SallyP

Retroladytyping …

The inspirational Mr Neate

my-english-teacherBack in the days of ‘O’ levels, my English teacher was a very unusual (for those days) teacher.  He was a teacher of the old school, complete with cap and gown, in an era of freedom of expression, freedom of thought and when conforming meant not conforming i.e. the 1960s.

Mr Neate wore a cap and gown when other teachers were wearing scuffed suede shoes, brown corduroy jackets and jeans.  He was always dressed in a dark suit, with worn through elbows and chalk dust on the lapels.  His shoes were always extremely black, extremely polished and extremely tip-tappy. He swept into assembly every morning like a short, round bat – sleeves flapping, shoes tapping,  as he marched through groups of students who were asserting their individuality by all looking the same – rolled over skirts, luminous socks, the whole 1960s look – and this was in a Grammar school, where our skirts were measured for length weekly by the Senior Mistress.

More important than his appearance, however, is that Mr Neate was a truly inspirational teacher.  He ruled by his short, round presence.  When he entered the classroom, silence reigned.  He rarely shouted.  When he did, it was because a pupil wasn’t venturing an opinion.  Whether we were discussing Keates, Chaucer, Maugham or, my personal love, Coleridge,  Mr Neate really, really loved a good argument.  His only proviso was that opinions had to be backed by evidence.  Not for him any woolly-minded ‘because I think so’ discussions.  We needed evidence; even if in his view, our opinions were misinformed.

I often took issue with him about our favourite poets:  I loved then, and still do, Kubla Khan by Coleridge.  In his view it was a drug-fuelled rambling dirge.  I disagreed, quoting lines such as “Through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea” to back my opinion.  He disagreed, quoting what I thought then was over romantic slush from Wordsworth.  I still think he was wrong.  Kubla Khan is sublime.  He preferred Wordsworth.   I disagreed again,  pointing out that Wordsworth knew Coleridge and joined him in his drug-fuelled ramblings on the Quantock Hills.  I think I win that one.  Who wants daffodils when you can have a cavern leading to a sunless sea?  Not me.

On some topics we did agree.  He loved Chaucer.  I loved Chaucer and still do.  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is always a good read, funny, challenging and bawdy.  What else, apart from a little drug-fuelled rambling, can a reader want.  Suspense?

There’s plenty of that in Shakespeare, but that was where Mr Neate failed.  Those were the days of ‘O’ levels and we were in an academic environment.  Instructions  from the Headmaster meant he had to be seen to teach to the curriculum and Shakespeare was on that curriculum.  He had to provide proof that we had studied it ‘properly’, rather than spending whole lessons arguing having a reasoned debate. Hence, it was taught by reading around the class in turn, then answering past exam questions.  Killed it, stone dead, for me.

That is until I had the good fortune to meet another inspirational teacher, as an adult, and to be able to work with him.  He teaches in the same inspirational way as Mr Neate.  He encourages argument and debate, as long as it is backed by evidence.  I  argue with him, often, just as I did with Mr Neate.  I hope most of my arguments are backed by evidence; I hope they encourage the students to realise that there is no correct opinion in English  literature teaching and learning, as long as it conforms to that prescribed acronym beloved by AQA examiners, PEE – Point, Evidence, Explanation.

Teachers have to conform; they need their jobs.  However, sometimes it’s desirable to stray from the script to encourage creativity, love of literature for its own sake.  Forget the exams (just for a while), forget targets, forget homework, just enjoy words.  My friend, as he now is, does deviate from the script, but he encourages and nourishes a love of words, admiration for the different ways they can be put together to arouse emotions and the fact that English Lit lessons can be fun and, more importantly, they make you think.

He also awoke in me a renewed interest in Shakespeare, so undoing any damage caused unwittingly by ‘O’ level teaching.   That is no bad thing.

Mr Neate was different from the conventional 1960s teacher, who thought they were pushing the boundaries.  He was truly pushing the boundaries, dressing as he wanted, not as  the other  trend-setting teachers did.  He set his own trends, taught in his own way and inspired in me  a love of the written and spoken word, albeit killing Shakespeare through no fault of his own.   My friend does the same, doesn’t always conform to the prescribed structure, but his students enjoy that; they think and are encouraged to express those thoughts, as long as they conform to the  PEE structure, of course.  Not everything can be jettisoned in the days of SATS, 5* GCSEs (including English, of course) and league tables – unfortunately.

Mr Neate ignited my love of all things word related.  My contemporary friend fanned the flames.  Thank you, both of you.

 

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