The transformative power of education needs to be celebrated, argues Rob Ford, as he shares the story of how a teacher changed his life trajectory
I am of the age where I not only remember a British Prime Minister declaring his government’s main priority as “Education, education, education”, but the same PM, and a whole host of other people in the public eye, remembering in a very powerful advert for teacher training who their best, most memorable and influential teacher was.
In that moment, everyone was reminded that our doctors, engineers, lawyers, train drivers, nurses, sports stars, and even our politicians – everyone, really – had all been influenced by the one good teacher who changed the course of their lives.
The former Arsenal and England player and now football commentator Ian Wright had probably one of the most authentic responses to the power of a good teacher when he was reunited with Mr Pigden, the teacher who helped transform his life: from his difficult background, Wright became an accomplished footballer and also a powerful voice for those who need it most in a number of disadvantaged communities.
I first met my good teacher, Les Jones, the influence that changed my life trajectory, when I started secondary school at age 11.
We were all lined up, waiting for our teacher, in a new subject that we had never had in primary school called ‘DT’, when all of sudden this Welsh voice boomed “In you go, folks”. We got our aprons on and gathered around as he began to go through the project for the 1st term. When he mentioned a bandsaw we would use, I piped up: “My dad has got one like that”. Quick as a flash, Les replied: “I bet he’s got a big bourgeois garage filled with Black and Decker tools as well”.
Les was never stumped for a reply. He came from the tough coalfields of North Wales to win a prestigious scholarship to read PPE at Magdalen College, Oxford, but then decided he actually wanted to be a teacher in a comprehensive school to give something back to boys like him – boys like me. He wasn’t expecting my reply that day, but it has bound us together ever since. Now, as he is approaching 90, I am more than privileged to have had this teacher, mentor, and friend in my life for over four decades, accompanying me on my path in education as a teacher and school leader.
My Year 9 Tutor Group with Les as our form tutor (I am the one with the tie behind Les). Madeley Court School, Shropshire, 1987
That day, I replied that my dad had been on strike as a coal miner for six months and, as one of five children in a council house in the former mining town of Madeley, in the East Shropshire Coalfield, times were more than tough. The miners’ strike was one of the most divisive and bitter industrial disputes of the Thatcher government years. My father stayed out on strike for a whole year and this was one of the most formative periods of my life. What I remember next is that, later that day, Les came to find my class and gave me a card for my parents with some money to go out and get a meal. They put it straight into the miners’ fund.
Throughout the time I had Les as a tutor and a teacher, he always challenged me, ensuring I read books out of my comfort zone. I was fortunate enough to have many good teachers at my school at that time, but it was Les who could relate his experience to mine and show me that I could be the first in my family to go to university, that there was a choice in life and that education would transform my path. He once inscribed a book to me with the words “carry the flame, defend the weak” to instil in me a sense of duty and to encourage me to use my talents for a greater purpose.
I not only got to university, but then I embarked on a career that I could have never imagined as an 11-year-old boy. All thanks to my good teacher. In nearly 30 years of being a teacher and school leader, I have worked with some remarkable people, in fantastic communities, with brilliant students, in the UK and around the world.
Throughout all this time, Les has been there, the one constant – guiding me, making me reflect on the decisions and choices I have made and the person I have become. My family has become his family, my children being influenced by him, and teaching him digital technology.
I got to witness this only this week as my eldest child Evie was part of the school’s Equality Group at a youth conference in Bristol - I know how much Evie, also inspired by Les, does to support others.
Tatiana Popa, Deputy Academic Director at Heritage International School, and students from her IGCSE Global Perspectives class talking to Les for St David's Day.
Les is still teaching as he approaches 90 this January. He has made classes in Moldova sing, laugh, hear stories, and speak Welsh over the nearly 4 years I have been at Heritage. No one ever forgets a good teacher and it is a privilege to see my students now connect to the teacher I first met in 1984 in a time and place long gone.
All of us had that good teacher, the one who made us become more than we were at the time. Who believed in us.
Les, at home in Cwmbelan, near Llanidloes, mid Wales, happily in retirement but still teaching, wearing a traditional cusma "shepherd's hat" from Moldova.
All professions come from our profession
The known power of educational aspiration, the transformative power of learning and the power of supporting educators who believe in a child, evidenced over generations all around the world, should be leveraged as a factor to attract new teachers to the profession to take on the baton and light the flame for others. But now education systems globally are struggling to attract the very teachers needed for the good of society and the education of children.
This is a serious problem facing education internationally, and powerful stories like Ian Wright’s need to be echoed more to attract more potential educators into our noble and essential profession. All professions come from our profession. Societies need to talk up the good teachers, share the countless narratives of hope and aspiration, and provide the material conditions to make education a prominent choice of career. Even good teachers will struggle in a toxic environment where education is treated like a political football, where pay fails to keep pace with decent living standards and opportunities are non-existent unless you swallow the prevailing zeitgeist of the time.
Looking back over the horrific events of 2022 in this corner of Eastern Europe, and seeing the transformative power of education, of the brilliant teachers I work with and lead, I think of the HG Wells quote Les once had in his classroom: Human history is a race between education and catastrophe. We need more good teachers to ensure it will be the former, for all our sakes.
- You can listen to Les here: “A bucket of coal, with Les Jones”. Carl McCarthy and “More Teacher Talk” podcast, August 2021.
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