Friday, August 19, 2011

The Teacher Effect

As part of the research I'm doing on mentoring for the aPLaNet EU project, I've recently been reflecting on the effect that teachers have had on me, and the more I think about it, the more I realise just how much influence they have had upon the direction of my life. Because of this, and because it's something that all teachers should consider, I thought I'd blog about it here.

Primary school

I don't remember my primary school teachers very well, but I do remember all with vaguely positive memories. I remember lots of smiling, being encouraged to read, and rewarded with praise. I have more recollections of specific incidents, but here I want to focus on the effect that teachers have had, so I'll save those for another day.

Secondary school

I think my secondary school teachers have had the most influence on me and what I decided to do, without a doubt. When I started secondary school, I remember I found it a strange place with lots of rules I didn't understand. I was equally and excited and in awe of starting 'big school' and this article in the Guardian is an interesting read related to this move. Looking back on this period, I can see that some teachers had a profound effect on what I ended up doing in later life: my love of English came from a teacher who encouraged us to write and had us reading JRR Tolkien's the Hobbit in class; the Spanish teacher and Spanish language assistant caused me to fall in love with Spanish culture and eventually led to me going to live there; I reacted against the history teacher telling the careers advisor that he didn't recommend I take History at university, and decided that's what I was going to do!

Sixth form college

I took English, Economics, Spanish and History A'levels at college. Again, the teachers here had a strong effect. I dropped English mainly because I didn't get on with the teacher - there was no empathy. On the contrary, because of the Economics teacher (originally I decided to take an O'level in it), I continued studying it. And the history teacher brought the subject to life and convinced me that I wanted to study it at university.


So, I went on to study Modern History in London and I have to say that the worst teachers I've ever experienced were those at university. Rather than teaching, they were only interested in research. None of them seemed to take any interest in their students. Lectures consisted of a teacher talking to a large group of us. After the first six months, most students stopped attending most of them. There were a few lecturers who had a knack of making what they were talking about interesting, and they were the ones that usually ended up with the largest audience. The others were so deadly boring, reading papers out word by word that you started to wonder why they didn't just hand out their paper instead and let you stay at home.

One exception: I attended one class in my second year, given by a star lecturer, someone who was the leading expert in his field (the Spanish civil war), and who had written the most interesting books. For his class, a hundred of us or so clustered into a medium sized room. There weren't enough chairs, so if you didn't arrive early, you had to stand at the back. He would start to talk about a particular topic, but would always encourage questions and would be happy to go off on tangents to deal with any doubts that students had. He would always return to the topic though, and you always felt you left the room knowing more and with a number of interesting questions. I was encouraged to read more about the subject. This, I thought, was what all university History teachers should be like. Highly knowledgeable, able to provoke and engage students, willing to listen.

Unfortunately, I gained little out of the tutorials I took at my university. I remember the tutors being more interested in themselves and what they had discovered as researchers than in helping us. I also remember being forced to read out an essay I'd written in a tutorial and then have it brutally ripped apart in front of my peers. Something died in me that day that I don't think will ever see the light of day again.

What did I learn from the teachers at university? I learned that time spent in the library reading books was more valuable than attending their lectures and tutorials. It made me distrust university teachers.