances in the Olympics, I don't think: "Great, I got a medal." I analyse what I could do better.

I only enter competitions I think I, and the horse, can win, and an awful lot of that attitude is due to Ruth.

Denise Leigh, joint winner (with Jane Gilchrist) of Channel 4's Operatunity. Jill Cope at Blackfriars, a special day school in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

I had a bit of vision then and I remember her soft, feathery hair and silky, floaty clothes. She was very feminine and always smelled nice. In the upper school she took me for needlework, which was fun. I was keen but hopeless and she was very patient. I remember once sewing the piece I was working on to my clothes. She laughed, then carefully unpicked it. Miss Cope made me forget I was blind. She'd say: "Have a go, just try."

At parent evenings, she told my mother and father I could do anything I wanted. Without that year in her class I would have been a different person. She gave me the confidence I needed to study, and to sing and perform in public.

When I had my first child in 1994 I had an urge to go back to see Miss Cope and I took my baby girl with me. I thanked her and told her how she had turned my school life around. She was very moved and we had a little cry together. It was lovely.

Dianne Thompson, chief executive of Camelot, operator of the national lottery. Miss McLennan at Batley girls' grammar school, Kirklees.

Miss McLennan, who taught French, was passionate about her subject and cared about her pupils, whom she referred to as "her girls". She insisted we each had a French name, which had to be embroidered in red on a pale blue sash worn over our white blouses and red sweaters. I chose Jeanette, which made my mum cross because it was long and she had to do the embroidering.

Sue Townsend, writer. Mr Moles at Glen Hills junior school, Leicester.

The thing about Mr Moles was that he used to make himself laugh. He always stood to read, and he would slowly slide down the side of his big table and sometimes end up on the floor in laughter. I was often unable to stand up at the end because my legs were so weak from laughing. That has been my benchmark for laughter ever since.

Michael Rosen, writer and broadcaster. Barry Brown and Dickie James at Weald County grammar school (now Weald college).

Barry Brown was my favourite teacher. He was a new graduate, came from Manchester, and wore suede shoes. He sat with his feet on the desk. He often broke off from whatever we were doing to tell stories and we soon recognised, too, that he had a glad eye for the women teachers. He was active in the local am-dram society and asked me to join. My first performance was in The Merchant of Venice playing a little boy assistant fanning a potentate. I was hooked, and was given the part of an ant in a play called Under the Sycamore Tree he was directing at school. The other teacher I remember is Dickie James, a short, plump man who smoked a pipe.

He was diabetic, which meant that occasionally he would doze off, and if this happened we quickly had to give him something to eat. We'd have to revive him about once a term. He kept a lump of sugar or a bit of chocolate in his jacket pocket for such emergencies.

Richard Whiteley, broadcaster and presenter. John Dean at Giggleswick school, Settle, North Yorkshire.

John was an immaculate teacher; he'd refer to books from his shelves, and recycle his old Oxford notes. He marked our essays with detailed annotations and very tough grades. I'd always wanted to be a television cameraman, and I used to sit in chapel working out where I would put the cameras if the service was televised. I was a child of television; we got a set when I was eight. I used to babysit for John's two sons when he went out with his wife, Muriel. It was a fantastic privilege, because I'd be able to watch his TV. He'd leave sandwiches and you got to stay up until 10pm. His house was lovely, full of books, beautifully furnished with stylish pictures.

Tanni Grey-Thompson, athlete. Mrs Cogbill at St Cyres comprehensive, Vale of Glamorgan.

Mrs Cogbill had this attitude simply to get out there and do it. At the time there wasn't much talk about "inclusion", but she didn't treat me any differently from anyone else and just encouraged me to get on with it. I joined my local athletics club when I was 15 and trained at school. Even back then the idea of me being a disabled athlete didn't seem strange to them. When I look back now I think it was way ahead of its time.

It was that sort of school. The ethos was to push us to be the best we could be. That came from the head, Brian Rowlands. I don't think I would have achieved what I have if I hadn't been at a mainstream school. I don't think I'd have been involved in sport, and my life would have been completely different.

Rhona Cameron, comedian. Mrs Fairclough at Musselburgh grammar school, East Lothian.

I polarised teachers. They either liked me and encouraged me or - like the domestic science mistress, Mrs Fairclough - loathed me. I already knew how to cook, but Mrs Fairclough consistently gave me poor marks for what I made in class. To test her out, one day I swapped my dish of macaroni cheese with one made by the most popular girl in the class. She got full marks for my dish and I got bad marks for hers. I challenged the teacher and she hated that. I challenged quite a lot of people while at school.

