For several years now, we have hosted the University’s Inspirational Teachers awards day. It is a highlight. It works like this:
Towards the end of their first term, first-year students are encouraged to nominate a teacher who went beyond the call of duty, or whose teaching was particularly inspirational, and who helped motivate them to make a successful application to Oxford. A panel of about five of us sift through the scores of testimonials and then pick about 10 teachers for the award, which this year, for the first time in its history, included a teacher nominated by a St Peter’s student (Desmond Asante, Mathematics).
The awards evening at college reunites the nominating student and the inspirational teacher. There are some brief speeches and then a 20-minute video of stunning quality and emotional power, which tells the stories of the student and teacher pair, and is shot on location at the schools and the university.
It is tremendous stuff, and, of course, demands that all the rest of us reflect on the teacher who changed our lives. Mine is still very much alive: a certain Bernard Barker, who taught me History in the 6th Form and convinced me that I could do well, but, more importantly, whirled around the classroom infusing the whole subject with drama, passion and conviction.
At the dinner in college afterwards, I sat next to one of the students, who is studying at New College and comes from north Yorkshire, where she was a pupil in a run-down town with very few in her cohort going to universities more than a few miles away, and most not going to higher education at all.
She was motivated by her parents (neither wealthy nor privileged), and by the award-winning teacher to 1) keep going, 2) to do the best you can, and 3) to aim high. It does not sound like a sophisticated formula, but it is palpably the right one. The student, by the by, loves being here, and, like many, was mildly shocked to find that more or less all her peers are, to coin a phrase, ‘normal’.
The mythology still gets in the way.