14 October 2016

School rules

“There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says: “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes: “What the hell is water?”
“It’s about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”

“This is water.”
David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some thoughts delivered on a significant occasion, about living a compassionate life

Every year I talk to the school at least once about our rules. As a school of 675 adolescents, you might expect pupils to need what the army calls ‘judicious repetition’. The result is that most Bryanstonians can quote these rules off by heart by the time they reach the B year … though that certainly doesn’t mean they’re all angels!

But why do we have rules? Simply put, without them we would find ourselves unable to live together in a number of more than two. And by and large, we human beings like each other’s company. As Aristotle put it over two thousand years ago: “Man is a social animal.”

I have worked in schools with endless volumes of school rules, neatly divided into sections and indeed subsections, which you were required to carry around in your blazer pocket and to produce on request – by the sort of teacher we all remember from our school days – with an appropriate flourish and an ability to quote with accuracy and reverence.

Bryanston’s fundamental rules are, by contrast, ultra simple. There are just four of them.
  1. A breach of common sense or courtesy is a breach of school rules.
  2. A breach of the law of the land is a serious breach of school rules 
  3. We ban sex, drugs, alcohol and smoking and you are liable to be expelled for involvement in either of the first two. 
  4. Furthermore, the following are automatic suspension offences: 
    • night wandering, 
    • being on the roof of the main building, 
    • smoking in a building. 
Rules one and two cover pretty much everything that matters regarding anti-social, dangerous and illegal behaviour, whilst rules three and four are more specific, reflecting our own particular location and ethos. These four rules essentially form our constitution; they are the basis of our everyday interaction, helping individuals and the whole school to flourish. They make us Bryanston and not somewhere else.

Given that at Bryanston we more or less really enjoy each other’s company, and given that we therefore need rules for each to be able to do so, I think these rules are about as reasonable as any could be. Each term I make plain to pupils that I hope for no infractions but, should infractions occur, that they will be fairly and firmly dealt with, including the use, if necessary, of the sanction of departure from the school. I also spell out what that generally means for their poor parents, as such events are rarely convenient and very few schools consider admitting pupils who have left another school after breaking such core rules and values.

But there’s a second vital reason for our having rules at school, I think. As well as keeping each and every member of the school safe and well and in an environment in which they can flourish, I have a further duty, which I take seriously: to prepare our pupils for being a success in life.

Teddy Roosevelt used to say “The most important single ingredient in the formula for success is knowing how to get along with other people.” Put like that, it sounds easy. But I don’t think it is achievable without knowing you’re in the right place, recognising the rules of that place and the value of those rules. Pupils here at Bryanston might as well learn this life skill at 13, practise it until they get it spot on in this safe and stretching environment and then, hopefully, full of an enviable (perhaps even unequalled) emotional intelligence, they will be ready to go out and make a success of those next steps.

As adults, we are accustomed to encountering rules wherever we go. I want Bryanstonians to make sure they recognise the fundamental rules wherever they go; to question those rules if they need questioning; never to sign up for a set of rules which are morally bankrupt or with no core value; never to agree to play by rules they know to be wrong, lazy, or corrupting; and never to sell their soul for the sake of personal convenience or an easy life. Because that would make you an unhappy sheep. It’s about recognising and never letting go of what really matters. All of which leads me back, as do so many things that really matter, to the words of This Is Water, the wonderful commencement address by David Foster Wallace.

I want Bryanstonians to work out where they want to be, and how to play by those proper rules, which are an essential part of their environment. Then they can make their own unique contribution to the world, confidently and generously.

3 October 2016

What makes a good teacher?

This week we asked a selection of Bryanston staff to share their memories of the teacher who had the greatest influence on them.

Sarah Thomas, Head
My old Classics teacher, Angela Bolton, taught me to love learning. I learned of fifth-century Athens, read Euripides, Lucretius and Cicero; I also learned for the first time when I encountered Latin aged 12 and Greek aged 13 that I was quite good at something. 

Mrs Bolton had the knack of giving you confidence, of making you think, of stretching you. I think I would be who I am today even if I had not gone to Oxford; I don’t think I would be were it not for Angela Bolton. She was an inspiration.

Dr David James, Deputy Head Academic
One teacher takes particular credit for moving me on academically. Nick Burree – who joined the school when I entered the sixth form – taught me A level Politics and History. I got good grades in both. I found out recently he died over the summer and, more than once since I heard the news, I found myself reflecting on what made him a good teacher. His death reminded me of how fortunate I was that at that pivotal time in my development he happened to be there.

To be honest, when he first walked into our classroom he didn’t seem likely to be transformative. He was unprepossessing, shy even, overweight, and seemed to perspire rather a lot, regardless of the weather. His hair stuck resolutely to his forehead at all times, and he wore oversized, thick-framed glasses. He would sit at the front of the class, often hugging his brief case, but he would … discuss things with us, and he did so in a way that allowed this rather unappealing collection of adolescents to feel they were his intellectual equals, and that he respected their views. He also knew his subjects very well. He was a Liberal Democrat activist in an area which was deeply Labour, and this political allegiance perhaps allowed him to indulge those pupils who were nascent Thatcherites, as well as those who were exploring Marxism (and everything else in between, including apathy). Above all he listened, and debated, brought in articles ‘that I thought you would like’, lent us books, and if he didn’t know an answer to something he would admit it, and find out by the next day what it was (and this in the days before Google).

