Teacher’s pet

08/01/2014  •  2807 words

Tell us about a teacher who had a real impact on your life, either for the better or the worse. How is your life different today because of him or her?

I was blessed with several excellent teachers. A few questionable ones, admittedly, but overwhelmingly my teachers were A-grade. They were almost all knowledgeable; most were also passionate and – often overlooked as a virtue in a teacher – able to teach.

I am very grateful for the things I learned in lessons. Like most people, though, the teachers who made the biggest impact on me were not those who best equipped me for examinations but those who equipped me for life. Two such teachers stand head and shoulders above the rest in this regard.

The first was and English teacher who did relatively little to enthuse me with literature. (Bear with me.)

His passion for his subject was evident, not least in the way he sought out opportunities to engage his students in discussion about books inside and outside the classroom. He saw me with War and Peace one day and enquired how was finding it. Twenty pages in, I thought it was OK. Several weeks later he asked how I had found the rest of the book, and I had to admit that I’d never made it to page twenty-one. I sensed disappointment, then a glimmer of hope that I was but eleven years old and had most of a lifetime ahead of me to try again. One day I will tackle it again, if only for his sake.

He did carve out for me a soft spot for short stories. He read them aloud on snoozy afternoons, doing all the voices. We didn’t immediately analyse them; he was happy to let the value of the stories themselves hang there for us to savour. Five years after I was taught by him regularly, he covered a sixth-form lesson while my politics teacher was at an appointment. Dispensing with the cover work he had been asked to supervise, he reached for his small anthology of short stories and sat on the front desk and read to us. The politics teacher returned unexpectedly early, saw what was happening, drew up a chair, and listened intently until the end of the story.

He was also the first person to value my writing. He ran the public speaking and debating society and effectively acted as a sort of tutor and mentor to a group of boys spread right across the year groups. I was never much of a presenter really, but when there was a speech to be written he encouraged me to be there and to get involved. I began to write for pleasure, from time to time, only because I had been made to feel like I had something to offer. I very much doubt that you would be reading this if it wasn’t for those times we spent batting around arguments and crafting them into schoolboy rhetoric.

I say this to demonstrate that he was absolutely the kind of teacher that inspires their students with their subject. Great teachers can do that. It takes an even greater person, though, to impact people in life more comprehensively.

He did more to foster community than any other individual I have known. He cultivated an environment in his classroom where everyone was valued for who they were and what they had to say. He gave us opportunities to express ourselves in a safe environment. I remember one boy playing a violin solo with a skill I would never have imagined possible from him, in just a few short minutes transforming my view of him as a person. This during an English lesson, where many things were on the curriculum but strings were not. What of it? I grew that day.

He was the first adult I had regular contact with who didn’t treat me like a child. (Bear in mind that I was eleven at the time, so that’s not entirely unreasonable.) He almost universally referred to his students as gentlemen, or young men. Many people talk like that, but he absolutely meant it. He consistently treated us like gentlemen – and likewise expected us to behave like gentlemen.

The littlest of things can reveal a much larger picture. It was a professional requirement to ensure that boys had their top buttons done up, their ties up to their necks, and their shirts tucked in. Some made no more than lukewarm protestations about presentation and conceded defeat. Others nagged like it was their sole earthly mission to keep ties from loosening. This man was the only teacher I had who seemed genuinely disappointed to see boys looking scruffy, like they were letting themselves down by not summoning the self-respect to turn themselves out properly.

Similarly, he was like the Terminator when he saw litter. Insignificant scraps of paper or tissues or wrappers would be swept up in a frenzy of tidying. He would zig-zag down a corridor picking up scraps for the bin. The environment mattered to him; for our sake as well as his he wanted it to be clean and welcoming. He extended his values, too: if he saw boys standing around near a piece of litter, he’d ask them to pick it up. Sometimes boys resisted, “But sir, that’s so unfair, I didn’t drop it!” Nor did he, of course, but that was beside the point. If we all kept things in order, we would all reap the benefits.

