What School Taught Me About Teachers

Most writers know why they write, but how many of us ever stop to think about the first people who put us onto that path? Despite coming from a family of storytellers, I couldn’t have done it without certain teachers.

My mother always wanted me to become a teacher because the teaching study loan was the easiest way to put myself through university, but I’ve never been the teaching type. Not only do I get tongue-tied when addressing any group of students larger than six or seven, but after my own twelve years of schooling I can count on one hand the teachers that actually inspired me.

This is your cue to take a bow: Mr Dean; Miss Harris; Mrs Patrick; Miss Dreyer and Miss McLean – because the five of you made school worthwhile.

I always knew that I would never match up to those few teachers and anything less would have been criminal to inflict on a new generation of scholars. As for the worst teachers (named and shamed later in this blog-post), it has always been my hope that they would eventually rot in hell for their meanness and the bullying that they inflicted on countless children and for which they should have been punished but weren’t. If they tried any of their tricks in today’s world, things would be different. Just saying…

But for now let’s concentrate on one of the good ones.

Ralph Dean was the most feared teacher in my primary school. His shouting could be heard across the entire school, reverberating off of prefabricated walls and echoing down windswept corridors. For six years I lived in fear of being put into his class in my final year. I hoped and prayed that my teacher would be the elegant Mrs Goosen whose voice was never raised beyond the confines of her classroom. But it was not to be. On my first day in what was then called Standard Five (year seven and the last before entering high school) I was on Mr Dean’s class register, not hers. Only my jelly-quivering knee-caps prevented me from running away and joining the nearest circus.

I soon found out that it wasn’t so bad. That terrifying voice – so long feared – could also be raised in laughter, and in high drama, such as when he read us The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mr Dean discovered by chance that most of us had never heard of the book, let alone read it, so he brought in his copy and began reading it to us in the last fifteen minutes of every school day. We were captivated and transported to the world of Narnia, just as Clive Staples Lewis had intended.

Mr Dean acted out all the characters in different voices: his Wicked Witch was truly terrifying; his Aslan magnificent and his Mr Tumnus tragic and remorseful. As he rampaged up and down the aisles of our classroom, I spared a thought for the terrified youngsters in the years below us, quaking in their socks at the sound of that booming voice and fearing their own Standard Five year to come. They didn’t know the treat they were in for!

The voice wasn’t all. We had learned to write in cursive writing a few years before, and one teacher had taught us to write “light up, dark down” which lent our writing an almost Italic look. Mr Dean offered to stay after school one day a week and teach anyone who wanted to learn the finer points of Italics and other calligraphy. Armed with new fountain pens and special nibs, a few of us kept it up to become the envy of others and were available to do titles and special lettering on the projects of those who couldn’t quite get their fingers around the new capitals and fancy tails.

Mr Dean also did the Standard Five play every year. As in: he chose it, directed it, built and painted the set for it. He also encouraged anyone who was interested to join in on any level. As a timid ballet-girl, I auditioned but didn’t get into the play itself. However, my fascination with all things theatrical led me to sit in on the rehearsals almost every afternoon. Eventually, he offered me the small part of “A Lady” in the final scene. I had two whole lines to shout amidst the general tumult. I’m sure no-one heard them, but the important thing was that Mr Dean had heard my unspoken, secret wish, and encouraged me to take up something I hadn’t had the guts to try before. And look where that eventually led me!

He also responded to another not-so-secret wish of mine. As a class composition exercise he would often start a story and make us think up and write the rest of it for homework. I took this to heart, frequently using up all the pages in my composition exercise book in spinning out some extravagant yarn. My book would be handed in the next day with pages from my mother’s writing pad sticky-taped into the back of the book so that my story could reach its dramatic conclusion.

Did he rant and rave for my wastage of my mother’s paper or his time? No, he encouraged me to use my imagination and write even more. All these years later, he is the one I thank most for his encouragement of my storytelling and writing.

Here’s another important thing that Mr Dean did. Or rather, didn’t do. In the first six years of my school life, several of us suffered at the hands of certain teachers who were vindictive bullies. (Yes, that would include you – C Brown and B Smith!) They took great delight in picking on the weaker ones “as an example” and even more delight in continuing to bully the same children long past their original misdemeanours, and encouraging classmates to do the same with impunity.

I was somewhat relieved the other day to read on Matthew Wright’s blog that he had a similarly awful primary school experience on the far side of the world, so it wasn’t just my school. Seems that it was a pattern back in the sixties.

Worldwide or not, this pattern of horror continued for six whole years, stopping only in my seventh year – with Mr Dean.

Mr Dean was strict but he didn’t hold grudges. A boy who had been sent to the headmaster’s office to be caned (yes, it was back in those days) came back with red eyes. One of the other boys sniggered and jeered at him, and was immediately sent to the office to be punished. As Mr Dean said coldly to the whole class: “They’ve both been punished now and that’s the end of it. I’ll not tolerate any bullying over the misfortune of someone who has stood up and taken his punishment. The punishment ends the incident and wipes the slate clean. Let that be a lesson to you all.” It was.

