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A salute to great teachers

Niall Ferguson
 

‘Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility (and surprised at the same time that he was not appointed captain of school for next half). I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Thus Martin Hammond, the master of Boris Johnson’s house at Eton, in a letter addressed to Johnson père in 1982. Boris took much the same approach to life at Oxford, where I met him a few years later. It was the same story in Fleet Street; in parliament; as a junior minister; as mayor of London; as foreign secretary — and I have no doubt that it will be same story if, as now seems all but inevitable, he is elected Conservative leader and fulfils his life’s ambition to be Britain’s prime minister.

It is true that Sir Winston Churchill was also something of a maverick at Harrow, where, according to a contemporary, he “consistently broke almost every rule made by masters or boys, was quite incorrigible, and had an unlimited vocabulary of backchat”. A few years ago Boris dashed off a very bad book about Churchill, the main purpose of which was to draw attention to resemblances between himself and Britain’s greatest prime minister. For me, the book only confirmed the chasm between them.

In any case, as Andrew Roberts notes in Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Winston did better at Harrow than he later claimed, winning a prize for reciting 1,200 lines of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome without error — whereas Johnson was notorious for fluffing his lines at Eton. Cruelly neglected by his parents, Churchill flourished under the influence of Robert Somervell, who taught him English grammar.

Now there is a man who deserves our admiration: the man who taught English to the young Churchill, who in turn became one of the language’s greatest masters — second only to Shakespeare, in my view. Somervell, like Hammond, dedicated his life to teaching. He did not aspire to be prime minister, for teachers are generally modest types. But should we admire only the ambitious?

To be a teacher is to forgo fame. You might aspire to become a headmaster; you do not dream of No 10. This is the time of year when, regardless of the political goings-on in Westminster, the school year draws to a close and the more grateful sixth-formers shake their teachers’ hands as they set off into the world. Let us therefore turn away from the attention-seeking antics of the power-hungry — there will be more than enough articles about Boris this weekend — and give thanks instead for the unsung heroes who are great teachers.

Earlier this month, The Times reported, Sharon White became chairwoman of the retailer John Lewis, just days after Sonita Alleyne was elected master of Jesus College, Cambridge. What these two high-flyers have in common, aside from being neither male nor white, is they were both pupils of Gerald O’Connell at Leyton Senior High School for Girls in east London, then classed as a severely disadvantaged school (the opposite of Eton, in other words). It was O’Connell who urged them to apply to Cambridge.

“When teaching boys that age and in that area,” O’Connell told The Times, “you had to be quite tough. With the girls, as a young male teacher, it was best to use flattery to form an emotional bond, then get them to worry about disappointing you and letting you down. It’s emotional blackmail but it works. I went a bit far one day and all the girls ended up crying when I said I would be heartbroken if they didn’t do well in their exams.”

The best teachers have just that kind of insight into the dark place that is teenage psychology. I was the rebellious type in my early teens. Not long after Anarchy in the UK had been released by the Sex Pistols — it was 1976 — I bought a cheap electric guitar and ineptly cut my hair in the punk fashion with my mother’s nail scissors. I was one of the worst boy soldiers in the history of the Glasgow Academy’s combined cadet force.

History — then as now — had the reputation of being a boring subject at school. (It’s no accident that the history teacher in the Harry Potter books, Professor Binns, is so boring that he has died without noticing it.) Yet my history teacher, the late Ronnie Woods, had the gift that makes a great teacher. He understood that a bunch of recalcitrant Glaswegian boys would respond only to a mixture of theatre and terror.

Ronnie would begin each lesson with an explosive flourish, spinning the blackboard around to reveal a multicoloured lesson plan. He had catchphrases — “The question is sacrosanct!”— that I remember to this day (even at university level, most history essays are bad because students simply fail to answer the question).

Ronnie was in tune with our adolescent addiction to humour, well aware that we were imitating him behind his back — as we imitated all our teachers — and furnishing us with ample raw material. But there were also the odd flashes of ferocity that are needed to keep boys in line. Once in a while, Ronnie was not averse to administering the dreaded belt or tawse to the outstretched hand of a transgressor, pour encourager les autres.

Then there were the vital nuts and bolts. Ronnie showed us how to take notes, how to plan an essay, how to defend it in discussion. It was from him I learnt that the obvious answer to a historical question is rarely the right one, and never the interesting one. Above all, Ronnie had the vital quality that he truly wanted his star pupils to triumph.

We lost another great teacher last week, the Harvard economist Martin Feldstein, who died at the age of 79, having taught a striking proportion of the biggest names in economics today. Fellow economist Lawrence Summers recalled how, in 1973, Feldstein “decided to take a chance on hiring a dishevelled college sophomore as his research assistant. Marty was infinitely patient with my many questions about his research and remarkably tolerant of my inability to keep straight his data on international social-security comparisons.”

Either man would have been a better Federal Reserve chairman than the present incumbent, and both came close, for Harvard is one of the few educational institutions in the world where the teachers do dream of the corridors of power.

But let Marty be remembered — along with Robert Somervell, Ronnie Woods and thousands of others — as a great teacher, always patient and tolerant. Cultivating teenage talent is a noble vocation. And if some of the talent remains incorrigible . . . well, don’t blame the teachers. If, as prime minister, Boris Johnson continues to act as if “free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”, it will not be Martin Hammond’s fault.

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