Skip to main content

Words from the wise

A teacher might not necessarily work in a school. But wherever they are, they have helped to make their students who they are today. Every week The TES's Friday magazine highlights the heroes behind today's headline-makers. Harvey McGavin looks back at the best of 2002

If you believe everything you read in the papers, 2002 has been a year of resignations and recriminations, bad marks, low morale, high workloads, strikes, shortages and security checks. Amid all the bad news it's sometimes hard to remember the many good things about teaching. The classic TES series My Best Teacher, now in its eighth year, is your antidote. It's a celebration of people who put the inspiration into education. They might not know it at the time - and some will never know the influence they had - but a good teacher's efforts are appreciated for a lifetime.

My Best Teacher never runs short of famous and successful people keen to thank their childhood tutors. And for every celebrity who tells their story in the pages of Friday magazine,there are thousands more who owe a debt of gratitude to their teachers. If you ever wonder why you do this job, read these memories from the past 12 months, and be reminded of the words of American writer Henry Adams: "A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops."

Paula Radcliffe, long-distance runner. Mike Leith at Kingsley community primary school, Cheshire

I started running while I was at Kingsley primary. Another girl there, a member of the local harriers, and a teacher called Mike Leith both encouraged me. Mr Leith was supportive from the beginning. I think he saw me running on school sports day and we used to run in inter-school matches - that was probably where he saw me and decided I could be good. I would have started running anyway but he gave me a push in that direction.

Mike Figgis, film director. Mr Forbes at Northumberland Road, Carlisle, Newcastle

He was like a teacher you see in films: he always looked tired and always carried a briefcase groaning with notebooks. I remember him once in exasperation saying to the class: "You're absolutely terrible. Teaching you is a nightmare and if you were all put on a desert island you would all die very quickly because you have no interest in anything at all. Except maybe Figgis. I think Figgis would survive longer than any of you because he is the least uninterested in everything."

Janice Long, disc jockey. Miss Dutton, St Edmond's College, Liverpool

Miss Dutton looked like Edward G Robinson and taught Spanish. She used to tell us about her trips to Spain and insisted that when we went we must taste churros. For years, every time I went to Spain on holiday, I tried to find these blinking churros. Eventually, I tracked them down in Minorca, and discovered they are doughnuts which you dip in chocolate.

Nigel Planer, actor. John Leonard at King's House school, Richmond

In English lessons Mr Leonard had a clever technique for encouraging us to read: he'd start reading from a book and then, just as it was getting interesting, he would close it and move on to something else, so we were motivated to finish it ourselves.

Ferdinand Mount, journalist. Mr Cornwell at Eton College, Windsor

In my final at Eton year there turned up fresh from university a young man with a mop of fair hair to teach us German. He was a dazzling mimic, and knew how to take the stuffing out of the arrogant oafs in the back row who had so terrorised his predecessor.

Of course, he didn't stay long. "Corns is going off to be a spy," we said. Somehow we knew this although the notice just said that Mr D J M Cornwell was leaving the staff to join the Foreign Office. To while away the time he began to write thrillers - the murderess in the first one was based on the ebullient wife of a fellow master. Because he was a spy he had to write under a pseudonym. We all thought the one he chose rather affected - John le Carre. Pity he gave up teaching. He was a natural.

Charlie Dimmock, TV personality. Mr Woodward at Mountbatten school, Romsey

My chums always knew me as Charlie but the staff called me Charlotte. I remember when Mr Woodward's wife was expecting a baby he said to me in a disparaging way, "We're even looking at Charlotte as one of the names", which I took as a backhanded compliment.

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP. Aubrey Pope at Royal Liberty school, Essex

Once I entered a competition in Soviet Weekly and Mr Pope said: "You shouldn't have done that, you'll be in the security services database now."

I think he was joking, but having subsequently become home affairs spokesman, I'm not sure he wasn't right.

Duchess of Devonshire At home

I learned so much more from my family and people such as the groom, the blacksmith, the cowman and the gardener than I ever learned in the schoolroom.

Johnny Vegas, comedian. Mrs Rowlands at West Park school, St Helens

Once we had to read a piece of literature aloud and I read The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. When I finished she started clapping really slowly as if to say: "Now that is how to read a piece of literature." She was trying to be nice but all the time I was thinking 'Please stop - if you only knew how many slaps I am going to get at break time'."

Jilly Cooper, novelist. Miss Lloyd at the Godolphin school in Salisbury

Miss Lloyd made English literature tremendously exciting. Her classes were a joy. She would transfix us when she talked. She knew how to pick out the lovely bits so your hair stood on end. I was terribly badly behaved at schoolI it makes me blush to remember now that we debagged Miss Harris, our sweet junior housemistress. She was pretty but rather wet and we took off her cardigan, her shirt, her tweed skirt and her shoes, and there she was, wriggling like a wet fly in her petticoat, when the housemistress caught us. I think our punishment was to be denied cake for a week.

