Archive for Big Readers A place for discussing books and all things bookish.

The free forums are now under new ownership, a full announcement will be made shortly

       Big Readers Forum Index -> Things that don't fit anywhere else

Our English Teachers' Influence

The poetry programme at 4.30pm yesterday (Sunday. 15.4.12) was about U.A Fanthorpe's poem 'Dear Mr Lee' which takes the form of a schoolgirl's letter to poet, Laurie Lee.  The programme developed into a discussion of English teachers and their influence on pupils. Several contributors talked about being taught by UA Fanthorpe herself.  It would be interesting to hear Readers memories of their own English teachers and their influence - or not...
I remember Mr Cross at St Joseph's Catholic Boys Grammar School who taught me.  He was very encouraging and (sometimes) complimentary about my writing. And he stirred my interest - thankfully - in Shakespeare and Keats. He was a very gentle man - who later became a priest - and I remember him fondly.
There was a tendency at my school for the Christian Brothers who taught English to emphasise - this being a Catholic School - the work of Catholic poets.  I remember their espousal of Hilaire Belloc, and GK Chesterton's 'Lepanto' and - God help us -Coventry Patmore. But I never remember them mentioning Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I have particularly fond memories of Miss McLeod, my English teacher in my final year at school. This was back in 1975-6, in Bishopbriggs High School, a comprehensive school in the suburbs of Glasgow. I was 16 years old. Miss McLeod had a fearsome reputation: she was very strict, and, in short, you didn’t mess with her. At that age, she seemed to me quite old, but looking back, she would possibly have been in her 50s – much the same age as I am now, in fact. She was a wonderful speaker in class, and could hold the class’s attention, whatever she happened to be talking about.

I remember my first essay: it was on some poem we had read over in class, and I was rather smugly expecting the usual high mark. The essay came back marked 7 out of 20, and I was aghast: I wasn’t used to receiving so low a mark. I soon found out that my mark was among the highest in the class, but that was no consolation. The message, however, did get through: whatever mark we had previously obtained in English we could forget about – from now on, we’d really have to work for our marks.

She continued to mark far more harshly than we had been accustomed to, and more harshly than the examiners would subsequently mark our papers, but I knew even then, I think, why she did this: we were, after all, the top stream in English, and Miss McLeod aimed not merely for decent passes in our Highers (i.e. Scottish equivalents of A-levels): she wanted us really to come to grips with literature. And she made it clear that the study of literature was not a relaxing break from other subjects, but a serious discipline in its own right that demanded just as great an intellectual effort as did physics or mathematics. This lesson has stayed with me ever since.

We could, of course, have been intimidated by this, and discouraged; but that was not the case. Indeed, the effect on us was quite the opposite: she challenged us to stretch ourselves, and, on the whole, we did. I still remember the sheer sense of achievement when, later that year, an essay of mine on Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale persuaded even Miss McLeod to award me 15 out of 20. 75% from Miss Macleod! It was unheard of – and not even the subsequent A in my English Higher afforded me greater satisfaction!

She chose to study Hamlet – possibly, she explained, the most intricate of all Shakespeare’s plays. And it was no superficial run-through. She used to organize extra classes during lunchtime and after school to study Hamlet. Of course, she wasn’t getting paid for this: she did this purely because she loved the play, and wanted passionately to communicate that love to us. We all moaned about it, naturally – which schoolkid wants extra lessons, after all? – but, such was the regard we all had for her, just about all of us turned up for them.

She was a proud Scots lady, and we studed in class, amongst others, “Holy Willie’s Prayer” by Robert Burns, some poems by Iain Crichton Smith, and Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. She hated Hugh McDiarmid, though: she thought him merely a poser, and mocked the idea of a poet using Scottish words – and using a Scots–English dictionary in the process – merely to demonstrate one’s Scottish credentials. To this day, I have been, no doubt unfairly, prejudiced against McDiarmid.

That year, we also studied poems by John Keats, Dylan Thomas, etc; and Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The choices were hers: the questions in the Highers, in those days at least did not specify set texts, and we were free to write about whatever books we wanted to write about. This gave the individual teachers far greater choice, and Miss McLeod certainly took advantage of that.

