Wednesday 5 October 2011

A Retrospective On My Female Teachers

I started writing this before the summer, as a reflection on the end of my part-time PGCE, my probationary period and my second major exams season. I was thinking about some of the women who have taught me and who in doing so have shaped me as a teacher. This is not to diminish the influence of male teachers - on the contrary, my father, my utterly insane A-level chemistry teacher and numerous university lecturers were all incredibly important. But I wanted to showcase the women in whose footsteps I dare to tread. This seems pretty relevant as a contibution to Ada Lovelace Day, this Friday.

My mother
For most people their mother is their first teacher. We were fortunate that my mother was able to be at home for us throughout our childhood - even now, she is the hub of the house, and visiting my father when my mother isn't around (she spent months in hospital this year) is eerie. I probably cannot fathom how much I owe to her, but I recall how she encouraged me to read lots and lots about the human body. She taught me that On Old Olympus' Towering Top A Finn And German Vault And Hop, although we nearly had a full-on screaming match over which part of a vertebra was anterior (when veterinary anatomy and human anatomy collide...).

© Wikimedia Commons (user FocalPoint)

Genetically, I inherit a good hand for drawing, and I attribute the ease with which I draw cells, tissues, organs and systems to her. But perhaps the one aspect of my teaching most influenced by my mother is my use of The Mayhew Look (named for my maternal grandmother, great aunt and great-grandmother). It is the you-had-better-stop-doing-that-right-now look, the I-cannot-believe-you-thought-you-could-get-away-with-that look, the you-are-in-so-much-trouble-right-now look. One of my A2s last year confessed that the only lecturer he was afraid of was me, and the look strikes fear into the current crop. That is all down to my mother and the pedigree of strong women that came before her.

Mrs Pauline Cassin, Norcot Primary School
When I was about six years old I was notoriously slow at getting changed after PE. Sometimes in desperation I would just put my school uniform on over my PE kit. On one occasion, Mrs Cassin reached the end of her tether, and she got so annoyed with me that she threw a shoe at me. She immediately went to apologise to my mother, who said it was quite okay and she would probably have thrown the other at me as well.

Footwear olympics notwithstanding, however, she noticed that I had rather a talent for mathematics, and I was dispatched every Friday morning for a gifted students class. This may have been the best thing to come out of my entire pre-secondary education. Some twelve years later, I wrote a letter to her via the local authority (she had long since retired), and told her that I had got into Cambridge. She was overjoyed. Sadly, I expect 25 years on, she may no longer be alive.

Dr Elizabeth Jones, Nottingham High School
Dr Jones was one of my A-level biology teachers, and she absolutely loved the Aqua song. She also loved to draw a Native American dwelling when discussing adenosine triphosphate. Yes, I do that now. She used different coloured pens on the whiteboard, and red always equalled energy. I do that too. She was passionate about plants and botany, an aspect of biology that utterly bored me at the age of 18. Now I find myself with classes of students all as bored witless of plants as I was, and history repeats itself. I wish I could go back and tell my idiotic teenage self to listen to her and become fascinated by the inner workings of plants and their place in ecology, but I can't, so instead I tell my students that one day they will find themselves in my position now, wishing they could go back to their biology class.

© Wikimedia Commons (user Fabelfroh)

When I left the High School, she wrote in a little notebook I had for such occasions the simple message Myosotis arvensis.

I didn't.

Dr Christina de la Rocha, University of Cambridge
Christina taught us one of our climatology classes - just a few lectures. They were the only ones I got. She was one of the few members of teaching staff, it seemed, who didn't think it was enough for them to turn up and talk at us. She taught - boy did she teach. Her first lecture is seared in my memory and that of many of my classmates - she said everything she needed to say in 35 minutes, having completely overestimated the time she'd need. She seemed utterly mortified, but we were very happy - after all, it had all made sense. Christina was also one of the few lecturers who would spend as long as it took with us on one-to-one tutorials. She gave her absolute all to her students - something I realise I do too (to the detriment of any form of social life).

She dated my undergraduate supervisor for a little while, and I remember him showing off a present she'd given him - a little vial of bioluminescent dinoflagellates, that glowed when the vial was shaken. It's something I still think is incredibly sweet, and a reminder that geeky science-based gifts can also be cute and romantic.

I'm hoping that maybe, in 20 years' time or so, I will see a blog post (or receive a holographic message delivered by a robot on a hoverbike perhaps??) talking about me in even half as glowing terms. I teach because I love it - I love the opportunity to share my enthusiasm and passion for biology, and I want to inspire more and more students to aim high and achieve great things. We do this with no expectation of thanks or reward, but it's still nice to be noticed...

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