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The Pupils Who Taught Me

Learning doesn't just flow from teacher to pupil – it can move in the other direction too...

  • The Pupils Who Taught Me

Teachers are there to teach children, to help guide their developing knowledge and character – but learning is always a two-way street.

Here, Pie Corbett, Nancy Gedge, Kevin Harcombe and others remember those pupils from whom they learnt the most…

1. Shane...

The Pupils Who Taught Me

By Mr Clements
Shane arrived at our school at the start of KS2. Tiny and waif-like in his already grubby uniform, he was a ball of anger.

Along with Shane came his mother. Like many parents, Shane’s mum was his champion, ready to defend her son at every opportunity.

When Shane lost his temper, escaped from class and clambered to the top of the climbing frame, roaring like King Kong, I was informed it was because, ‘The lessons at this school are so boring’. When Shane threw a plate of lasagne across the hall, it was due to, ‘The disgusting food you serve’. Every single thing was the school’s fault.

Our first priority for Shane was to teach him to read, so we threw everything we could at this task. Shane didn’t always enjoy his extra reading sessions (cue many further escape attempts), but slowly and surely he started to make progress.

Success led to success, and by the end of the year Shane could read. And once he’d started it was like lighting the touchpaper on a rocket. Shane raced through comics and magazines, through Horrid Henry and Roald Dahl. By Y4 he was halfway through the Mr Gum books.

Shane was a reader. His behaviour improved dramatically and I managed an entire half-term without a meeting with his mum.

Finally, at the end of Y4, Shane’s mum made an appointment to see me. She was worried, she said, because Shane wasn’t himself. All he wanted to do was sit quietly and read. At last, something for which we were happy to take the blame.

Shane did well at secondary school and now he’s taking his A levels. He’s on course to be the first in his family to go to university.

Shane taught me that no matter how difficult it might be, we should never give up on a child – they might just surprise us. Also, that learning to read can genuinely change people’s lives. Two good lessons for a teacher to learn…

2. Katie...

The Pupils Who Taught Me

By Mrs Gedge
Let me tell you about Katie. She was a nice little girl – I taught her when she was in Y4, and again in Y5 until I left to go on maternity leave. She was quiet, never any trouble, and popular – though never flavour of the month.

She wasn’t the brightest in the class, but neither was she struggling with her work. Everything was ticking along nicely. Nothing out of the ordinary.

That summer, while I was busy moving classrooms and thinking about the start of my own family, something terrible happened to Katie. During the holidays, right at the end, her mummy died. She was a nice lady too. She had cancer.

Katie didn’t come back to school right at the start of September, which gave me a chance to talk to the rest of the class. They all knew what had happened; they were in awe of the massive fact of her bereavement. I asked them not to crowd her, or ask her lots of questions. I asked them to just be there for her, no fussing.

I never talked about it with Katie. When she came back to school, a quiet girl nervously making her way through the hubbub of the cloakroom, I caught her eye and she caught mine. I nodded at her and mouthed, ‘You ok?’ She nodded back at me and slotted right back in. She didn’t need me, or anyone else to make a fuss.

It was a powerful lesson, because, like so many children I have taught after her, what she needed was for me to carry on as normal; teaching, telling off, being strict. She needed school to be the place that hadn’t changed. She needed my classroom to be a safe place.

3. Paul...

The Pupils Who Taught Me

By Mr Harcombe
Paul was lazy, sulky and ill-tempered, I was warned. Be hard with him and don’t take any of his backchat, continued the sage advice. It was the ‘Don’t smile at them till Christmas’ adage, so beloved of the war-weary teachers I regarded as being past it. I knew it all, of course – with two years’ experience…

For the first few weeks Paul was, as predicted, indolent, stroppy, mouthy and clearly long since unpopular with his classmates and rapidly becoming unpopular with me. He was also disinterested in learning but, I gradually noticed, quite good at maths.

This was reinforced to me when his mum – a formidable single parent – bluntly told me that the maths he was being set he could already do. She was right, of course. He could do the then Y6 maths curriculum in his sleep – which was just as well, as he must have been dozing off with the boredom of what he was being ‘taught’.

A chat to the school’s forward-thinking headteacher led to Paul being effectively fast-tracked to a Y7 and Y8 maths curriculum, with the help of a secondary school maths teacher. He revelled in it, though never quite shook off his sulks and strops.

Years later I used to see him around town as a young adult, quite often emerging from the bookies – ‘Making good use of your maths to beat the system?’ I would ask. He was clearly drifting but was always happy to chat to me, and I was delighted when he eventually became a secondary maths teacher.

We later bumped into each other in a checkout queue, where he told me he was interested in school leadership and asked if I had any tips for him. I encouraged his ambition and suggested a couple of books and courses. He is now in a deputy head position and will, no doubt, run his own school some time very soon.