To be honest, by the time I entered Miss McLeod’s class, I was already forming my own taste in literature: Shakespeare I was already reading, and I was immersing myself into 19th  century Russian literature. But it was so good to have so inspiring an English teacher.

I had a wonderful mathematics teacher as well that year. It was quite a wonderful year, on the whole. I was 16; I knew I was going to university; and, a mere ten or eleven years after arriving as an immigrant not being able to speak the language, all prospects were seemingly open in front of me. Not sure what happened after that, mind you… Smile

Hello Himadri, I loved reading that account of your own especial Jean Brodie.  She sounds wonderful.  Did she ever talk about Walter Scott? Or the Border Ballads. I wonder what she would have said about Irvine Welsh and his in-your-face TRAINSPOTTING.
Your mention of Lewis Crassic Gibbon reminds me that brilliant film director Terence Davies is currently casting his new film of SUNSET SONG.

I guess there was a touch of the Miss Brodie about her, insofar as she was a charismatic presence in class who inspired her pupils; and teaching was clearly her vocation. But she was far more responsible than Miss Brodie, and far less self-deluded; and – to my knowledge at least – she had no admiration for Mussolini! Smile

I don’t remember her mentioning Scott, although I suppose she must have done some time or other. She admired George Mackay Brown greatly, and once arranged for Edwin Morgan to come to our school to give a talk – although, as I remember, she wasn’t too keen on some of his more avant garde efforts.. We had studied some of the border ballads in earlier years in school, but not the year in which we had her for teacher. And I think I can imagine what she would have thought of Irvine Welsh!

I’ve often wondered why Sunset Song  has never been filmed. I think the BBC did a dramatisation in the late 60s, but one would have thought that this particular novel – indeed, the entire trilogy – would be perfect for dramatisation. I seem to remember a Play of the Week from the mid-70s that was a dramatisation of three of Grassic Gibbon’s short stories.

I have a lot of happy memories of my English teaching.

The first one is of learning to read while I was still at nursery school. We learnt using the Peter and Jane books (This is Peter. This is Jane. This is a ball. Peter has the ball. Now Jane has the Ball...), which even as a young child I thought were horribly boring, so instead of reading the words on the page, I liked to make up my own story which went with the pictures. This infuriated my poor parents and teachers no end, but I thought it was funny! I think where I actually learned to read was in church, following service sheets and hymn books, where the repetitions and the rhythms support the words.

In year 5, I had a teacher who I didn't think very much of and who was charged with teaching us things like long division - which I'd been able to do for a long time. I was not a very patient child, so the best thing about his English teaching (we did Goodnight Mr. Tom that year), was that he let me read through classes I didn't want to pay attention to. I read all of the school library shelf to shelf, including reading the Collins dictionary cover to cover. It also gave me very clear opinions about what I liked and didn't like: I remember espousing the value of Shakespeare over Dickens that year... My report for maths began "I know Verity wants me to think that she has only been reading, but I'm sure she must have been paying some attention in maths..."

In year 6 we had a teacher who absolutely loved Shakespeare, and really wanted us to learn the real thing, and so we put on our own production of The Tempest (albeit very abridged). We also wrote a play about the life of Shakespeare which included a line I'll remember forever: "Methinks this rhyme, 'tis good". I think I played Alonso, but I was really entranced by the character of Prospero. I bought a bit of iridescent blue cloth from a seconds shop, which doubled as Prospero's cape and the sea. That teacher did a pupil of the 1/2 term award, which I won twice, and my first prize was a book of Shakespeare's famous plays illustrated - it was beautiful, and I still have it.

