‘She believed in every one of us’: ex-pupils on their inspirational teachers | Teaching

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“So bloody cool, so engaging.” That’s how Adele described her English teacher at Chestnut Grove school in Balham, south-west London, Ms McDonald, when asked who had inspired her.

Answering a question from the actor Emma Thompson during ITV’s An Audience With Adele on Sunday, Adele said: “She really made us care, and we knew that she cared about us and stuff like that.”

Images of the singer breaking down in tears when McDonald surprised her on stage at the London Palladium have gone viral, triggering conversations about the impact teachers can have on the lives of their pupils.

Max Daniels, 28, a communications consultant who lives in London, described how the humanity shown by his teacher Miss Coyle had a lasting impact. “Miss Coyle was this upbeat, enthusiastic Irish woman who taught me English and media studies,” he said. “I could go on about how fun she made classes or how she injected life into her lessons, but the impact they had was far more personal.

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Max Daniels
Max Daniels: ‘Miss Coyle made me feel important even when people around me would make me feel the opposite.’ Photograph: supplied

“My father passed away when I was 14 and, during a parents’ evening shortly after, Miss Coyle gave my mum a huge hug. It was something that made me realise how much she cared about the lives of the people she taught.

“Even though she was a teacher and had a professional role to fill, it made me realise that it shouldn’t stop you from being human, from being caring. It’s something I think about in my professional career. It’s so easy to be the cold professional with your job, but actually caring about the lives, achievements and successes of people around you doesn’t hurt your job. If anything, it makes you work better with people.

“As the classic secondary school loser – someone you could have pulled from The Inbetweeners – Miss Coyle made me feel important even when people around me would make me feel the opposite.”

Sometimes teachers can be instrumental in helping pupils face deep, personal challenges. Jack Haywood, a 29-year-old doctor who lives in London, said his last teacher at primary school, Miss Stuart, helped him deal with anxieties about his sexuality at a young age.

Jack Haywood
Jack Haywood: ‘[Miss Stuart] made me feel safe and valued.’ Photograph: supplied

“The move to secondary school was a particularly anxious time for me, and I dreaded leaving. I had always wanted to do well at school and enjoyed it. But I was teased at school – I was called gay and excluded because of it,” he said. “I am an out and proud gay man now, but at the time I hadn’t even considered this and found it deeply hurtful. This alongside the anxiety of the move held me back and knocked my confidence.

“Miss Stuart would regularly pull me aside and talk to me one to one, giving me the courage to push on. She told me it was OK if I was gay, and that there was nothing to be afraid of. Alongside dealing with the bullies, she made me feel safe and valued. Because of her, leaving primary school was a smooth transition, and I worked hard all the way through secondary school because of the confidence and reassurance she gave me.”

Haywood added: “My schools were in a small town in Scotland, and I have since moved to London to go to medical school and I am now a public health doctor. I have absolutely no doubt that if Miss Stuart had not provided me with the push I needed, I was heading for a downward spiral and I wouldn’t be where I am today. So, thank you Miss Stuart. I am sure you have inspired and motivated many more after me.”

Sophie Smith-Tong
Sophie Smith-Tong in her school days: ‘We are still friends 24 years on.’ Photograph: supplied

Sophie Smith-Tong, 37, a primary school teacher who lives in London and the founder of a centre for educators and their families, Mindfulness for Learning, said her teacher Ms Rea changed her journey in education.

“We met at 13 when in a drama lesson she has dressed up a classroom as a police station,” she said. “Starting here, she has continued to inspire me throughout my life. She is the reason that I realised I could apply to go to uni and that I had something to offer even though I felt so different to all of my peers.

“She took me to perform my first professional theatre production at the Edinburgh festival at 16. She believed in every single one of us and it gave us the space to fly our own individual journeys. We are still friends 24 years on and she still has a major impact on the life decisions I make today. She is the reason I created Mindfulness for Learning.”

Mandeep Rai
Mandeep Rai. Photograph: supplied

For Mandeep Rai, her teacher Mr Holmes helped her with the challenges of being a child of immigrants to the UK, particularly language difficulties.

The 39-year-old, who lives in Gravesend and is a global head of function for a pharmaceutical firm, said: “English was not my first language – I was born in the UK but my parents insisted we speak Punjabi at home to ensure I could communicate with my grandparents. They felt it their duty to ensure they passed on their mother tongue to their children.

“This meant I only learned to speak English when I started school at around three years old. I struggled with English, in particular vocabulary. In my first year of secondary school I did poorly in an end-of-term geography exam, which surprised my teacher Mr Holmes as I was usually the first to raise my hand in class and clearly enjoyed the topic.

“He encouraged me to read as much as I could, anything I enjoyed, to better understand sentence structure and improve my vocabulary,” Rai said. “It was tough feedback for an 11-year-old but he was spot on. I took his advice and, in short, I think it was a huge help in passing exams and performing well in the workplace.”

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