The Teacher Feature

Writing my last (proper) post reminded me that way back in 2009 I started a series on my most influential teachers, and that I’d intended to include my PhD supervisor in the list. However, given that it’s World Teachers’ Day today (and seeing as I’d always planned to do this in chronological order), today I’m going to talk about my secondary school teachers instead! My PhD supervisor will just have to wait, although hopefully not for another two years.

I went to the Joseph Rowntree Comprehensive School from the age of 11-18, and had what you might call a mixed experience. The school’s intake area encompassed both affluent and (relatively) deprived areas; the top 10% or so did very well academically, but many of us were bullied by the rotten apples among the other students, and the bottom 10% was rather dire (we had a high pregnancy, drop-out, and police record rate. One girl in my form was divorced with two kids at 18). However, I had a small but close group of friends – and some absolutely wonderful teachers.

There were two stand-outs, and funnily enough they themselves were educated at the same secondary school, somewhere near Nottingham I believe (although not at the same time!)

Ann Lawrence taught biology, and is responsible for my love of genetics.

I spent most of my childhood wanting to be a vet (thank you, Mr. Herriot!), and therefore paid extra attention when I started learning biology as a separate subject at the start of secondary school. I was already starting to consider other possibilities – large animal zoology, mostly (thank you, Sir Attenborough!) – when Miss Lawrence became my teacher and everything changed.

Miss Lawrence wasn’t universally popular, but I loved her. She had an incredible enthusiasm for her subject: she’d start explaining something, get carried away with how awesome it all was, get faster and faster and more and more animated, literally jumping around the classroom at times – and then collapse in a heap at the end with a hearty “and it’s DEAD CLEVER!!!!

I’d already experienced this technique once or twice, but then came our first ever lesson on Mendelian genetics. I’ve blogged before about the impact this lesson had on me:

I remember the lesson to this day. She told us what was understood about the nature of heredity at the time. She told us how Mendel designed his experiments and meticulously carried them out. She told us about the famous 3:1 and 9:3:3:1 ratios of different traits that he observed in first generation hybrids. Then she told us how the theory of discrete and independent allele inheritance with no blending was worked out, and showed us how to logically map out all possible allele combinations, according to that same theory, to arrive at a ratio of 3:1 or 9:3:3:1.

Well, I was hooked. It just made so much sense.

(and it’s DEAD CLEVER!)

I was lucky enough to have Miss Lawrence as my biology teacher almost until the very end of high school (she spent my last term or two on a research placement in an actual university lab, thus teaching me that it was actually possible to do this cool stuff for a living), and her enthusiasm never abated – although she saved her best performances for anything genetics-related. I went back to see her a few times after I moved on to study genetics at university, although I felt bad about how jealous she got at all the cool things I was learning and at my plans to go on to do a PhD in her beloved subject.

I once told her that I’d thank her in my Nobel Prize acceptance speech, but this blog post will have to do now that I’m no longer in the running!

Viktor Klays taught history and was our head of sixth form.

“Sir”, as we all called him, was almost universally popular, especially among the sixth formers. He first taught me at the GCSE (age 15-16) level, when history was my favourite non-science subject. Sir taught us how to evaluate the source of any piece of evidence for objectivity and reliability – but also that even the most biased sources can be extremely informative. His lessons on 20th century European history were interspersed with tales from his own family: his grandparents were Polish, and had escaped from the advancing Russian army at the end of WWII by stealing a bus and making a dash for the border.

He also had a great sense of humour, and a knack for analogies. In a classic example, he once described the concept of passive resistance by saying “if you all started running amok and yelling and throwing things at me, I’d be able to crack down hard and hand out the harshest possible punishments. But if you all just sat there smiling at me and refused to open your books when I asked you to, there’d be nothing I could really do!”

A week or two later, he asked us to settle down at the beginning of a lesson and open our books.

“NO!”, said the class clown.

We all immediately got what was happening, and sat there smiling at him in silence, books closed.

He asked again. Nothing.



He laughed. “I see what you’re doing, and I’m very glad you were all paying such good attention when I was talking about passive resistance!” he said. “Now, please open your books”.


“Please? C’mon, we have a lot to get through. Pleeeeeeaaaase!!!!!”

This went on for a good five minutes before we finally relented.

The fact that I remember his lesson to this day is an excellent indicator of an excellent teacher! And there are other examples: the time he booked the drama studio and staged a recreation of the House of Commons debate on appeasement versus war with Hitler’s Germany, rather than just teaching it “straight”; the time he told us that the Turks had an advantage at Gallipoli because they held the higher ground and could therefore roll their grenades down the hill, we all believed him and included it in our answers on a national mock exam, and from that point on he had to explicitly tell us when he was joking.