The really formative time for me was secondary school. I had a series of excellent teachers, who really tried to engage the class, and more impressively usually succeeded. In year 9 Mrs. A got us all to choose our favourite Briton alongside the TV series and act as advocate for them. I also distinctly remember studying Macbeth and, after we had finished reading the play, watching the Polanski version and keeping rewinding and replaying the bit where a head is chopped off as the special effects were so funny. She was also very young and cool - she used examples from Eastenders (not that I've ever seen it...) and kept a copy of Cosmopolitan in her drawer - she was very open to everything we read being valid and a subject for discussion. She also introduced us to the idea that Shakespeare might not be the only Elizabethan or Jacobean playwright worthy of our attention, which made me curious to go away and find out more.

My GCSE English teacher, Mrs. B was amazing. I spent a lot of time sat in a corner with my friend reading Romeo and Juliet aloud (that was what we were studying!) and she was perfectly happy for us to get on with it ourselves. I told her that I didn't want to write about Great Expectations, because we'd been studying it for ages and I was bored of it, so she gave me the syllabus and helped me choose something I might enjoy writing about. I was hospitalised in the February of year 10 and she sent me a copy of North and South, saying that Elizabeth Gaskell was always her comfort read. She later sent me The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which I think was the first thing I'd ever found difficult to understand. She insisted that we use American accents to read The Crucible, which made it a lot more fun for everybody. I think something she did really well was teaching us that great literature didn't always have to be taken seriously - that humour is a valid way to learn as well.

My A Level literature teachers were both MAD (but wonderful). One lesson we were supposed to present on aspects on Wuthering Heights, and two people hadn't done their presentation - she accepted them dancing at the front of the class to Kate Bush's song of the same name as an equivalent! On another occasion (with the other teacher) we acted out the dumb show from the Duchess of Malfi and the girl playing Beatrice Joanna had a scarf wrapped round her head like a veil, and the classroom's pot plant instead of a bouquet, and a lot of us were doing the dance of the mad-men when the headmaster walked in. He took one look around, and then silently walked out again, at which point we erupted into laughter! But on a more serious note, what they both really communicated was their love of what we were studying - and they expected us to love it too: asked about what we were reading, encouraged us to keep reading logs, to read criticism for fun, to bring things back to class. We did our A2 coursework based on a book of our own choosing which is so unusual in state schools these days... My A level English Language teacher was an Oxford graduate and talked with great enthusiasm about Hardy, which encouraged me to go back to him. She also introduced me to the short stories of Jane Gaardam, which made me so happy.

My love of poetry comes from my Dad who took the view that if I was old enough to read, I could read stories in my head, and his job was to bring poetry alive for me. I'm so grateful for this, as I think the approach to teaching poetry in schools is much weaker than for prose.

I think the influences of all this are hard to track. The best teachers encouraged me to find something I loved, and to realise the drama and humour in what they were teaching, as well as emphasising that we needed to pass. I could write a lot more, especially about my university experiences, but feel this post is quite long enough already! [/i]

Ok influence of our English Teacher...

Well... memories of my English teaching... hang on... something will come to me in a moment, I'm sure of it... nope!

At High school there was a lot of role play and drama as the English teacher was also the drama teacher, and he didn't really give a damn and it gradually went downhill from there and by the time we get to the Upper school I don't have any actual teaching memories, I can remember the time we sat and watched a video and the lads actually sat there quietly watching it, the rest of the time is a blur of shouting...lots of shouting, missiles being thrown and periods of not being there at all due to the English teacher (and all the other staff going on strike), in fact that is quite typical of most lessons, Physics was the best one (I'm being sarcastic) the lads knew they could get the teacher in tears - she was fresh out of college and totally out of her depth, and could just not control them, poor woman. My main memory was all the times they set fire to the gas taps - it was a regular occurance and it got to the point you started guessing which part of the lesson they would do it.

These autobiographies are absolutely fascinating and revealing. Thanks for posting them.  
Verity - you seem to have total recall!!

I learned English as a foreign language so my English teachers were rather different. I started to learn English in the second year of secondary school. I still remember the first sentence of my first English lesson. “This is Rip van Winkle, this is his dog.”
I don’t remember the teacher’s name but she was a bit old fashioned. We had to wear aprons in her lesson and dust our desk before the lesson started. I thought it ridiculous and often ‘forgot’ to put the apron on. She didn’t always notice it but if she did I pretended I had forgotten to put it on. I must have looked very innocent because she never suspected I forgot on purpose.
She always made a point of it that she taught English and not American English. An American twang was immediately corrected “Are you and American, girl?”