I guess what I learned from Paul was the importance of good assessment – getting to know a child’s strengths and weaknesses – and subsequent flexibility in teaching, as well as the value of utilising parents and their unrivalled knowledge of their own offspring.

4. Wesley...

The Pupils Who Taught Me

By Mrs Price-Grimshaw
On the first day of my teacher training course the programme leader said to us, “If you don’t like change and you don’t relish a challenge, I suggest you leave now.”

Those words stayed with me, and I did learn to relish the challenges. But Wesley presented a challenge that I just couldn’t deal with.

Wesley couldn’t sit for longer than five seconds without starting to fidget. The fidgeting would escalate and he would become more and more agitated and animated, usually progressing to standing on his chair, jumping off, running around the room and making noises. His classmates were initially amused, but soon became tired of his behaviour.

The deputy head said that Wesley had, “This new thing called ADHD”. The diagnosis and subsequent medication didn’t help.

The most difficult thing for me was that Wesley was not ‘badly behaved’ in the usual way. He was actually quite likeable – not aggressive or abusive, and never nasty to his classmates, no matter how frustrated they became with him. His literacy and numeracy skills were very poor and I focused solely on all sorts of strategies to help with this, unfortunately with little success.

And then one day he went up to my electronic keyboard for the first time and started to work out the melody of the Postman Pat theme tune. Wesley had a remarkable talent – a fantastic musical ear – and for the first time, I saw him stay in the same place for a considerable length of time. His classmates were full of admiration.

Wesley was not ‘cured’ – but his musical ability was the game-changer, having a profound impact on other aspects of his learning. He taught me that sometimes it’s actually possible to focus too much on literacy and numeracy, when what’s needed is a sideways step.

5. Gillan...

The Pupils Who Taught Me

By Mr Corbett
Gillan was 7 when he said, “What I like about writing is that you never know what is going to happen.”

I’ve thought about that for over 30 years. A plan is a handy scaffold, not a constraint. As we write, the imagination should take over so new ideas emerge. A sense of the story’s arc helps, but the more we enter an imagined world, the more the characters should steer the tale into unforeseen waters.

Writers draw on subconscious material. It bubbles up from the wellspring of memory, our secret imaginative life. Rich reading, alongside performing stories and poems, feeds this. It is activated by brainstorming; opening the mind allows unique and charismatic possibilities to arise.

But the writer has to be ready to experiment, to feel safe in uncertainty. When describing fire, Gillan wrote, ‘The cockerel lava’. Perhaps, no one has ever used the noun ‘cockerel’ as an adjective? Each week, we wrote playfully:

She is.

She is like a golden star,
slinking into the night.
She is like a flower of light.
She is like a silent pair of lips
saying something unknown.
She is like a brilliant spurt of love.
She is like an ungrateful silence.

Gillan, 7 yrs.

Each week, we observed, carefully drawing before writing. As Gillan said, ‘It’s when you try to say what things are really like’:

The Bee.

Its wings are frail,
like stained glass,
woven with a thread
of fine lead.
Pollen powders
its slim gold legs.
The bee’s alien eyes
bulge black
and its body bristles.

Gillan, 7 yrs.

So I learned to be playful and truthful; to experiment in teaching; to encourage experimentation in writing; and to keep plans and patterns flexible.

6. Gilbert...

The Pupils Who Taught Me

By Mr Willis
As my first ever class, resplendent in their green uniforms, buzzed around the room on my first ever day, all waiting expectantly for my first ever register, I knew we were one short, and I knew exactly which one. Gilbert (a not very flattering reference to an 80s children’s TV character) was late.

I turned away from a deep mathematical discussion to find this strange heap had not so much arrived but crash landed in the middle of my pristine classroom, munching toast and wearing blue.

“Did you get some for me, fella?”

He looked at me with mild suspicion, his face covered in crumbs. “Not today, Sir.”

Thus began one of my most humbling relationships, because whatever anyone else might think, I instantly liked Gilbert. A lot. And it wasn’t the daily slapstick routine – it was what I learned about him incidentally, and the depths I discovered that no one else had witnessed.

Despite loathing books, he was a lover of stories. The more I got to know him and his ability to recite poetry, the more I discovered that he despised his own spidery, illegible handwriting. One day at lunch I found him poring over a book on calligraphy with wide-eyed awe.

From his ill mother, who I only ever saw on two parents’ evenings, I discovered he was an exceptional carer for her and his little sister (and, I would eventually discover, a pregnant older sister). He shouldered all of this without us knowing.

On his final day, he spent much of his time dressed in a frilly pink affair, making the new reception children snort with laughter. When I dismissed them that final time, amidst the hugs, handshakes and tears of others, I received from Gilbert a stare, a smile and a nod. It said so much.

From this intriguingly fascinating human being I learned a simple lesson: the most amazing qualities can be found where you least expect them. And I hope I have never lost the art of seeking these out.

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