I have never encountered a single person – young or old – who doesn’t talk with passion about one of their teachers. Everyone can vividly recall the teacher they had a fondness and admiration for or, conversely, the teacher who they were terrified of or were convinced hated them. Of course, there are then those who have faded from memory, who had no impact either way, but everyone has a teacher who they vividly remember.
When I reflect on my school now, I can’t help but think about my own experience of education. I was a compliant pupil, self motivated and keen to succeed. I enjoyed the things I thought I was ‘good' at, but I also feared things I thought I wasn’t ‘good' at – and this stayed with me for much of my life.
My strongest school memory is that of the dreaded ‘Friday maths test’. I would begin to worry about it on Thursday and get that awful churning in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away. We had to do 20 timed questions before break. The minute I saw them my mind went blank and I was utterly incapable of answering anything. Then came playtime, and after it was the worst part for those of us who got less than 10 out of 20; the results were read out and we had to go to the front of the classroom. We were reprimanded for not trying hard enough and told that we would have to repeat the test at lunchtime. There we were, all of us heads down, every week standing at the front, trying not to cry, feeling stupid and scared.
When I moved to senior school, I still dreaded every maths lesson and always tried to avoid the horror of being asked a question in front of the class. At age 16, predictably, I failed maths O’Level. Despite doing well in other subjects, I believed I couldn’t and wouldn’t ever pass. I had such a terrible, crippling fear of maths that it could have changed my life.
But I was lucky to have a truly fantastic teacher who took on the challenge of the re-take class. Dr Barker* personified calm, always had a smile and somehow had the gift of making every pupil feel valued and confident. She painstakingly broke down each seemingly impossible question, modelled how to work through it and praised endeavour and each success however small. Even though she had a doctorate in mathematics from Oxford University she was able to put herself in the shoes of her pupils. She was kind and patient, even when I insisted I would never understand, even when I refused to try; she believed in me and gave me a tiny glimmer of hope that I just might pass. And I did – just four months later. She cried when I opened the envelope (I must have been more of a challenge than I realised) and I still have the piece of paper with the result on to this day.
While my story of school is very unremarkable, it has been hugely influential on me as a teacher and throughout my life. She’s the teacher I have always wanted to be because she cared, she was unrelenting in her efforts, and she took the time to get to know and understand me. In doing so, she was able to engage me, challenge me, set high expectations, allow me to fail, show me how to be resilient, to look at things in a different way. She held my hand through difficulty.
She was remarkable: she showed me what it is to become a learner and her influence went far beyond maths. It has stayed with me and been a source of confidence in all those inevitable moments of self-doubt that plague us all. Even on the first day of my first teaching job, when I faced 30 year 1s alone and feeling utterly incapable, I remembered to be calm and get to know my pupils. I have the greatest respect and admiration for her and all teachers for whom teaching is so much more than a job.
My journey as a teacher has often been complicated by the bombardment of change and debate in education, constantly shifting our focus, constantly trying to refine and improve. But, throughout all this, one thing has remained constant – the fundamental power of relationships.
My school was recently named Prep School of the Year at the TES awards, and it made me think again about this power. None of our learning or progress is driven by endless testing, data analysis, commercial schemes or worksheets. It happens because our teachers are all about the children. They are thoughtful, they innovate and they take the time to know – I mean really know – the children they teach. Get the relationships and the culture right and high quality learning will follow. It’s stunningly simple: children need to know you understand them, care about what happens to them and they need to trust you.
We have a huge impact, whatever that may be. Children won’t remember what mark they got in a test, but they will remember their teachers, the ones who cherished their hearts and in doing so opened the doors to learning and to many opportunities in life. As teachers I believe we should begin with one thing, know each and every child. We are given the privilege of making the difference and doing the hardest, but best job there is.
* All names have been changed to protect anonymity.
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