Another member of the English department had an unfortunate surname. Once a classmate of mine was mouthing off about this member of staff using his name in fairly colourful ways, overheard by my teacher. He delivered an astounding dressing-down that I didn’t think him capable of. It was highly unusual to see him angry like that, but not remotely out of character: the words used  in isolation wouldn’t have warranted such a reaction, but such disrespect shown towards a peer certainly did.

My conception of the ethos of the school derived almost entirely from this teacher. He embodied for me everything that I valued about the school. When I think of it now, I still picture him walking down the third-floor corridor. Picking up litter.

If the first of my ‘favourite’ teachers taught me about my relationship with society – as a gentleman in a school community – then the second taught me about my relationship with myself.

I can’t make comparable attestations to his ability to inspire students with his subject (in this case, history and politics) because he never taught me a lesson. Quite right, too, because most of the skills I use in daily life I learned outside the classroom, a significant proportion of which I developed under his guidance in one form or another.

As a student he had helped to establish a model united nations society, with an annual conference held for inter-school competition. As a teacher, he repeated the success with a group of like-minded students, this time as the tutor in charge.

He had trodden the path before us so was brilliantly placed to lead us. He knew what ought to be done by a member of staff and what the students themselves could manage. He gave away responsibility like it was on a blue-cross sale. Not out of laziness, mind, but belief that we were capable and would prove ourselves to be so with the right guidance.

It wasn’t really about the debating for many of us. A couple, I am sure, were concerned mainly for their UCAS applications. Others wanted a forum to look and sound clever. I wanted to build something.

We had slow beginnings. Everyone was learning from scratch how to run a busy society that met weekly; how to structure debates that involved students eight years apart from each other in age; how to prepare for external events and competitions.

Before long we were the biggest regular club or society in the school, which is unusually active in that regard. That brought its own challenges but also opportunities. We built a strong enough team to start performing very well when we went to other schools. We committed to holding a conference of our own, which was deemed a great success. It became an annual setpiece for the school and a perennial talking-point for the Headmaster.

What impresses me, looking back, was that we constantly shifted our regrouped and planned for the next step in developing the society. At first it was a task simply to get everyone up to speed on the format of a debate. Once that was in hand, we had to be proficient enough to represent the school. When we hosted our own conference, we had to train nearly a dozen people up to a solid standard as committee chairmen. A couple of years on, the leadership had to pass to a new generation who had to take ownership of everything, including the training, themselves. We handed on to good people, and the thing continued to thrive. It grew organically as we identified problems to solve and opportunities to explore. We were never finished. We never coasted. We were always asking what was next.

Life lesson one from the tutor in charge, then: always ask, “what’s next?”

I’m a restless sort of a person, and this “what’s next” business is hard to categorise as a blessing or a curse. I’ve come to see it simply as a way of life. Sometimes it means putting effort into something in wild disproportion to the tangible gains arising from it. At such times, the value of the activity resides more heavily in the process than the outcome. That is a grossly inefficient model for business but it is a legitimate model for life.

The model UN remains the very best example of my “what’s next” tendencies in practice, where we built something from scratch that we handed on in good health and with a favourable outlook. Always looking to the future, we guaranteed the success of the present.

I’ve thought along similar lines for other projects I’ve been involved in. I was in that one for the long haul, but I’ve merely passed through other ones doing a bit of “what’s next” while I was there. I like to think I had a lasting impact, of course, but I was attached to the process more than the product. That makes it very easy to let go and move on. My work here is done.

Sometimes this “what’s next” thing means that my work never even begins. I remember floating the idea of a web-based video production with this teacher. He liked the idea, so I returned a week later with a proposal for several hours of weekly programming. It never happened, of course, because it was ludicrously ambitious. But I discovered an appetite for planning projects and – with the caveat of having realistic ambitions – some kind of aptitude for it.