She was my teacher for two years. Then I went to a different school for year four, five and six of secondary education and had a different teacher each year. The first one was very easy going. He made sure that everyone passed his exam at the end of the year (we had exams at the end of each year). The second one couldn’t control the class. If the class decided we weren’t having any lessons that day the poor man could stand on his head and we still didn’t listen. He shouted and threatened, all to no avail. Because of him I didn’t become a teacher. I didn’t fancy that sort of working life.

The third teacher (again a woman) was a lot better. I remember two things about her.
1) We each had to dissect a story by Edgar Allen Poe.
2) She got married on the 1st of April.

I had two more English teachers in higher education.
One taught advanced English with grammar and probably some literature. His hobbyhorse was irregular verbs and he tested us regularly, mostly those regularly used like ‘to beget’, ‘to forbear’, ‘to forsake’ etc.
The second teacher taught commercial English (business letters etc.). I met him a few years afterwards. He was somewhat drunk and asked me if his lessons had been of any use to me. I was glad to tell him they had been, poor man.


I mostly had good English teachers, though in my first year of high school (year 7, as it's called these days) I had the most dreary man imaginable. He spoke in a weary monotone, and set the dullest books. In his marking, he always seemed desperate to stamp out any signs of imagination.

However, the following two years I had a much more fun teacher. He was quite strict, but very entertaining and enthusiastic. He was a Dickens fan, and would always read brilliantly from A Christmas Carol at the Christmas Concert. He encouraged us to write stories and poems, as opposed to the discursive essays favoured by most teachers. We read good poems and novels, and got our first introduction to Shakespeare. I remember at the start of one lesson he threw all our exercise books out of the (second-floor) window - the whole class's - saying our homework was rubbish, and we needed to do better!

At some point during this period I also had a supply teacher who was a science fiction fan. He re-introduced me to Ray Bradbury, whose stories I'd tried reading at primary school but hadn't really got. This time round I loved them, and so began a lifelong interest in the genre. I read all the Bradbury I could find in the library, and then moved on to the likes of Frank Herbert and Philip K Dick. Before this, I hadn't really been reading other than what was required for school; it was SF that really got me passionate about literature, and got me frequenting secondhand book shops.

The following two years, our O-level teacher was also great, guiding us through a range of literature much broader than strictly required by the syllabus. She was very good at including the whole class, and at showing us how themes and characters are developed. She made me appreciate the polyphonic depths and richness of a good novel, whereas before I think I'd mainly just been aware of plot and tricks of language.

I did all sciences at A-level, so that's where my formal education ended - but I have always maintained an interest and tried to keep educating myself, albeit in a rather ad-hoc manner.

I only have the odd memory of English teachers.  Up till high school, of course, my teachers (three of them) taught everything to us.  I recall one reading brilliantly Treasure Island to us (presumably he read other things too, but I don't recall them).  But I don't specifically remember the English taught.

And I can't even remember the first two English teachers I had at secondary school let alone what or how they taught.  (I got first in class in English in the top class in an academic school though - I remember that!)

In the fifth and seventh forms (Years 11 and 13 now) I had the same teacher - a finicky little man whom none of us much liked.  He taught us about the romantic poets mostly - Keats I specially remember.  In Year 12 we had a brilliant male teacher from South Africa, who made Hamlet seem so wonderful that when he then followed it with The Tempest we were a little disappointed.  I suppose Hamlet appealed to teenagers with its angsty feel.  In my last year at school I helped write bits for a school newspaper put out by the students.  That involved help from another favourite teacher, but she taught us history.