Andrew Lincoln, actor. Tony Lawdham at Beechen Cliff grammar, Bath

While other teachers reacted differently to different kids, he treated everyone the same. He was absolutely fair and there is something beautiful about being consistent, as not many people are.

James Dyson, inventor. Tony Hunt at the Royal College of Art

He was the first teacher to enthuse me. I didn't enjoy my school days, mainly because I was studying the wrong things. I did no science at all and had a mental block against technology until Tony showed me that engineering could be creativeI he really changed the direction of my life.

Sue Johnston, actor. Nora Potter at Prescot and Huyton girls' grammar school, Liverpool

Being taught by Nora Potter was the best thing that happened to me. She changed my life by making me see what was possible, and it was because of her that I became an actress. She gave me a part in the school production of The Tinderbox and there was a moment on stage when I did something and everybody laughed. I felt so at home, so right in my skin. I knew then that I wanted to be an actress - she recognised it too.

Maya Angelou, author. My grandmother

By anecdote my grandmother taught me all the important lessons. Some of her stories were the Aesop fables or the Brer Rabbit tales. Through them she taught me to be honest, hardworking, and to put on no airs. She'd tell me stories so many times, and she had the most agile eyebrows in the world - when they went up they were like exclamation marks.

Ann Widdecombe, politician. Sister Evangelista at La Sainte Union Catholic convent in Bath

Sister Evangelista was strict. She demanded high standards and insisted they were delivered, so people tended to concentrate in her classes. She kept order by the force of her personality. She was also patient and if you didn't understand something she would go back to basics.

She was a nice person. I remember one occasion when, still hungry after supper, a group of us went and picked apples from the garden. Sister Evangelista caught us munching them outside on the steps. We thought we were going to get into trouble, but when she found out why we had taken the apples, more were brought to us.

Sir Patrick Moore, astronomer. Reverend John Nissen, the vicar at Coleman's Hatch, near East Grinstead

Mr Nissen had been a science master at Lancing college and gone into the church on his retirement. He had a tremendous sense of humour and we had great fun. I was ill, and in and out of bed throughout my childhood, but managed to cycle over to the vicarage for lessons a couple of times a week. It wasn't due to his encouragement that I went on to write or broadcast or do any of the things I've done since. I was completely self-motivated and self-disciplined. I didn't need encouragement. My interest in astronomy was not due to his influence either. Physics was his subject. I'd been fascinated by astronomy, in which I am entirely self-taught, since the age of six ... As far as astronomy is concerned, I am most certainly my own "best teacher".

Imran Khan, lawyer. My father

He is a conundrum in lots of respects. He has been my inspiration, but I don't know him. He worked horrible hours and took on two jobs to keep us, yet he always made sure he spent time with us and supervised our homework. We knew he was proud of us but he would never say anything nice to you directly. The only time he told me he was proud of me was about five years ago, after the Stephen Lawrence case. He praised me in front of 250 people at a public meeting. I was close to tears. He is a great advocate of positive thinking. When I have periods of angst, I can hear him saying:

"Failure is not a word we use!" My father's mantra has always been: "You will succeed."

Sir Peter Ustinov, actor. Mr Gibbs at Mr Gibbs' preparatory school for boys in Sloane Street, Chelsea

I've never quite recovered from the psychological impact of the comment on one report from Mr Gibbs: "This boy shows great originality, which must be curbed at all costs."

Jennie Bond, BBC royal correspondent. Mrs Cherry at St Francis' College, Letchworth, Hertfordshire

Mrs Cherry had hennaed hair and a gravelly, smoky voice, and we could see her legs under her gown. She was of the school of thought that I came across later at university: that books are fine, but are a means of making you think. But the most illuminating thing I remember her saying was that we'd know when we were really in love with a man because we wouldn't mind sharing his toothbrush.

Andrew Davies, scriptwriter. Slug at Whitchurch grammar school, Cardiff

There was one teacher who was especially dangerous to muck about with, our English teacher, whom we called Slug, but not to his face. He had a cruel wit and a fierce and sudden temper. Quite often, one forgot to fool about because he was such an interesting manI Many years later, I phoned him to tell him that my son had just got a first in electroacoustics. "I'm not surprised at all," he said. "Talent often skips a generation."

Betty Jackson, fashion designer. Jim Cawthorne, Bacup and Rawenstall grammar, Lancashire

Sometimes he did odd things. For instance, we'd be sitting in the art studio with our HB pencils poised and suddenly he'd say, "Nobody's doing anything that's remotely interesting, so let's go for a run around the block. When you come back, you'll all feel better. " He made us look at things. I remember being sent off to find a bright green leaf and being told to mix up exactly the same colour paint. When I said I wanted to go to art school instead of university, all hell broke loose at home, but Mr Cawthorne was thrilled.

Original interviews by Helen Barlow, Yolanda Brooks, Matthew Brown, Pamela Coleman, Harvey McGavin and Hilary Wilce. Photographs: Rex, Camera Press, Richard Lea-Hair, Neil Turner, Peter Searle, Christopher Jones

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you