Re: A Teacher Who Changed My Life

Mr Newton, the teacher who treated us as adults

After reading Bill Gate’s note on Mrs Caffiere, I wanted to share my own story about Mr Newton.

I was lucky that my parents decided to have me educated in an openminded school which valued the free thought of its students. Mr Newton was my Year 9 Learning Futures teacher (think of that as Personal Social and Heath Education) who was also one of the Vice Principals in our school. He was tall, skinny, and without a strand of hair on his head. It suited him well, but if it weren’t for his smile, he could seem quite intimidating. When I spoke to my friends about our first impressions of Mr Newton, almost everyone remarked that he would insist students all him by his first name. For our barely teenage minds, this was unfathomable. ‘But he’s older!’ ‘Mr Newton is a teacher!’ ‘We can’t call someone that has authority by their first name, can we?’ It was true, Mr Newton did insist but I think after an attempt or two by the brave, none of us continued.

‘We can’t call someone that has authority by their first name, can we?’

One of my favourite projects during secondary school was an interactive piece of art myself and a few other students created during Learning Futures. Inspired by the notorious Moors murders artwork, we created a transferable mural of Bibi Aisha, the Afghan woman who had her face mutilated by the Taliban. It was time consuming and messy. We spent hours in the art studio cutting fabric, chasing people around with paint for handprints, and sticking it together to hang up on the balcony above the school reception. Thinking back, it was a ridiculous project. I’m still surprised we were allowed to put the piece up on display, in clear eyesight of visitors who came through our doors. Mr Newton encouraged us to spread the message and at times, I think he saw more value in our work than we ever did.

Nobody knew anything about our teachers really. Any glimmer of their lives was through the occasional Facebook photo that popped up after a marriage or staff party. Mr Newton was different. He was open about his past jobs in his home country and in Hong Kong. He talked about being a police officer and his joy from riding motorcycles. Perhaps the most astonishing of all was his use of expletives. He would sometimes swear in class to make a point. We would talk about ridiculous oppressive regimes, the lack of equality regarding gender, race and religion, as well as expletives in the form of art. Mr Newton always prefaced his use of language, and emphasised that when used correctly, swearing can be a valid form of expression too.

More than that, Mr Newton treated us like adults. Learning Futures was a class were we could have opinions and Mr Newton encouraged us to think. He talked about his view of the world and wanted us to question it. We didn’t have to raise our hand to put forward an opinion — Mr Newton didn’t allow it. As Vice Principal, Mr Newton didn’t have his own classroom so we moved around to whatever was scheduled for the month. Although inconvenient, it fostered an even more dynamic learning environment. Every time we found ourselves in another room, the people we interacted with also changed. It was refreshing for all of us. As a class, we probably put in more effort in Learning Futures than any graded course we actually had to take.

In Mr Newton’s class, I found myself more willing to express my ideas. I even stayed after class to follow up on a few tangent queries that I didn’t want to disturb the whole class with. In his classroom, my shy outershell slowly chipped away. I began to realise that my opinions were of value and should be taken seriously, regardless of my age. It was really in that year that I raised my hand in other classes more. Who cares if I made a mistake? The teachers at my school were nice enough not to embarrass you in class even if you did. I only had my dignity to lose and I hadn’t created much for myself anyways. During that year and for the remainder of my time in secondary school, it became irrelevant what my age or gender was. If I had a question, I would ask it until I got a satisfactory answer.

As an adult, it’s something that even now, I still forget occassionally. There’s less room for mistakes and more social cost to asking ‘silly questions’. Finding the right balance between what to ask, when to ask, and how to ask is something you’re expected to master when you’re out in the working work. Whilst it is tough, I’ve learnt over the years that the only unforgivable question is an unanswered one. Sure, it takes more effort now to craft a polite email asking about a topic that I couldn’t find in the textbook that my professor has read but the only person who will lose out if I don’t ask the question is me. Ask enough questions, listen to more answers, and soon enough, you will get the answer you deserve.

The school administration changed shortly after Year 9. Sadly, Mr Newton, along with many members of staff, left before my class graduated. It was no surprise for senior students who knew of the bonds and curricula that longer standing staff members built over years.

When I did finally graduate, I decided to send Mr Newton a message over Facebook (we became friends when he left) to thank him for what he taught me. I wish I knew him well enough to ask to meet for a coffee and thank him personally, but that kind of conversational, networking ‘sophistication’ wouldn’t come to me until my senior years. Being put in Mr Newton’s class was one of the luckiest things that happened during my time in school. Many of the opportunities I later reached out for stemmed directly from his class. As I slowly built up the courage to raise my hand, my voice grew with it; and as my voice began to be heard I keep going for as long as I can. Life is too damn short not to put yourself out there, so take a hit once in a while and enjoy it while it lasts.