He was also an excellent head of sixth form who seemed to genuinely care about all the students, and went out of his way to help people get into their preferred universities and courses.


David Atkinson, aka Wacko Acko, an eccentric old-school chemistry teacher who believed that loud and spectacular explosions were the key to successful learning.

Barbara Greatorex, aka Getafix, another excellent chemistry teacher who also took us on our Duke of Edinburgh Award hikes in the Yorkshire Dales, taught us how to read maps and break into the school minibus, and let us go to the campsite’s pub (but not drink alcohol) even though we were only 16. The subject of many hilarious pranks by some of my friends, all of which were offered and received with great good humour. There may be another post in here somewhere!

Angela Nickless, an English teacher with a wickedly dry sense of humour that not many of us got, who challenged me to read the most difficult texts and was the only teacher truly honest with me when I was choosing my A Level subjects (everyone else was trying to persuade me to do their subject, but when I told her I was taking Biology, Chemistry and Maths, she said “oh, yes, those are all much more useful than English. Have fun, and do come and visit me!”)

Pat Holmes, who let those few of us taking GCSE music hang out in the music department, completely unsupervised, every lunchtime for years, thus sparing us the horrors of the cold, rainy, and unfriendly playground and giving us the opportunity to try every musical instrument in the stock cupboard, often with hilarious results.

Mrs Briske (I never knew her first name), another eccentric old-school teacher who called herself “The Old Bat” and thought I was brilliant because I was the only girl in an A Level maths class of ten. As much as I liked her, the best thing she ever did for me was retire halfway through my final year; she’d been letting my sloppy mistakes through because she liked me (“you made a mistake on the last line, but I knew what you meant so I marked it correct”, she’d say as she handed back our tests), and my grades plummeted when the new teacher started. This was obviously very good for me, as the national exam boards were unlikely to be so forgiving of silly mistakes.

Gary Martin, who was my form (home room) teacher for my last two years. Absolutely lovely bloke who let us call him Gary as long as there were no younger kids in earshot and decorate his rather pathetic Christmas tree with Polo mints and a star cut out of a Coke can. I was painfully shy at school, but he wrote something wonderful on one of my reports – he said it was clear from observing me with people I trusted that I had a very outgoing and fun personality in my own way, and that I would thrive at university. This was the first time any teacher had ever said anything on the subject other than that I was far too quiet – something my parents never believed, given the amount of talking I did at home! I cried when I read what he’d written, and I’m even tearing up a bit now.


About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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6 Responses to The Teacher Feature

  1. Frank says:

    Very nice, Cath. I had no idea it was WTD. I hope some of your old teachers see this. School is only for a few years but they can be very important years. I found a facebook group for my old school and reading the comments there is fun. Though most are from students long after me, some of the teachers mentioned were those that I had known.

    Coincidentally in my last post (on numbers) I reminisced briefly about my old chemistry teacher. I wish I knew more about him and his background as he was an interesting character.

  2. ricardipus says:

    Ah, so many good (and bad) teachers. One of my favourites was my Grade 13 (yes, they still had a thirteenth grade then) Chemistry teacher, Mr. Caskey. He taught us the “Caskey Conversion”, useful for converting mg/mL to g/L, or g/mol to mg/mmol, and the like. It’s a procedure that I use to this day. 😉

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks, Frank! I hope some of them find it too – I shall keep an eye on my keyword search stats!

    I just hope none of the ones I left out decide to stop by…

    I found a FB group for my school, too, but didn’t really recognise any of the members. I’m in touch with all of my actual friends from those days (some more frequently than others, but that’s OK), and I don’t particularly care about anyone else!

    Chemistry does seem to attract some eccentrics to the profession. Wacko Acko was also a very interesting character: he’d lived in Kenya for a while and would show us his slides from time to time, and he had all kinds of cool stories about elephants getting drunk on fermenting fruit (plus he and his friends exploding a toilet at school by throwing a chunk of sodium down it See – chemistry!).

    Ricardipus, that sounds very useful!

    I remember our chief class clown (who was very intelligent as well as funny) inserting the letter H (the first letter of his surname) into chemical and mathematical equations when he couldn’t make them balance. He called it the [his surname] constant, although it wasn’t a very good constant because its value varied from problem to problem.

    • ricardipus says:

      What is it with Chemistry teachers and Africa? My Grade 10 Chem teacher was famous for tormenting students with showing students slides from his time in Africa. Believe me, it wasn’t a highlight of the year.

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