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A teacher who inspired me

Hear from Geoff Barton, former Headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

“Many of us became English teachers because of a particular teacher who had a real impact on us. That was certainly the case with me. I was a fairly unimpressive student at school and the last thing I thought I’d end up as was an English teacher. I knew what I wanted to be: a disc-jockey. I’d discovered pop radio when I was around 14, got hooked on the Noel Edmonds Radio One breakfast Show, and knew this was the career for me. Unfortunately, in the late seventies, the route from Walton Comprehensive School, Stafford, to Broadcasting House was not direct.

I got a late-night slot on Hospital Radio Stafford and played a motley mix of songs to insomniac patients whom I imagined sipping Horlicks and clambering on and off bedpans. When I sent off my first audition tape, it was quickly rejected, without even so much as an acknowledgement slip. It became clear to me that even the fledgling commercial radio industry was not going to be fighting over my talents. Time for a rethink.

So I drifted into the Sixth Form and started English Lit. I hadn’t been a big reader before that. I’d read George Orwell and James Herbert, but I wasn’t addicted to books in the way people said you needed to be to study English.

The key ingredient, however, wasn’t the literature; it was the teacher. Roy Samson had been at the school for fifteen years or so. He was Head of English and had a reputation as an eccentric. It was rumoured that to demonstrate to a class the drama of the Spanish Armada he had once set the biology pond on fire. Certainly he made previously unreadable books seem fascinating. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to be. It wasn’t just that I wanted to be an English teacher. I wanted to be Roy Samson. I wanted to be able to dissect texts like he did, to have that kind of knowledge, that capacity to simplify, enthuse and inspire. So the path to English teaching began.

Many of us have Roy Samsons in our past - the skilful, often self-effacing English teacher who kick-starts our passion for the subject.

Since then I’ve taught English in Leicester, Leeds, York and now Suffolk. I’ve moved from the classroom to Head of English and now to headship. Along the way I’ve written the kind of textbooks I’ve wanted to use myself.

They are also rooted in a central belief that it’s not just the texts you use that make a difference in the classroom. It’s the teacher. Roy Samson demonstrated tangibly that teachers can shape their students’ lives. Everything I’ve written since then has been guided by that spirit: texts to enhance the teacher’s role, not to subvert or replace it.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary, ASCL from 2017 and former Headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.