The tutors and lecturers at university were strong characters in the main and I recall having to re-write an essay because of stylistic mistakes.  I did an Honours course in English which meant a year of 4 different subjects then followed by a year of mostly English and a paper in French literature and one in History, then two years with 6 papers each year of English.  Meant a fairly thorough covering of English literature but an awful lot of reading.  It amazes me now to think that in those years I read Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, Ulysses, Women in Love, Dombey and Son, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, all of Austen, The Mill on the Floss, Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, North and South, and a couple of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Not to mention L'Etranger, Madame Bovary, Le Rouge et le Noir, Le Pere Goriot in French and two books of The Aeneid in Latin.  And poetry and plays.

Our professor was said to continuously read War and Peace, and one of our lecturers married one of the students in my class.  I never knew how they got to know each other so well - to me the lecturers and tutors were things apart.  (Though as honours students we did have dinner once a year with our professor, and I recall coming home from a small party at one of the lecturers at 4am with a (female) flatmate and being stopped by the police, who wondered where we had been.)

Apologies for the long post which follows...

The things I remember about school are generally what happened when I wasn't being taught, so my recollections of lessons are hazy. Memories of my first school: I suppose I must have been one of the better readers in the class, because when I was five my teacher asked me to read the class a story in the afternoon. Perhaps she needed a break, not that she was ever one of those teachers who would leave the classroom and put one of the children in charge, a cruelty I cannot comprehend. No other child was accorded the honour of reading a whole book to his peers, and it must have been a daunting experience for me. We used to sit on the floor around the teacher's chair, and I had to sit in her chair, which seemed titanically large. I doubt my voice carried very far. There was a series of books about a caveman (or boy) called Trog, and I read one of those. Various non-teachers used to come into school to listen to us read. I remember in particular an old man called Basil Barendt, who looked like the actor Michael Bilton. We would go out of our school lessons to read to him for ten minutes. I hope that such people are still permitted to visit schools, though presumably everything has to go through the CRB nowadays.

Most of my other memories of that school are of being read books rather than of reading them ourselves. That teacher also read us George's Marvellous Medicine, which I already knew off by heart. My parents had explained to me that liquid paraffin was funny because of its laxative properties, and I was the only child in the class who laughed at the point where it was mentioned. I think I explained it to my friend Mark. My next teacher read us a book called The Chimney Witches by Victoria Whitehead, which I liked so much that my parents bought me my own copy. I wrote my teacher's name inside the cover so that it would resemble her copy. In fact I wrote it several times over. Looking inside other books that I owned at the time, they generally have a messy childish signature inside, or my name written neatly (for a six-year-old) followed by 'PLEASE DO NOT BEND' as though the book were a certificate in the post. The next teacher read us some Dick King-Smith books - Harry's Mad (fabulous) and, I think, Tumbleweed (dreary), and Harriet Graham's A Fox Under My Jacket, which I sought in libraries for years afterwards. I have since bought a copy of it online, but I fear rereading it in case it has lost its magic. Each child had his or her own reading book, and I remember being permitted to go to the school library to choose a new one, maybe because I had exhausted the classroom's own resources. I foolishly chose something by Paul Theroux with a pretty cover (possibly London Snow), which was much too difficult for me and I hated it.

My memories of English lessons during the first two years at middle school, when I would have been 9 and 10, are slight. I remember reading Danny, the Champion of the World in class, which I enjoyed though it was never my favourite Dahl as a child. My teacher was a very gentle man, and I'm sure it appealed more to his sensibilities than the likes of The Twits would have. He was a Northerner, and read us stories from Bill Naughton's collection The Goalkeeper's Revenge which I loved. I do recall vividly a 100-question spelling test he set for the whole class, which was divided into three sections. Those who got 60 out of 60 in the first section progressed to the second, and those who got 30 out of 30 in the second progressed to the third. I was the only child left at the end, so there was the embarrassing situation of Mr Platt reading out ten words and me writing them down while everyone else sat around listless. I only got seven or eight of the last words right, and one of the ones I got wrong was 'attorney', which I was guilty of overthinking. I had only seen it written down before in Peanuts cartoons, and guessed it might be one of those American words that omitted the 'u', so I wrote down 'attourney'. A small number of people started referring to me as a walking dictionary, I think affectionately. I took pride in being able to spell words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and antidisestablishmentarianism very quickly, and my friends/enemies used to try and catch me out.

