The Luck of Having the Right Teacher at the Right Time
How teachers changed my life
We are influenced so heavily by the people in our lives. Those that we want to please, impress, emulate, hell…be. We might not always notice it at the time, but the impact of their presence and what they teach us affects us decades down the line.
The people in our lives can make us avoid something simply by telling us it’s not good, they don’t like it or by passing on untruths. They can press their phobias onto us as children. They can make us hate a certain food based upon their own preferences.
But they can also give us the greatest gifts we’ve ever received. Knowledge. Burning interests. A curiosity that leads to our careers. Support that, without, we’d never have succeeded.
We all have the capacity to define our own lives and to excel in that which we give our energy and focus to. But by making use of the good teachers and disregarding the bad, we can fly much further.
My lucky strike
In some bureaucratic stroke of luck, I was assigned to the class of a particular English teacher for my GCSE years. For those not aware of the workings of British education, GCSEs are the exams we sit around age 16 at the end of secondary school. They allow us to move on into college (16–18) and then university (18+). We study and take our GCSEs over two years.
It’s not that my English teachers were bad before Mr V. But they were hardly inspiring. They simply taught literature like it was a tick box exercise. Read this, write that, pass the exam.
Mr V was different. He was young, for a start. Maybe 25. And he cared so much about literature and language. He was visibly pumped for each text we studied, he relished in inventing exercises for us to stretch our creative wings. He was so full of love for the subject as a whole that it was pretty impossible to not love it too.
He had us writing essays on Bowling for Columbine and threw out the dull options on the set text list. Instead we studied Catcher in the Rye, a book that got me into Salinger’s other works, a move that changed the course of my writing forever.
He created a reading list purely for our free time, not school. You’d think that teenagers would barely get through their required reading list, let alone a ‘reading for fun’ list that a teacher prescribed. But the majority of the class went home and asked their parents to buy them those books too. We haunted libraries, scouring the shelves for titles like The Dice Man.
He didn’t just teach us how to analyse texts and characters. He lead us into an absolute love of reading.
And because of him, I read even more than I had already. I read more widely, I read books that teenagers would never typically be advised to read. He taught us that no books were off limits, that each one had something to teach even if it was just the spelling of a single, unusual word.
Everything about my reading and writing improved, it snowballed. He taught us to throw out the rules that hinder creativity and instead embrace our own style, to develop our own style.
I learnt more from him in those two, teenage years of a couple of classes a week than I did in my entire £30,000 degree.
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that without him, I may well have not gone on to be a writer by trade. I may well have never read enough and pushed myself hard enough to become a published author before the age of 30.
I may never had discovered Franny and Zooey or bothered reading Fahrenheit 451.
He listened to us, he laughed with us and he got us thinking about literature not as something difficult and complex, but as something that would lift us up and help us.
And it was absolute blind luck that he took a job at my school and taught my class.
Education as a minefield
I got lucky. I’ve been lucky all along.
I went to an average state school with an incredible teacher. I had parents who encouraged reading and a library full of geniuses. There wasn’t much internet around to distract me and the only thing I could do on my phone except text and call was to have a game of snake.
The cards fell in my favour.
But for so many people, they don’t. They attend disruptive schools with teachers who are just struggling to get through the day. They have little encouragement to do anything except not fail.
I have friends who lacked any great teachers. They were told higher education wasn’t for them. They weren’t encouraged, they were oppressed. They fought their way into were they wanted to be.
It’s easy to say to people that they can do anything they want to. And we are in charge of our own fate. But by lumping everything onto the individual from where we stand as ‘successful’ in our own careers, we’re forgetting that we did not do it alone.
I did not do it alone.
I put in an often overwhelming amount of work into building my writing career but it wasn’t just me.
It was the librarian who helped me find things and recommended other books when I was a child. It was my Year 7 English teacher who encouraged my batshit stories, my drama teacher who let me write plays to perform and Mr V, who knocked it out of the fucking park.
Education is a minefield that fails people more often than it succeeds. And we’d do well to remember that. We’d do well to not tell people, ‘I did it, so you can too’, but instead help them learn as others helped us.
Because we did not get here alone.
Kitiara Pascoe is a ghostwriter and author. After three years of sailing around the Atlantic and Caribbean, she washed up in Devon in the UK. You can find her on Twitter @KitiaraP and @TheLitLifeboat. She’s the author of In Bed with the Atlantic and The Working Writer and you can find her journalism and blog at KitiaraPascoe.com or her ghostwriting at TheLiteraryLifeboat.co.uk