At various times I’ve been asked who my favourite teacher at school was. It’s an easy selection for me. Mr King, my teacher for O Level physics 1979-1981 at Weydon School in Farnham, Surrey.
I don’t have any pictures of him but I always remember him as looking like Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys, dressed in a suit. Dapper, smart, always crisply turned out; always calm, measured, formal and persistently proper.
Mr King was my favourite teacher because he commanded total respect through his seriousness and relentless focus on the subject in hand – physics. He let physics do the talking. He wasn’t showy or especially effusive in his enthusiasm; he didn’t shout or get cross; he didn’t try to be matey or personal. We had work to do and our relationship was all about the shared experience of studying physics. At that time I had plenty of emotional baggage but Mr King didn’t ever talk to me about that stuff – which I was grateful for. If he knew things about me, he never said. And that was a relief – physics lessons were just a place to be normal.
Mr King modelled the characteristic of assertiveness to a tee. He was always there at the door welcoming us into his class. There were protocols to follow. We were expected to have our copy of Abbott ready to go. He would not tolerate any messing about but his greatest sanction was his look: a look that said “Really? Are you seriously going to be so immature as to talk while I’m talking when, as you know, this is a place where such things are just not acceptable?” That’s my kind of teacher. No fuss; no over-familiarity; no power games. Just an appropriate level of formality and authority that makes you feel you’re in safe hands with clear boundaries.
And then the subject came through. We did tons of practical work. Tons of equations. Tons of homework. Tons of graph drawing. Tons of note-making. Mr King and Abbott were a great team. Teacher and textbook in harmony!
In the fifth year (Y11) we spent several lessons engaged in a research project of our choosing. My friend Julian and I decided to see if we could pinpoint what stopped a perpetual motion machine from working. We made a motor and generator from kits and tried to link them up, kick-starting them etc. We learned a great deal about electromagnetic induction and the motor effect, despite the whole endeavour being doomed to fail. Others were making sand craters with falling objects, flinging projectiles at various angles or trying to make a magnetic levitation system using a matchbox car on a bed of ceramic magnets. It was all part and parcel of a pretty rigorous O level course.
The one point of more personal interaction was in the smaller group of the ‘electronics club’ that Mr King ran after school. It was really ‘soldering club’ because we basically spent hours following the instructions on various kits of electronics. My little team made an electric organ with 8 notes, each generated by a capacitor-tuned circuit. It sounded like a stylophone; when we made it play ‘three blind mice’, it was a great moment of triumph. Mr King was just there in the background letting us get on with it. Again, no fuss, no over-familiarity; just a calm reassuring presence and an unpretentious subject-seriousness that commanded respect. We all spoke about him with great affection. We respected him enormously.
To me, these are the kinds of relationships we should be talking about when teachers are urged to form positive relationships with their students. You do it through the teaching. You are kind, assertive and focused on learning, building students’ confidence – in you, in your subject and in themselves. Your relationships are with the class of learners as learners; high aspirations for all, finding out what they know already, exploring their ideas and levels of understanding to inform your teaching… and always enough formality and gravitas to bring things to order, to reinforce boundaries and dispense with any nonsense.
Forty years on, I still remember Mr King and remember him fondly. We had the very best kind of teacher-student relationship. Although, in many ways, he hardly knew me and my angsty teenageness at all – he knew me as a student; a learner. He challenged me and encouraged me hugely – not in a massively direct and personal way, but by teaching us all incredibly well, creating the best environment for learning in the school. I loved being in that room and he made that possible.
Thank you so much Mr King. I owe you a great deal ! (And I don’t even know your first name.. )