At the ages of 11 and 12 I had my first really good English teacher, Miss Muir, whom I still see regularly. I think she was handicapped somewhat by the curriculum and the tastes of the other teachers in the department, which meant she had to teach some books for which she personally didn't greatly care, though I didn't pick up on this at the time. Macbeth was the liveliest thing we studied in class, and we were exposed to several different productions of it, including a travelling one that came to the school to perform for us. It was my poetry that she really encouraged. She even appeared to like it, which is more than I can pretend, looking back on it. We did a project on poems where we had to assemble a portfolio of poems by ourselves and others. I think I wrote more than 100 poems for it, most of which must have been pretty awful, but I remember feeling genuinely excited about the project.

Year 9 (age 13) was bad. I had a teacher who wasn't really up to the job. She was absent half the time, and not, as far as I could tell, an English specialist (she also taught me Maths, when she was there). She was also the only teacher I ever answered back to. She caught me drawing in the back of my English book while I ought to have been working, asked 'What is that?' and I replied, 'Art.' I think I bottled it when she asked me to repeat myself. Anyway, we struggled through Romeo and Juliet, which to this day is a blur in my mind, though we watched the Zeffirelli film in class and our study coincided with the release of the Luhrmann film in cinemas, which a lot of us presumably went to see. I remember her explaining a pun on sycamore/sick amour, and what maidenhead meant. Reading aloud a passage from The Friends by Rosa Guy, not an inspiring set text, she was obliged, embarrassed, to say the phrase 'big tits', which seemed to diminish what little authority she may hitherto have possessed. I think my parents wrote to the school out of concern that her attendance was short-changing the class, the only time they ever did that. She set another spelling test of 100 questions, which I reckoned I had got full marks for, but we never got our papers back. I pestered her repeatedly for my mark and she told me I had got 99, though my belief is she never marked them. I think my mother or father met her a couple of years ago by chance and reported how nice she was. I'm not sure we treated her very well, but then there are some teachers who, to their misfortune and to their pupils', are inherently unsympathetic, and of course children are adept at identifying the smallest character flaw and exploiting it mercilessly.

Mr Withers taught me for GCSE, a pleasant young man who had recently moved to the area from Nottingham. I think liking a teacher is a good first step to getting something out of the lessons. I'm not sure he was terribly popular with others - he had a rather dry sense of humour, which I think may have been lost on some of my classmates - but I remember wanting to impress him. I didn't do it very often, but I think an essay I wrote on The Tempest was praised on account of its having been less 'laconic' than previous ones. I was pleased to have moved him to use a word I didn't understand. It was The Tempest that really excited me, but I also enjoyed studying To Kill a Mockingbird (though didn't love it as much as I do now) and Psycho (which he had to wait until we were all 15 to show us). In those days (perhaps no longer?) there was an oral component of the English Language GCSE, which was essentially a discussion with your teacher about a prepared topic, intended partially, I think, to demonstrate you could like speak the language and that. Some people would probably object to this on grounds of dumbing down; my objection, at the time and now, was that it was cruel to expect teenagers to be able to talk. Few of us are at our most eloquent or coherent at fifteen. I felt much more under pressure having to talk to someone under exam conditions than I did having to write things down in written exams or play the piano in my music practical. Anyway, he let me talk about football and I made a fool of myself waffling about the proposed European Super League. He gave me free rein to write a comparative essay on aspects of growing up in Oliver Twist and Lord of the Flies, and encouraged my reading of things like Crime and Punishment (which I never finished - I think I was repeatedly distracted by football and decided it wasn't meant to be). A year or so after I'd given up English he caught sight of me reading Lolita in a classroom between lessons and remarked that it was one of his favourite books. I wonder what might have happened if I'd stayed on for A-level, but although I enjoyed English it wasn't my strongest subject at school by any means. I've learnt more about literature on this message board than I did at school, and that's probably because now (as opposed to then) I want to learn.