I regret now that I never went back to say ‘thank you’ to him for teaching me so well, for sparking a lifelong interest in politics and history. Too late now. But I hope that he did realise how much of a difference he made, and that he did hear those words said to him by others. 

Edrys Barkham, Director of Admissions
I never thought of myself as being particularly academic at school and I wasn’t always a model pupil. When it was proposed by my father that I should apply to Oxford, the Director of Studies laughed loudly, before realising my father was serious! My tutor and Biology teacher Martin Jacoby said he thought it was a great idea and he suggested Human Sciences because ‘…it would suit my grasshopper mind.’

He was right. I loved all the aspects of the degree and since those early days of getting to understand our species, I haven’t stopped wanting to learn more. I, in turn, have enjoyed finding potential human scientists at Bryanston and watching their eyes light up, as I am sure mine did, when describing the course content.

I am forever grateful to Martin Jacoby for believing I was right for Human Sciences, encouraging me to go for it and making Biology lessons so much fun. His interest in and understanding of me as a slightly unruly teenager set me on the path to my lifelong passion for learning and for teaching, and I will be forever grateful to him.

Ian McClary, Head of Sixth Form
There was one teacher at school who, more than the others, inspired me as a pupil to learn and grow in understanding. She was my Classics teacher and her name is Carola Scupham.

Passionate about her subject she carried us along on a tide of enthusiasm, fascinating knowledge and carefully-crafted red herrings. Always eager to impart, but never to spoon feed, she taught me that I could take ownership over my studies and that I didn’t need to wait to be told what to do next. Exam specifications were all very well but why be limited by them? Learning was a shared journey of discovery, not only about the subject at hand, but also about ourselves, being aware that what we were learning was shaping our ideas and beliefs about the world and our place in it. She is the person upon whom I have modelled myself as a teacher over the past 15 years.

Mike Kearney, Head of Science
Perhaps it is no surprise to learn that the teacher who inspired me was a Physics teacher. Ellis Cheetham was a bluff northerner with a very traditional approach to teaching. The special thing he did was his ability to estimate answers for complex calculations. This doesn’t sound very exciting and could just be a party trick, but it opened my eyes to appreciating the scale of things and how data fitted together. It led me to an initial career in engineering, where the black art of estimation and even gut feeling informed progress and meant you could make immediate sense of problems and have confidence in final calculated answers.

Somehow, this dour man opened up a world of possibilities that didn’t require slogging through the sums (although you sometimes have to!), but could be appreciated holistically. Sadly, he died of cancer while I was still at my school and I have always hoped to carry his memory with me to inspire future generations.

Alex Hartley, Head of Mathematics
I can still remember my first lesson in Mathematics at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, Amersham, taught by Graham Hoare. His first statement was that ‘Mathematics is not a spectator sport’ and he insisted that we participated actively in Mathematics throughout. Lessons covered the curriculum but also explored beyond, and it was in his lessons that I was first exposed to Euclid’s proof of the infinity of primes - and that’s something that I, in turn, have passed on to D1 Maths this month.

Still teaching at the age of 64 (having spent half his life at the same school), and writing for the Mathematical Gazette, he saw teaching as something to be enjoyed as much as it was a way to earn a living, and mathematics as a recreational activity as well as an academic discipline.

Mr Hoare was my teacher in years 8 and 9, and subsequently as one of three teachers who taught me Mathematics and Further Maths in the sixth form, whilst additionally preparing me for the Oxford University entrance examinations. His warmth and personal touch affected me, too; he was very generous with his time when I needed it. A number of us from the same class made it to Oxford that year and my final memory of Graham was the long and leisurely afternoon spent in the Turf Tavern when he came up to visit.

Abi Croot, English Teacher
As I sat down to watch Shakespeare Live! from the RSC earlier this year, I was reminded as to why I ever thought being an English teacher would be a good idea …

It all started with my A level English teacher (surprise, surprise) who was the most enthused teacher I had ever come across. Up until then, I had been taught by teachers who clearly didn’t enjoy English, nor did they enthuse and excite the pupils to share their burning passion for the subject (because they didn’t have one, not a glimmer of a flame). However, as soon as I had my first class with my new A level teacher, I knew things would be different. Firstly, she had (still has) a cardboard cut-out of good ol’ Will Shakey, which, in my naive teenage eyes was a clear cut sign that she would be a good teacher. Secondly, she genuinely loved English, and knew how to enthuse even the most disengaged teenage boys; asking them to embody Caliban and in the next breath, prance around the classroom in the most ridiculous of attire. She was a legend. I truly loved my two years spent with her, and developed a strong love for English Literature.

As Paapa Essiedu took to the stage as Hamlet as part of Shakespeare Live!, I found I was able to recall (nearly) all of my favourite Shakespearean soliloquy, ‘To be or not to be’. It is with thanks to my A level teacher that I am able to recall the famous speech, and it was not through repeatedly bashing the book that I can recall it; it is through the way she delivered the speech in class, the way in which she encouraged us to watch every single version of Hamlet on screen ever created (with subtitles of course), how she made us believe that Hamlet was a relatable character… Ay there’s the rub! As Cumberbatch, Tennant, McKellen, Dench, Minchin, Walter and Kinnear argued over how to perform the iconic soliloquy, I realised that was it, it depended on how you viewed Hamlet as a character, as to how the lines should be read, where the emphasis should be put. My teacher had brought Shakespeare into the 21st century, and made the characters people we could see in everyday life, in our own lives.