Every summer, students walk out the school gates for the last time. Here’s an invitation to think beyond that, to what you’ve armed them with for the future

A fist holding a pencil in triumph

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With every pencil mark, gesture or ‘could do better’, teachers make a lasting difference beyond their subject

Pupils come and go. If you flick through the registers of classes from years gone by, it’s quite possible that some names ring only the most distant of bells; others, perhaps, you would swear blind you had never taught. But invariably they will remember you.

‘My first English teacher always put me down for not being able to spell, or not having good enough interpretations of texts,’ says Sally, a science teacher from Essex. ‘But the teacher I had for GCSE helped pick me up. She showed me what I could do rather than highlighting what I couldn’t. She wasn’t just our teacher in the classroom; she spoke to us in the corridors too, and she always used our names. She made us feel welcome and valued. It was Mrs Ryder who made me want to become a teacher.’

She was Mrs Small by name, but she was anything but

Sally is not alone in the warmth and enthusiasm she shares about a former teacher. I’ve spent several extremely pleasant hours asking teachers to describe their favourite teacher. What made them brilliant? What lessons can we, as teachers, take from your experience with them? What impact have they had on your life?

Take a moment to reflect

It’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of day-to-day teaching. There are reports to be written, books to be marked and children to be pried off each other. How often do you reflect on the long-term impact your work has?

There’s a logistical challenge, of course. Pupils become adults and disappear into the world beyond the school gates. You might get the odd email from one or two a few years later, but by and large they are busy getting on with their lives and careers – and that’s how it should be. But, make no mistake, no matter how much time has passed, for better or worse, they will carry the impact of your lessons with them.

There doesn’t seem to be a correlation between the subject that their most memorable teacher taught, and the subject they teach now

Sarah is a biology teacher in Edinburgh. She has never forgotten her Latin teacher: ‘She was Mrs Small by name, but she was anything but. She was big in stature and personality. She would dress up in a toga and I can still hear her booming voice now. She could be intimidating and had very high expectations, and you always completed your homework, but she worked as hard as we did. I hope I channel her in some of my lessons. She was eccentric and didn’t care what anyone thought. A wonderful woman.’

It’s notable that there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between the subject that their most memorable teacher taught, and the subject they teach now. Subject matter is enormously important, but long-term impact comes from the teacher who built confidence, had high standards, who you wanted to impress and/or who valued your contributions.

She was perfect in that she was approachable and friendly, but at the same time you were terrified of her

Mark didn’t hesitate to describe the teacher who most affected him. And, like all the others, once he started to describe the teacher and their impact, it was hard to stop.

‘Mrs O’Rourke taught me GCSE science – she did the chemistry parts. Her specialism was environmental science, and she went on to teach me that at A-level. She was perfect in that she was approachable and friendly, but at the same time you were terrified of her. She wasn’t interested in group work or making posters – it was chalk and talk – just her telling us incredible things about the atmosphere or various amazing flora and fauna. And she cared about how we did in that subject. If you handed in a piece of work that was half-baked, she would give it back to you to do again. Even if we moaned about that, we knew that was a sign she cared. The interest in the environment she sparked in me is the reason I now teach geography.’

Beyond the classroom

It’s a good reminder that what teachers do in the classroom reverberates long after a lesson has ended. And there is responsibility attached to that. But I find it oddly comforting, too. These stories are a reminder to not get too bogged down in the everyday trials and tribulations. To remember that, beyond the marking and assessment objectives, and misfired lessons and exams, there is something much bigger.

Former pupils may remember the subject knowledge you imparted, or how you inspired them to pursue science, but they are just as likely to remember the way you treated them or made them feel. Your impact may influence how they treat others. And that is the responsibility, the privilege and the outrageous joy of being a teacher.

Use these mantras on tough days

In teaching, there will always be good days and the not-so-good days. Here are a few reminders to keep in your back pocket when the going gets tough. 

  • You probably won’t always hear about the long-term impact you’ve had, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
  • Don’t be disheartened when lessons go wrong, or results aren’t what you want; there’s a much bigger picture.
  • Former pupils will remember you for your compassion, approachability (but with firm boundaries), interest in them and their success, great subject knowledge and your personality (even to the point of eccentricity!).

Ryan Wilson is a former English teacher and author of Let that be a lesson