William Cook

The secrets to brilliant teaching

The secrets to brilliant teaching
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‘Why not be a teacher?’ asks Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s great play A Man for All Seasons. ‘You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.’ ‘If I was, who would know it?’ says Richard Rich, the young man who betrays him. ‘You, your pupils, your friends — God,’ says More. ‘Not a bad public, that.’

I’ve been thinking about those lines a lot since the finest teacher I ever knew, Audrey Judge, died. Audrey was 93. The last time I saw her was before Covid. She died of cancer during lockdown. She taught art at Haberdashers’ Aske’s in New Cross — formerly a state grammar school, now a state academy. She could have been a great artist. Instead she became a great teacher. I knew her for half a century. She changed a lot of lives.

Audrey’s most devoted pupil was my mother, whom she virtually adopted. My mum was an only child, living with her grandparents in a terraced house in New Cross. She showed a flair for art and Audrey guided and encouraged her. When my mum left Aske’s to go to art school, in nearby Camberwell, she became Audrey’s lodger. They remained close for the next 60 years. Audrey never married. She had no children. She was like a grandmother to me.

The kind of relationship my mum had with Audrey was exceptional, but it wasn’t unheard of. There was nothing untoward about it, but it might not be possible today. Understandably, the authorities have become jumpy about close friendships between teachers and pupils, and with good reason. This safety-first attitude has protected vulnerable children, but it’s also made teachers more cautious about going the extra mile.

Like the priesthood or the stage, teaching is a vocation. It can’t be measured or evaluated in the same way as other careers. Looking back on my own schooldays, there were teachers who helped me in all sorts of ways, completely outside their job descriptions. They didn’t help me out because they were paid to do it. They did it because they cared.

When I think of all the things that make my life worth living — art, history, music, drama — all these things came from teachers. Some of it happened in the classroom, but it mostly occurred out of hours: school trips, school plays, the school newspaper, the school orchestra… I never thought about it at the time, but now I’m married, with children of my own, I can see how it must have eaten up their free time, their family time, their love lives.

Some of those teachers took big risks to make life fairer for disadvantaged pupils, like the teacher who bent the rules when I had to sit the Eleven Plus. Where I went to primary school, they’d abolished the exam, but then my mum and dad split up and my mum met another man who lived on the other side of the country, where the Eleven Plus prevailed. She decided to take me to move in with him, so I had to sit the test.

Most pupils spend months revising — I sat mine blind. I did fine at first, but then a break came, 15 minutes before the end of my allotted time, and the teacher who was keeping an eye on me told me to go outside. When I returned, after a riotous game of football in the playground, I’d lost all sense of focus. For those final 15 minutes I did nothing. When he returned to collect my paper, my teacher was aghast. Why hadn’t I written anything? he asked me. I couldn’t say — I didn’t know. Did I have any idea how important this test was? he asked. Not really, I replied. He took a deep breath and told me to do those 15 minutes again. Did he break the rules? Most probably. Did he do the right thing? Absolutely. He saw the bigger picture and did what he thought was just.

Various teachers have helped my children too, in ways which went far beyond the call of duty. Both of my children have suffered serious illnesses, and the support their teachers gave them — academic and pastoral — was remarkable. Once they were out of hospital, these teachers played key roles in their recoveries. Perhaps the best part of it was how discreet they were.

Teachers get a lot of stick, but a lot of their good deeds go unnoticed. Like priests or policemen, discretion is a big part of the job. I trained to be a teacher before I drifted into journalism. Like Richard Rich, the vain, pathetic villain in A Man for All Seasons, my friends, my pupils and God Himself wasn’t a sufficient audience. I was too selfish, too self-centred, to put my pupils first. In my twenties seeing my name in bold type on grubby news reports was more alluring than guiding children into adulthood. Now, in my fifties, I can see which of these jobs is more important.

Audrey Judge had the maturity to make that distinction in her twenties. She devoted her best years to teaching art. Her own creativity came second. Yet she never stopped painting, drawing, etching — and in retirement her work blossomed. Her pictures were very good indeed, reminiscent of Edward Ardizzone. Like Ardizzone’s illustrations, they were full of humour, insight and compassion — attributes all the best teachers share. If she’d become a full-time artist, she might have become a household name. She knew she’d left it too late to build a reputation, but she wasn’t bothered. She went the extra mile for her pupils, and that was more important. Her friends knew she was a fine artist, and her pupils knew she was a great teacher, and that was quite enough for her. Not a bad public, as More might say. RIP.