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What makes a good teacher?

3/10/16: This week we asked a selection of Bryanston staff to share their memories of the teacher who had the greatest influence on them.

Sarah Thomas, Head

My old Classics teacher, Angela Bolton, taught me to love learning. I learned of fifth-century Athens, read Euripides, Lucretius and Cicero; I also learned for the first time when I encountered Latin aged 12 and Greek aged 13 that I was quite good at something. 

Mrs Bolton had the knack of giving you confidence, of making you think, of stretching you. I think I would be who I am today even if I had not gone to Oxford; I don’t think I would be were it not for Angela Bolton. She was an inspiration.

Dr David James, Deputy Head Academic

One teacher takes particular credit for moving me on academically. Nick Burree – who joined the school when I entered the sixth form – taught me A level Politics and History. I got good grades in both. I found out recently he died over the summer and, more than once since I heard the news, I found myself reflecting on what made him a good teacher. His death reminded me of how fortunate I was that at that pivotal time in my development he happened to be there.

To be honest, when he first walked into our classroom he didn’t seem likely to be transformative. He was unprepossessing, shy even, overweight, and seemed to perspire rather a lot, regardless of the weather. His hair stuck resolutely to his forehead at all times, and he wore oversized, thick-framed glasses. He would sit at the front of the class, often hugging his brief case, but he would … discuss things with us, and he did so in a way that allowed this rather unappealing collection of adolescents to feel they were his intellectual equals, and that he respected their views. He also knew his subjects very well. He was a Liberal Democrat activist in an area which was deeply Labour, and this political allegiance perhaps allowed him to indulge those pupils who were nascent Thatcherites, as well as those who were exploring Marxism (and everything else in between, including apathy). Above all he listened, and debated, brought in articles ‘that I thought you would like’, lent us books, and if he didn’t know an answer to something he would admit it, and find out by the next day what it was (and this in the days before Google).

I regret now that I never went back to say ‘thank you’ to him for teaching me so well, for sparking a lifelong interest in politics and history. Too late now. But I hope that he did realise how much of a difference he made, and that he did hear those words said to him by others. 

Edrys Barkham, Director of Admissions

I never thought of myself as being particularly academic at school and I wasn’t always a model pupil. When it was proposed by my father that I should apply to Oxford, the Director of Studies laughed loudly, before realising my father was serious! My tutor and Biology teacher Martin Jacoby said he thought it was a great idea and he suggested Human Sciences because ‘…it would suit my grasshopper mind.’

He was right. I loved all the aspects of the degree and since those early days of getting to understand our species, I haven’t stopped wanting to learn more. I, in turn, have enjoyed finding potential human scientists at Bryanston and watching their eyes light up, as I am sure mine did, when describing the course content. 

I am forever grateful to Martin Jacoby for believing I was right for Human Sciences, encouraging me to go for it and making Biology lessons so much fun. His interest in and understanding of me as a slightly unruly teenager set me on the path to my lifelong passion for learning and for teaching, and I will be forever grateful to him.

Ian McClary, Head of Sixth Form

There was one teacher at school who, more than the others, inspired me as a pupil to learn and grow in understanding. She was my Classics teacher and her name is Carola Scupham. 

Passionate about her subject she carried us along on a tide of enthusiasm, fascinating knowledge and carefully-crafted red herrings. Always eager to impart, but never to spoon feed, she taught me that I could take ownership over my studies and that I didn’t need to wait to be told what to do next. Exam specifications were all very well but why be limited by them? Learning was a shared journey of discovery, not only about the subject at hand, but also about ourselves, being aware that what we were learning was shaping our ideas and beliefs about the world and our place in it. She is the person upon whom I have modelled myself as a teacher over the past 15 years.

Mike Kearney, Head of Science

Perhaps it is no surprise to learn that the teacher who inspired me was a Physics teacher. Ellis Cheetham was a bluff northerner with a very traditional approach to teaching. The special thing he did was his ability to estimate answers for complex calculations. This doesn’t sound very exciting and could just be a party trick, but it opened my eyes to appreciating the scale of things and how data fitted together. It led me to an initial career in engineering, where the black art of estimation and even gut feeling informed progress and meant you could make immediate sense of problems and have confidence in final calculated answers. 

Somehow, this dour man opened up a world of possibilities that didn’t require slogging through the sums (although you sometimes have to!), but could be appreciated holistically. Sadly, he died of cancer while I was still at my school and I have always hoped to carry his memory with me to inspire future generations.

Alex Hartley, Head of Mathematics

I can still remember my first lesson in Mathematics at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, Amersham, taught by Graham Hoare. His first statement was that ‘Mathematics is not a spectator sport’ and he insisted that we participated actively in Mathematics throughout. Lessons covered the curriculum but also explored beyond, and it was in his lessons that I was first exposed to Euclid’s proof of the infinity of primes - and that’s something that I, in turn, have passed on to D1 Maths this month. 

Still teaching at the age of 64 (having spent half is life at the same school), and writing for the Mathematical Gazette, he saw teaching as something to be enjoyed as much as it was a way to earn a living, and mathematics as a recreational activity as well as an academic discipline. 

Mr Hoare was my teacher in years 8 and 9, and subsequently as one of three teachers who taught me Mathematics and Further Maths in the sixth form, whilst additionally preparing me for the Oxford University entrance examinations. His warmth and personal touch affected me, too; he was very generous with his time when I needed it. A number of us from the same class made it to Oxford that year and my final memory of Graham was the long and leisurely afternoon spent in the Turf Tavern when he came up to visit.

Abi Croot, English Teacher

As I sat down to watch Shakespeare Live! from the RSC earlier this year, I was reminded as to why I ever thought being an English teacher would be a good idea …

It all started with my A level English teacher (surprise, surprise) who was the most enthused teacher I had ever come across. Up until then, I had been taught by teachers who clearly didn’t enjoy English, nor did they enthuse and excite the pupils to share their burning passion for the subject (because they didn’t have one, not a glimmer of a flame). However, as soon as I had my first class with my new A level teacher, I knew things would be different. Firstly, she had (still has) a cardboard cut-out of good ol’ Will Shakey, which, in my naive teenage eyes was a clear cut sign that she would be a good teacher. Secondly, she genuinely loved English, and knew how to enthuse even the most disengaged teenage boys; asking them to embody Caliban and in the next breath, prance around the classroom in the most ridiculous of attire. She was a legend. I truly loved my two years spent with her, and developed a strong love for English Literature.

As Paapa Essiedu took to the stage as Hamlet as part of Shakespeare Live!, I found I was able to recall (nearly) all of my favourite Shakespearean soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be’. It is with thanks to my A level teacher that I am able to recall the famous speech, and it was not through repeatedly bashing the book that I can recall it; it is through the way she delivered the speech in class, the way in which she encouraged us to watch every single version of Hamlet on screen ever created (with subtitles of course), how she made us believe that Hamlet was a relatable character… Ay there’s the rub! As Cumberbatch, Tennant, McKellen, Dench, Minchin, Walter and Kinnear argued over how to perform the iconic soliloquy, I realised that was it, it depended on how you viewed Hamlet as a character, as to how the lines should be read, where the emphasis should be put. My teacher had brought Shakespeare into the 21st century, and made the characters people we could see in everyday life, in our own lives.