Yes, my students and I do have relationships

27th September 2013 at 01:00
Teachers are not just vessels of information, they are mentors who can inspire even the trickiest teens, as this email exchange shows

George is an A-level film studies student. He missed the last lesson of the summer term, during which, predictably, he was expected to hand in project work. Instead, he sent me this email later that day:

Sir di di sir sir,

I'm afraid I have come down with the flu and that is why I wasn't in the lesson today, what happened? Was Callan there? Was he drugged up again?? Maybe it's time for the rehab intervention with him.

Anyway, having the flu has given me good opportunity to watch Withnail and I. I thought it was amazing, seriously fantastic - Richard Griffiths gives such a good performance and one of the best I've seen on screen in a long time. The humour was right up my street and the characters (Withnail in particular) were worryingly relatable.

The writing was great and I eventually want to write something like this myself. Also, how are you? I hope you are well, do you still play squash? Do you drink squash while playing squash? Is the sport squash just product placement for orange squash? I don't know. I think it's time that you try a proper sport, like rugby. Let's be honest: if ageing, balding men can't get drunk watching it then it isn't a real sport.

I hope you have a good summer or, in the extremely likely situation that you don't check your emails until September, I hope you've had a good summer playing squash and getting drunk at train stations as well as going to your slightly pretentious music festivals and watching box sets one after the other, day by day passing by, never opening your curtains.

Well, anyway, best wishes.

From the charismatic king who is the envy of Oscar Wilde, George

My response, some weeks later:

Georgie porgy,

I apologise for my belated reply but you will appreciate it takes some considerable time to wade through the adoring fan mail I constantly receive from similarly inspired students. And this doesn't even take into consideration the rather time-consuming practice of introducing my own beatnik films to baying crowds on the indie festival scene (I said no to Cannes, of course), nor the demands of petty, bourgeois festivals with hay-bale-throwing competitions and Guardian readers doing farmer impersonations.

So, anyway, I did actually read your earlier missive but instead of replying I posted it on my middle-aged equivalent of social media, the "balding beard book", and you will be happy to hear you were something of a viral sensation: 30 likes and the same comments, which is impressive since I have only 60 friends and half of them can't log in yet. It was made all the better by the fact that we were attending some such festival at the time.

Sooo glad you liked Withnail. I will expect you to be able to quote it verbatim next term for an early test. Which part exactly are you relating to? If you're drinking lighter fluid and missing out Monday to come up smiling Tuesday then I feel I should perhaps report it. I won't actually get round to it, of course, but there will at least be a residue of latent guilt.

Anyhow, I will stop babbling. You should watch This is Spinal Tap, Napoleon Dynamite and Four Lions, if you haven't seen them, for your continued comic development. And keep writing. You are quite possibly a brilliant talent, George. But you are also incorrigibly lazy and it will take more commitment than you ever dreamed possible to make it in this business. So get cracking! And show me anything you write.

Right, I'm off to get squashed. Enjoy throwing up in bushes, making up adventures that didn't happen and trying to order plant fertiliser on the interweb, or whatever else you teens do these days.

Best, Mr Nelson Thornberry

What I like about this exchange is that it shows something about the nature of the relationship between teacher and pupil. George is a talented but lazy student who rarely hands in any work at all. However, sometime after this exchange, George wrote a feature-length screenplay and sent it to me. It was not part of any curriculum. I duly read it and commented on it, even though I am no longer working at the same school. I maintain such relationships with a handful of old students and I hope they are fruitful for them.

This word "relationship" is absent from any professional development process I have ever been a part of as a teacher. Our success or failure is judged entirely on the statistical merit of our results, and the plethora of ways in which they can be measured. In fact, the most recent protocol has tried to distinguish between pastoral care and teaching responsibility, with the intention of moving all pastoral matters over to a buckling year team. The rationale, I understand, is that teachers are then free to "teach", meaning to "deliver the curriculum".

But, to me, teaching is relationship. Almost invariably it is the quality of the relationship between teacher and student that determines the extent to which the student enjoys that subject. As such, it is the relationship that has the potential to spark any real passion for learning or to foster an environment of real personal, social and moral exploration.

And yet, without meaning to labour the point, our children are growing up in schools where these immeasurable things simply don't seem to matter any more.

Nelson Thornberry is a pseudonym. He is a teacher at a secondary school in the UK. Read his blog at

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today