Who was your best teacher?

We all remember our best teacher. My best teacher was Miss Elizabeth Cross, Head of History, at Palmer’s Sixth Form College in Essex. As a teenager back in the late 1970s I thought she was quite old but, with the benefit of my own advancing age, I suspect she was probably younger than I am now. Teenagers can be very unforgiving.

Miss Cross was a fearless teacher. She was unfazed by the size of the class and the less than focused approach of certain of my class mates. Given she had taught in the College when it had been a grammar school, Miss Cross had to make real adjustments in her pedagogy to engage the interest of her new cohort of students. And the topic of the French Revolution was not to everyone’s taste. For me, Miss Cross’s passion for the period was infectious, her ability to empower her students was extraordinary and her genuine interest in her students’ well-being shone through.

Clearly Miss Cross was an inspirational teacher who made a real and meaningful difference. She certainly transformed my life. Yet how often today do we reflect on the teacher who makes a difference? It was with interest that I read Professor Chris Husbands’ blog on “Ofsted, school accountability and the most able students”. Chris Husbands is Director of the Institute of Education and an educator whose opinion carries some clout. His most recent post, in response to the cacophonous noise coming from Ofsted about schools failing the most able, is an insightful analysis into the progress of the most able in comprehensive and selective schools. It points to the difference a teacher can make in a school:

‘“Successful” schools are often no more successful in meeting the needs of very high attaining pupils than less successful schools. And, for all the difference between comprehensive schools and grammar schools, if grammar schools are not securing the highest grades for two-fifths of their highest attainers, the observation holds there: they, too are just not doing well enough with higher attainers…  it does not matter much which school you go to, but it may matter a great deal who teaches you when you get there. In English education, within-school variations in pupil attainment are more significant than between-school variations.” (@director_IOE )

Chris’s observations about teachers are clearly contextualised in the latest Ofsted whipping boy. However, it is a point well made that the role of the teacher has become subsumed into the macro debate about schools.

It matters that teachers have personalities. You only have to take a cursory glance at Twitter to observe teacher individuality @HeyMissSmith @tombennett71 @Bob_the_teach to name but three. The educational debate rages around such individuals who in their own way rage against the machine.

So why does this all matter in our micro world? Because ultimately when a pupil tips up at school they know little and care less about the “machine”. What they care about is whether the lesson today is engaging, whether the teacher is interested in them and (probably) will there be homework. Life is about the everyday and teachers engage with everyday life.

6 thoughts on “Who was your best teacher?

  1. suecowley

    It’s great to hear more about Miss Cross after your tweet about her!
    I can picture Valerie right now, glasses, long hair, American accent and all. Sadly she died very young but she lives on in all that I do.
    My sense is that actually many children do their best despite school/politics/ofsted, and that includes the most able. But you’re so right that one individual teacher can make a massive difference (although I had more than one great teacher luckily).
    This is Valerie:

  2. HistoryNotPropaganda (@UnbiasedHistory)

    I couldn’t agree more that it is teachers’ engagement with individual pupils and empowerment of them that really counts: it really does ‘matter that teachers have personalities’. It is sad how prescriptive governmental regulation can suffocate this. My aim when going to my children’s primary school parents’ evenings is often to distract the teacher from reading out my child’s National Curriculum level along with the criteria for attaining the next level and divert him / her sufficiently to let the individual approach and reaction to my child emerge.

    Recently I have taken up the role of a typical ‘raging-against-the-machine’ teacher on Twitter, having been driven to it by my slow burning fury against Gove’s politicisation of the history curriculum. But this blog gave me a very welcome morale boost in troubled times.

    In thinking about my own most inspiring ‘teachers’, I came to the conclusion that many of them have actually been pupils. One was inspiring in a low key, unflashy way – a generous, public spirited sixth form girl whose instinct was always to take up weaker contributions in discussions and cleverly spin them into something more substantial to spare the embarrassment of her fellow pupils and advance the discussion. Another example would be a freethinking GCSE pupil whose constant questioning of the premises behind everything I said and irrepressible ability to think up, or look up, counterexamples, spurred me over the course of the next four years to reappraise almost all of my own views on history, and in doing so taught me more than any of my own teachers. His utter disregard for what formulae the mark schemes required, for grades, for approval or in fact for anything other than getting to the bottom of what actually happened in the past was the definition of intellectual integrity. Then there are was a 12 year old girl who struggled with history, but astonished me one day when she stood up rather awkwardly in assembly, and in a ‘duckling to swan’ moment of transformation which still causes my throat to contract at the memory of it, sang that haunting opening phrase of Gershwin’s Summertime with such beauty that she could have been on the stage at Covent Garden. Finally, there is the pupil of a fellow history teacher and campaigner against Gove’s history curriculum, who was a refugee from Afghanistan, and who had lost his whole family. He stood up in a Defend School History meeting to describe how his history lessons in a multicultural London school have gradual disabused him of the nationalist prejudices imbibed in his earlier schooling in Afghanistan.

    As teachers we are so fortunate that it is interaction with human beings in all their fascinating and inspiring complexity that forms the bread and butter of what we do each day. We mustn’t let ‘the machine’ or indeed our struggles with it overshadow this. So as well as thinking of your most inspiring teacher, I’d recommend any teachers who, like me, need their morale boosting at the moment, to ask themselves who were their most inspiring pupils.

    1. Tricia Kelleher Post author

      Thank you for sharing this with me. I absolutely agree that our students can be an inspiration to us. You are clearly a very dedicated teacher who no doubt gets the best out of your students.

      Keep on raging against the machine because young people deserve the best!

  3. suecowley

    That’s a great point about inspirational children.

    A teacher has the potential to impact on a lot of lives. How do you legislate or train for ‘inspirational’ though? I meet a lot of teachers with a huge variety of styles, many want and need to believe more in the possibility that they know exactly what to do already. I’m not sure you are free enough to inspire within a system that is so constrictive though.


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