Sorry, me me me as usual. It's fascinating to read other people's memories on this thread.

No need to be sorry, Gareth - a fascinating trawl through your teachers, good and bad.  And the spelling tests!

We never had to do anything oral in English - not at least for any official reason.  Probably had to read some parts of plays.  Now, I think speech-delivery is part of the English curriculum for kids and some of them are very good at it indeed.  I was too shy at school to do well at anything that required any type of acting; I did things in monotones, though I have always been able to tell a story (usually about me!) to a group of people when sitting down at everyone else's level.  Doing Toastmasters helped a lot with that though.

Your comment of bottling a retort when asked to repeat it brings to mind an event at school.  I was a polite, though somewhat maverick child.  In one English class with the finicky male teacher I mentioned (short and pompous, he was) he must have been ranting a bit about our behaviour and I said something like, "Wouldn't that perhaps have something to do with the teacher?"  There was a shocked gasp and giggles from the class (much more polite we were in those days, but there had been a snideness to my question which was pretty obvious), but at that moment there was a knock on the door, and when the teacher returned and asked what I had said, I just made some excuse.  

People's reminiscences of their youth are fascinating.  I suppose why memoirs and coming of age things are entertaining.  

Cheers, Caro.

I'm mightily impressed by these fascinating memories. I can remember little about my schooldays - but that's probably because I'm advanced in years and memories are disappearing ever more quickly into the past.   I can just remember the older children at St Aloysious RC School, Oxford performing a play, but nothing else.  This must have been about 1940. I remember winning a threepenny bit (presented by Mother St Christopher) at St Kentigern's School, Blackpool, for coming top in a word test. We had to find as many words as possible that made their plural by changing the Y into I and adding ES.  I always enjoyed writing 'compositions' at secondary school, and still remember Mr Cross reading one of my pieces to the class. It was 'Night Scene in India', and had been inspired by seeing that week the film 'The River' directed by Jean Renoir. Mr Cross said it was very good, but maybe a trifle too exotic.
Brother Browner (I was startled once to encounter him in a cinema - men in Holy Orders went to the pictures!?) taught me 'Julius Caesar' and 'Pride and Prejudice' which I didn't much enjoy until years later.  And I recall that I made him laugh when reading Falstaff in Henry IV Pt 1.  I still don't understand why I was never cast in the school plays.  I was quite a good actor and I always felt I would have made just as good a Maria in TWELFTH NIGHT as RT did. (The sixth former playing Olivia, made sexual advances to me a few years later! Rejected). We later played the murderers in Patrick Hamilton's 'Rope' together. Poor PT. he made something of a mess of his life and died young.
On the whole I don't think the English teaching at my Catholic Grammar School was especially good. There was an awful lot of Religion. We had to stand up on the hour and say the Hail Mary - and the Angelus at midday.  
But something must have been right because I've been a voracious reader ever since.  I vividly remember playing truant sometimes on sports afternoons and going to matinees at the local theatre.  I was never missed - being rotten at everything - and I'm sure my theatre visits did me more good. And I remember avoiding cricket by hiding in the long grass by the side of the field with RW. I wonder if he remembers....

I was a bit concerned that Gareth could remember so much more of his teachers than I could, too, Michael, but reassured myself that he has had a lot less time to forget.  I'm not sure that is a perfect explanation but it will have to do.

My first English teacher when I went to grammar school in West London was Mrs. G.  She had long red hair and wore flamboyant clothes and all us gawky pre-teen girls thought she was wonderful.

There was a lot of free expression.  One task was we each had to devise and deliver monologues - I remember the class laughing uncontrollably at one of my comic monologues but a subsequent one died the death.  We did a lot of improvised drama.  

I can't remember much about the books we did with her.  I have a feeling we did animal books such as "Tarka the Otter", which didn't interest me.  I have a hunch that Mrs. G. tried to introduce us to Pinter but we were too  young to appreciate him.  Mrs. G's husband was a TV producer and she left when he took a job with Granada in Manchester leaving all of us girls heart-broken.