Sam Torrance, golfer. Mr Murphy at Largs high school.

When he was new to the school, a friend of mine, Douglas Wraith, and I decided to go round to Mr Murphy's home, ring his doorbell and run away - just for a laugh.

The following day he came into school and I have never seen a man looking so angry. He threatened to punish the whole class, so we owned up and he told us to see him after school. We were absolutely terrified because he looked so menacing. But he didn't punish us; he took us to his home, gave us a cup of tea and some cakes and explained that his wife was new to the area, and having someone ring the bell and run away really scared her.

He taught us so much about consideration for other people in the half-hour we were there. After that, Mr Murphy and I became friends and we played golf together. Dougie and I never rang his bell again.

Rob Spragg, musician, Janice Bridges at Af'n Taf comprehensive, Merthyr Tydfil.

Janice Bridges was unmarried and quite eccentric. She had a Sixties beehive and wore a mini-skirt. She recognised there was a bit more to me than the kid who, unbeknown to her, had been taking magic mushrooms on the playing fields.

Maggi Hambling, artist. Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, Benton End, Suffolk.

We lived in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Benton End, where the artist Cedric Morris lived with his lover, Arthur Lett-Haines, was known locally as "the artists' house", and considered disreputable. Lett would have a gin and French on the go from early in the morning. He criticised the way I did things and after a week I was in tears, but he said: "You don't pick holes in a rotten apple." He took me seriously.

Life really began. The world opened up. It was Lett who said the most important thing: that I should get into the relationship with my work, that it was my best friend, that I could go to it whatever I was feeling and have a conversation with it. It was a great privilege, at 15.

Cedric died in 1978. He and Lett had fallen in love on Armistice night and were together 60 years. He's still in my dreams. I can still hear his laugh. If you're going to be an artist, it has to be the priority of your life. That's what Benton End showed me.

Judge Jules, DJ. Mr Field at Highgate Wood school, London borough of Haringey.

When you teach history, arguably more than any subject - even English - your ability as an orator and storyteller has a great impact on how good a teacher you are.

That was what was so fantastic about him. You can teach history as a rather boring set of facts in chronological order, or you can tell a story in an almost filmic way. That was what he did. When a teacher is really good, children will forget they are in a class.

Jonathan Stroud, children's author. Bill Bowen, Wheatfields junior school, St Albans.

All Bill Bowen had to do was lower his beautiful, melodious voice, bring about a slight shift in timbre, and the children's hair would stand on end.

In assembly, he would persuade 120 children to sit still and listen to classical music, usually something child-friendly such as Rossini's "William Tell Overture" or bits of Mozart. Once the record was on, he adopted a very particular pose to listen, leaning forward with his eyes tight shut, which one of the boys used to mimic. He was always extremely theatrical and did things no other teacher would do. When he took us for hymn practice every week, he used to thrust and stab with his baton at the "foul fiends and hobgoblins" in "To Be a Pilgrim".

David Attenborough, naturalist, broadcaster and author. Horace Lacey at Wyggeston grammar school for boys, Leicester.

Mr Lacey was a stocky man who walked like a gamecock with his head turned to one side. He had wiry, frizzy hair and enormous brio.

To come into Horace Lacey's class, where he treated you as a thinking human being who might have interests and enthusiasms of your own, was so refreshing. He was a good teacher who conveyed his delight and fascination with the natural world, and I was very grateful to him.

When he retired I was invited to the school prize day. I'd read natural sciences at Cambridge and by that stage was on television and had a public reputation; I think he was pleased by what I had done. It was my first opportunity to say thank you to him. I started off on a eulogy of dear old Horace, going on about how good he was, but was suddenly completely thrown when I glanced towards him across the school hall and saw he was so moved that his shoulders were wracked with sobs.

Kwame Kwei-Armah, actor, singer and playwright. Jane Latozel at Barbara Speake stage school.

I suppose she was like all the best teachers in that what she gave you went beyond just teaching, or beyond the classroom. It was a view of the world, and a view of yourself in the world. It's the confidence that gives you that's so important, especially in the performing world I'm in; whether acting or singing or writing, it's all tough and you have to know what you're about.

Interviews by Pamela Coleman, Judy Parkinson, Karen Hooper, Harvey McGavin, Matthew Brown, Geraldine Brennan and Wendy Wallace

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