I was sent to the office once for my untidy handwriting, but it was never held against me after my sharp reprimand from the headmaster (girls weren’t caned). No one jeered when I returned to the classroom and no one labelled me. I never felt branded by my untidy writing and I did honestly try to improve it. It’s still untidy when I write down ideas faster than my hand can move the pen, but I figure that as long as I can read it, that’s good enough for me. But every now and then, I slow my writing down, indulging in those never-forgotten Italics, and I relish the experience and beauty of it because I can…

My high school years introduced me to more wonderful teachers in the mould of Ralph Dean. The most influential were Miss Harris (English), Mrs Patrick (English and Drama), Miss Dreyer (Art) and Miss McLean (Biology and Drama). Perhaps I’ll reminisce about them in future blog posts.

What school taught me about teachers is that the good ones are hard to find, but when you find them, recognise their strengths as they recognise yours.

Wherever my favourite teachers are now, I thank you one and all, for your patience, for encouraging me in art, drama and writing, for nurturing my talents and for teaching me to live my life in the way most suited to my individuality.

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11 thoughts on “What School Taught Me About Teachers

    • It’s strange to look back now and realise that many children around the world were going through the same traumas and discovering the same new things. If only we’d known that at the time we might not have felt so alone. When I was 14 our high school joined an organisation which allocated us pen-friends from countries of our choice around the world. My first pen-friend was in Greece, and I loved receiving her letters because in many ways her life wasn’t that different from mine.

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  1. You were so lucky to have some teachers who encouraged you. With the exception of my high school Afrikaans teacher I don’t think I had any others who really appreciated the incipient writer within me. I was at a convent and in Standard 7 my class teacher, a very earnest nun called Sister Martin, called me aside to gently reproach me re the ‘unsuitable’ topics of some of my stories – written in my spare time and not part of my class work, I might add. She had just read a story called The Cat where a man who hated his wife’s cat drowned it, and then when he came home saw a cat ornament she had bought, and thought it had come back to haunt him, and so jumped out of a 10th storey window. I was more or less instructed to stop writing about horrible subjects and rather write nice and happy stories about children having adventures or about brave and loyal animals. I rather think I’m pleased I didn’t listen to Sister Martin and went on writing unsuitable stories.
    In Standard Nine we had to write an essay – Myself and As Others See Me. I wrote the most controversial essay in the history of the school, describing myself as a red apple which looks delicious on the outside but has worms in it with names like greed and jealousy etc. There was actually a staff meeting called to decide whether it was a work of genius or something which deserved a zero score. As I ended up winning the trophy for the Best Essay with the piece in question, the verdict was obviously that it was a the former.
    I still say the reason I ended up a writer is because of a family tendency that way. Even my grandmother attempted a novel at some stage, my mother has written one (unpublished) and my late brother was a prolific poet and playwright. Right from the time I was small I was encouraged to make up and tell stories and when I was eight we had extra long holidays, and my mother made us do extra schoolwork. I hated the days we did arithmetic, history etc, but the day I was told to write a story I realised I’d actually had fun doing it, and from then on I wrote for pleasure.
    On the subject of the nuns, I am not a doctor of medicine today because I could not do maths. In Standard Eight our teacher Sister Josephine’s method of teaching me the subject was to tell the class the Devil was stopping me from doing maths, and then they all had to stand up and pray for me! But for that I might be penning medical thrillers today!

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    • Wendy, I’m glad you made the decision to continue writing “unsuitable” stories despite Sister Martin and the other nuns. They must have been in despair over your red apple essay! Nun teachers seem to be one extreme or the other. Some of the nuns I’ve heard about who taught friends of mine sound like fodder for horror stories. I wonder if they consciously did a “good nun, bad nun” routine to counteract each other…

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  2. I did have an excellent English teacher, Mr Foggin, who encouraged my writings, but that was it. In matric my english teacher was odd to say the least so I guess it forced me to decide for myself … not a bad thing in the long run I suppose.

    Cheers to the computer – no one has to see handwriting anymore, unless it’s a font, though those all seem to be tidy.

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    • Sometimes even the odd teachers cause us to react in a positive way – or at least in a way that works for us despite what they want. About computers – yes, I’m very glad that everyone can read my typing, because my handwriting is pretty bad unless I’m deliberately doing calligraphy, and who can write a novel using that?! I’ve always held my pen in a strange way, with my fingers bunched up around it, so maybe that’s why.

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    • Sally, I may have left things a bit late, but I did visit Mr Dean back at my old primary school when I was at university. He was delighted that I had gone on to study both English and Drama, but I guess that I didn’t even realise back then how much I owed to him. I hope he did. Mrs Patrick moved to Cape Town and I never saw her again, but I did have a chance to thank Miss McLean, Miss Harris and Miss Dreyer in later years. Miss Harris even came to our 20-year high school reunion.

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