I went to George Watson’s College in Edinburgh for my whole school career. The school encouraged everyone, regardless of ability. It didn’t seem restrictive at all. I think that was quite unusual then – it was a pretty forward-thinking place.
When I was 11, I had a teacher called Mr French who comes to mind immediately as one of the best. He was my absolute favourite: my form teacher and an amazing bloke. He had a really fun way of engaging with the kids in his class. He made you want to learn and get involved.
It wasn’t just me he inspired – I know that a number of my classmates thought he was brilliant and really enjoyed his classes, too. He allowed each child to develop in their own way and follow their own path. Whatever they were interested in, he’d try to support them.
It’s a real gift when a teacher can be themselves, command respect and get children interested in what they’re doing. Thinking back to school and how some teachers dealt with the children, Mr French had the right balance.
Some had to be strict and authoritarian – quite harsh and a bit joyless, really – so it was great to have a teacher who was a bit more lighthearted. But it didn’t mean that we didn’t respect him. If we stepped out of line he’d pull us back. There was a relaxed atmosphere in the class, but you couldn’t get away with anything.
Mr French was funny, too. The humour he brought to lessons meant we all enjoyed them. We were all engaged. He was great at involving everyone. You were never afraid to put your hand up and ask a question.
We didn’t want to disappoint him. It wasn’t really “us” and “him” – we were all in it together. When you’re in primary school and you’re all together for most of the subjects and not streamed, there’s a strong sense that you’re part of a team. He had a real skill at bringing everyone together as that team. My entire career has been built on this ethos.
He was quite young, probably in his twenties at the time – and pretty cool for a teacher. He loved sport and we were really impressed by his collection of football stickers. I’m pretty sure my mum fancied him – she always looked forward to parents evenings a bit more when it was Mr French.
I did get into trouble at school a couple of times – nothing major, mind. I had good friends and I’m still in touch with lots of them now. The social side of school was really important – just as important as the academic stuff, I think.
It’s about learning about people, about relationships and life in general. I think life’s lessons are often learned at school. A good education should equip a child to become a lovely person with purpose, not just someone who can pass exams.
I’ve seen Mr French a bit in the past few years. It’s always funny to see how adults are so much smaller when you’re an adult yourself. I’ve met him at a couple of events I’ve done in Edinburgh. It’s always just really nice to catch up with him. The scary thing was realising that 30 years had gone by since I was in his class.
Obviously, I called him Mr French, and he said, “No, come on, you can call me by my first name now,” which was funny. The respect you have for a great teacher probably never dies.
Sir Chris Hoy supported this year’s World Book Day Award, which gives schools the opportunity to win a life-changing amount of books. He was speaking to Camilla Palmer