In Memory of an Outstanding Teacher

Mr Graham, ah, Mr Graham; a rotund, somewhat-less-than-healthy-looking middle-aged man. A great big bear of a man: slightly crumpled shirt, loose tie, a suit that had seen better days and the perpetual aroma of stale cigarette smoke. Mr Graham: a wonderful (ex) Latin teacher, who had been relegated to teaching English and being a form tutor to the likes of me, following the demise of his own subject. Mr Graham was my first year form tutor at secondary school, back in 1984. He also taught some of us for English and History.

dead-poets-society-04

The archetypal ‘firm but fair’ teacher, approachable and friendly, but the rules were there to be followed. I can still recall him strolling, jovially along the crowded corridors, smiling and chatting to pupils, but when he said, “Where’s your blazer?” or “Do those laces up!” we all knew it would be wise to comply.

In his private life, he was entrenched in the world of the theatre, and it showed: married to an ex-chorus girl, and thoroughly exuberant. He both directed and wrote all of the scripts for our school productions. When it came to encouraging the use of interesting language and metaphor to express yourself, no holds were barred because he was a skilled linguist and generous to a fault. Under his tuition, my floundering English flourished. Although my grasp of the subject was good enough at primary school, by their standards, there is no doubt at all that it improved vastly in that first year of secondary school.

I can still clearly recall his offering constructive feedback and considered advice. I always seemed to know what I needed to do next to improve. There was no need for a pre-published set of National Curriculum Level linked APP targets to accurately mark our books. He used his own words. There was no use of any baffling codes either. There were, however, plenty of ticks, crosses, corrections and encouraging comments: all in red ink.

And he certainly never wrote a learning objective on the board. In fact, I strongly suspect that the majority of those wonderful lessons had no fixed, pre-planned objective at all. There were no visible keywords or ‘words of the week’; completely absent too, laminated curriculum target cards. He also didn’t waste his (or our) time worrying about how he could shoe-horn in some random numeracy targets where they clearly didn’t belong.

Educating Yorkshire: teacher Matthew Burton reads to his class

Those lessons would, invariably, begin with a chat, him standing at the front of the classroom, scrawling the odd pertinent comment or relevant point on the blackboard. A chat that could sometimes continue for the entire lesson. I learned a hell of a lot in those whole-class, teacher-led discussions. It was certainly a far cry from what I am currently being advised: ‘any teacher talk should be limited to ten minutes per hour session’. On other occasions it was obvious that something had occurred to Mr Graham that was worth writing about: our earliest memory, our favourite toy, as a child; a critique of a particular book or television programme etc. It didn’t really matter what, either way, standard language and vocabulary would never do – make it sing! make it come alive! make it interesting for the reader! Punctuation, yes. Handwriting, okay. Spelling, of course. Above all: make it good, use the best vocabulary you can and be prepared to do it again if it’s not good enough or could be improved upon.

school notes

If Mr Graham ever delivered any approximation of a plenary session, I expect that it was more by accident than design. And he would probably have roared with laughter and bemusement at the concept of mini-plenaries. As for differentiation, Mr Graham differentiated in the most natural way possible: he had time for us all, even if it was just a fleeting word or comment. I know it wouldn’t cut it as ‘differentiation’ by today’s standards but even so. It seems to me that by giving all his pupils belief in their own abilities, and encouraging all to be the best that they could possibly be, that this was a sort of subconscious differentiation.

Hollywood's Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939

I’m certain he would have found the idea of measurable ‘progress’ as a stand-alone concept somewhat odd. That is not to suggest that progress wasn’t made – far from it. By imparting his knowledge, patiently teaching, encouraging and giving us opportunities to practice what we had gleaned, good progress was made. sometimes painfully slowly, sometimes more quickly; but it certainly did happen. I was aware, even then, that even the most roguish, disaffected kids in the class usually responded well in those lessons.

So, altogether the best teacher I ever had, hands-down. But I do seriously wonder if he’d have met a single one of the criteria that is currently being banded-about defining ‘outstanding teaching’. The thought that, in our brave new world, it would be possible to suggest that Mr Graham would be ‘requiring improvement’ or worse still, have ‘serious weaknesses’ is utterly abhorrent to me.

When I was leaving VIth form in 1991, Mr Graham was in attendance at our final, whole -school assembly. A shadow of his former self, dying and positioned quietly at the back of the packed sports hall in in a wheelchair; Lung Cancer. The sad epilogue to, and result of, years and years of heavy smoking: the ever-present, or recently extinguished cigarette concealed behind his back if he happened to answer a knock on the Staffroom door; a quick puff before lessons or even backstage in the school hall, while working on one of our productions.

virtual08

It is one of the single biggest regrets of my life that, on the day of that final assembly, awkwardness, shyness…or God knows what, prevented me from thanking Mr Graham for having such faith in the eleven-year-old me, for giving me confidence, for correcting my errors, for commenting aloud that, whilst my handwriting could be better, I was still in the top 10% of the class. For, thereby, encouraging me to realise that I was able to achieve, and also for showing me what truly inspirational teaching looked like.

All of which brings me to this: If we continue with our 21st century efforts to sculpt, mould, press and stretch teachers into this ‘one size fits all’ ‘this is what outstanding teaching looks like, because we said so!’ model, I fear we will never see the likes of Mr Graham again. There will be no uniqueness, no quirks of character, no interesting, idiosyncratic practice to set us apart from each other. Many teachers are already highly fearful of straying from their school’s prescribed pattern, especially when being observed. The stakes are simply too high to risk any deviance.

Maybe the time is fast approaching where schools really may be better off using virtual teachers instead? After all, they wouldn’t suffer from stress; need coffee, lunch breaks, or sleep, and they would surely never forget to deliver their mini plenaries at regular intervals. More to the point, they would also be unable to write scathing blogs in condemnation and despair of the whole, sorry business.

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6 Responses to In Memory of an Outstanding Teacher

  1. Philip Crooks says:

    Just brilliant. You are so fortunate to have had such a teacher.

  2. Jill Berry says:

    Found this really moving – thanks for sharing.

  3. suecowley says:

    Beautiful. I’m sure he knew what a difference he made to you, even without you saying it in so many words. These days it seems we are busy ‘winnowing out the difference’ from teachers and I suspect we will lose a great deal in the process.

  4. Ute Bretschneider says:

    Utterly brilliant. Almost wish I could have taught then. – I had some brilliant, quirky teachers, notably my language ones, and our History teacher who pulled out stories about the Mongols, and the Egyptians, and the Kaaba, ignoring the plan (if ever he had one). It’s those quirks and stories I remember that made me want to pass my enthusiasm and knowledge on, too… Sadly, your last 1 1/2 paragraphs say it all; an absolute shame it’s going this way.

  5. cunningfox says:

    Just how I teach today – but then I’m not in the state system.

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