Most teachers would have thrown my multi-page document back at me in an instant with a simple calculation of the financial cost and number of man-hours required to implement a fraction of my proposals. But he never did. He never even advised against pursuing it, or told me to cut it back dramatically and see how it took off. He knew it never would. He understood that the point was never actually to do the thing. The planning itself was valuable on its own terms. Very few people I know would have understood that, and only one of them was a teacher.

Life lesson two from the tutor in charge, then: always value the thing on its own terms.

When we started the model UN, I had just begun to dabble with making websites. I suggested having a web page where people could access news about the society and download draft resolutions up for debate in the coming week’s meeting. Over time this grew, and after a while I was afforded server space and a domain name, paid for by the school, on the say-so of the tutor in charge of the society. He had suggested a reseller package so I could use one account for what it was intended, and any number of others for my own personal projects. (I think there was a sleight of hand in the paperwork somewhere, but I am sure it was all above board. Fairly sure, anyway.)

This meant that I had freedom not only to play around with the model UN website (which I redesigned and rebuilt at least every six months) but to try out all sorts of other things for myself. I teamed up with a classmate to start a political blog that gained a mild following in the days when the ‘blogosphere’ was new and cool. I began using WordPress and learned how to write themes for the websites I was managing and writing for. I got more familiar with PHP and started writing some plugins. I picked up some JavaScript. A few years later I would build a whole content management system. I spend a good portion of my working life using skills I picked up by playing around with that web server. None of which I would have done if that teacher hadn’t suggested that I take the reseller account. He knew I’d use the extra domains somehow, though neither of us could have known how at the time.

For those of us with a restless disposition, we know that we must do something but we are not always sure what. I’ve a burning passion to write a book. Or to play the guitar well. Or to grow deeply in knowledge by reading good books. Or to make great web applications. Or… etc. I used to think that I had a dozen burning passions, but the way they shift around suggests to me that the burning passion is less about the activity and more about me.

How do you deal with that? How do you cope with a restlessness that finds only partial expression all over the place and leaves only frustration everywhere else? I think, by leaving doors open.

Leaving doors open makes room for potential. Given enough places to try out, that potential will find its expression somewhere eventually, even if just for a while. That’s the lesson of the reseller account: giving me one web space would mean that I made one website, while giving me a theoretically infinite number would mean that I would try six or seven. None are still around today, but what I learned along the way has become hugely significant to me.

I could write a book if I wanted to: I have notes to work from, a laptop, full command of my cognitive functions, and a grasp of the English language. I could practice the guitar: it’s leaning against my wardrobe. I could read big books: I have a couple on my shelf waiting, just in case the time comes to open them. I have snippets of ideas for useful web applications that would solve little problems I encounter in life. All of these are doors left ajar for when I might want to walk through them. Potential.

If I ever do something moderately successful on its own terms in just one of these areas, wouldn’t you say that all the others were worthwhile too? More than that, I’d say that they were necessary parts of the process of testing where best to express potential. The reward would be shared across them all, regardless of which ultimately gained the most of my attention.

Life lesson three from the tutor in charge, then: always make room for potential.

These three lessons run together like strands in yarn. They link together in a neat circle, too, like yarn tied in a loop. You’ll only keep making room for potential if you’re restlessly asking “what’s next” all the time. Otherwise you’d think things were enough as they were and save yourself the bother. And you’ll only keep asking “what’s next” if you can value a thing on its own terms. Otherwise life would be unfulfilling and, frankly, exhausting. And you’ll only value a thing on its own terms if you’ve left room for potential to advance it or any number of other things. Otherwise you’d seek a sense of completion and find yourself dissatisfied.

These two teachers helped me see that I could be effective and to begin to figure out what that might look like in practice. They, more than any others, equipped me for life beyond lessons and homework and examinations. They were extremely important to me at the time. The same is still true today and – I have every expectation – will evermore remain so.

Right, what’s next?