Mrs Williams and Mr Leech by Sarah Willingham

13th April 2018 at 00:00
The entrepreneur and former star of Dragons’ Den recalls two teachers who taught her the importance of asking questions and being a good listener – two skills that have helped her to succeed in life

My mum was a maths teacher and I am sure that her influence is why I loved my school days. She taught me to believe in the person I really am, even if it meant turning right when everyone else was turning left.

I also met my best friends in the whole world in primary and high school, and we are all still close today.

My primary years were awesome – full of games in the playground, kiss chase (don’t tell my dad!), British bulldog, stick in the mud and snow. We seemed to have a lot of snow in the ’80s.

In high school, which I attended between the ages of 13 and 18, I was lucky enough to have loads of great teachers, including Mrs Williams, who was our geography teacher. She was so inspirational and funny. My best friend, Sarah James, and I used to sit at the back of the class and monkey about; little did we know that we were making memories that would stay with us forever.

Another teacher I remember was Mr Leech. He was my A-level English teacher and I adored him.

He let me challenge and question. At times, this meant allowing me to disrupt the class a little, but I always did it with a smile. Looking back, I think that he understood me a lot more than I realised then. He was a very special person.

Emotional reunion

I recently went back to do a prize-giving at my high school, Newcastle-under-Lyme School, which was very emotional. I never won a prize at school and I just couldn’t believe that I was now standing on that stage, giving them out.

Mrs Williams was still there and it was so wonderful to see her. Mr Leech sent me a card, as he’d heard I was going to be giving the prizes. Reading it made me cry.

Both Mrs Williams and Mr Leech encouraged me to have a go at everything at school, which helped me to become a good all-rounder. They also helped me to develop the skills of asking questions and really listening to the answers. These are such important skills for everyday life. No question is too stupid and I have never minded being the one to ask anything. I’ve never worried about looking stupid – I just keep asking questions and challenging until I have the answers I need.

But learning to listen is just as important. When you really listen, you learn that not everyone is as smart as they first appear, which is never a bad lesson to learn in life.

Reflecting on it now, I believe my school years have kept me grounded; I think that having the same mates since the age of 5 has given me a security that allowed me to try new things.

School allowed me to challenge and to question in a safe environment. It allowed me to test myself all the time. Mrs Williams and Mr Leech never clipped my wings. They might not always have totally understood me, but that was OK, as long as they didn’t stop me.

Kids need to be challenged and to challenge, and that’s why I am such a supporter of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme. Children need to learn resilience and to find out how far they can be stretched, like I was at school. It’s so important to get children to leave their comfort zones.

I call it “imposter syndrome” – this is what it feels like when you first leave your comfort zone. But soon, before you know it, you won’t feel like an imposter anymore.

Sarah Willingham was speaking to Suzanne Baum

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