The wonderful Mrs. G. was succeeded by Miss Thingy ( I genuinely can't remember her name or what she looked like except that she was rather mousy).  Miss Thingy introduced us to Shakespeare but in an uninspiring way (everything about this teacher was uninspiring) and I'm afraid at this stage I found Shakespeare boring.

I then changed schools when my parents moved and I went to a direct grant grammar school in South West London.  My English teacher was Miss E.  She was definately the old school of English teaching with lots of emphasis on correct grammar.  One of our four or five English lessons a week was on grammar, which I hated, but I realised this had been neglected at my previous school.  

Miss E.'s idols were Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Her teaching on Shakespeare was superb and I can remember the plays were studied with her (Henry IV Part I and Henry V) in detail even to this day.   By this time I had seen the wonderful John Barton/Peter Hall production on TV of The War of the Roses (adapted from Shakespeare's Henry VI Parts I, II and III and Richard III) and I was a convert to Shakespeare.

Like her idol Jane Austen, Miss E. had a sharp tongue and could be snobbish  (I sometimes wonder if I would have dared to do English A-level if she had still been in change).  However, she was a wonderful teacher and I loved studying the romantic poets with her.

She retired and her place was taken by Mrs. R.  Mrs. R. had the charisma of Mrs. G. and the teaching ability of Miss E. without the latter's sharp tongue.  One of the first things Mrs. R. did was to set up a school drama society (something which had neglected by Miss E).

Mrs. R., together with the other English teacher Mrs. A., made English A-level a wonderful experience.  (The history teaching was equally excellent but this thread is about English teaching).

I think I mentioned on a previous thread that we spent an entire term studying novels written at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, not one of which was on the examinations set list, so that we could put "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", which was a set book, in context.

Mrs R. and Mrs. A. had the attitude that if students have a deep understanding of the  set texts and a real enthusiasm, then they should be able to excel in the examination questions.  There was none of the ghastly teaching how to pass the exam questions which seems to dominate in a lot of educational establishments today.

I feel so sad when I read of the experience of Apple, and I'm sure that there are many others with similar experience .  I also get angry when I hear glib talk about how teaching is so much better today - usually based on the inflated grades pupils are getting.  There is a lot of criticism of teachers - sometimes justified - but there have always been teachers such as the ones I've mentioned who were truly inspiring.

I know I've rambled on a bit but I would like to pay tribute to them.  I know that Mrs. R. died of cancer just a few years later and Mrs. A. has died as well.  This my way of saying how much I appreciated them.

Reading these most interesting posts I was suddenly reminded of teachers from my Blackpool primary school that I'd forgotten.  There was Miss Brookes who taught me about 1941. She was quite old, and I can remember than she wore long skirts down to her ankles and a long coat when she went home.  She was about sixty and had therefore been born about 1880 and looked it. She sat at a high desk and looked down at us. I remember she told us a cautionary tale about the dire results of nail-biting. It seems there was a wicked child who had bitten her nails and died - and when they cut her open found that all the bitten-off nails were sticking in her heart!  Like something out of Struwelpeter! And there was lovely Miss Nicolson who read us some of the William stories and said that when we were older we must be sure to read Colette's Claudine stories.  She also taught us how to make our own ink!  And there were always nuns about - in full habit, big skirts and veils, smelling of soap and goodness, driftng and flapping about the school like holy bats. And from Mr Read, who taught me briefly, I learned a poem by Walter Raleigh beginning 'Even such is time...' an appallingly gloomy piece to teach nine year olds.
I also remember that when we learned to do proper joined-up handwriting I was absent the day the class did O.P.Q. and it took me ages to master those letters.
Along side school - I haunted the local library.....
I remember - when I was a trainee teacher sitting in with an English teacher who had a fearsome reputation. During one session the class was listening to a poetry programme on the radio. A poor child seemed not to be attentive and the teacher roared at her,  'WHEN THE RADIO IS TALKING, LOOK AT IT!

       Big Readers Forum Index -> Things that don't fit anywhere else
Page 1 of 1
Create your own free forum | Buy a domain to use with your forum