I’ve always been an awkward learner. As a kid, when others blazed a trail I’d always hold back, a little uncertain, looking around for a bit of encouragement. I was never really sure of what I could do, never confident of my grasp of anything. Even now, I’m an unconfident learner. That’s why, I think, I’ve always needed good teachers – and I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a few, as an adult at least. I’ve always found that while those who can, do, not many of those who can are also able to teach it – and those who can teach what they know, and do it really well (the ones that connect with and inspire you), are pretty special.
I had a fairly bad time of it at school, partly because of my school (which was at the crappy end of bloody awful), partly because of persistent bullying, which went on unchecked for years, and which led to me dedicating the final years of my compulsory education to the less-than-noble art of bunking off. I didn’t get any qualifications because I decided not to sit any exams. I left school at 16 and went straight on the dole. I didn’t think much of myself, didn’t think I could do anything, but I did love reading and knew the books I read were different to the ones everyone else I knew read (if, indeed, they did read, which generally they didn’t). I had a vague idea that I might want to study English, or write, or do something literary, maybe become a poet.
The government didn’t want me to stay on the dole (the thought of it made them – and the Daily Mail – very angry) and I was soon on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme, for younger readers) – a sort of government-subsidised child labour scheme, which, as it turned out, involved a lot of sitting around, a bit of making the tea and the occasional visit to a classroom (more sitting around but in a different room). And, because there were no real jobs to be had, as soon as the scheme finished we were all back on the dole.
It was around that time I decided I wanted to be a journalist (I still do). I enrolled at my local technical college (now St Helens College), taking the courses I needed to get onto a training course at Preston Poly (now the University of Central Lancashire) – four GCSEs, two A-levels, including one in English Language, taken over the course of a year. It was on that English course that I encountered – or, at least, noticed – good teaching for the first time. The tutor – her name was Carol Urbanowicz – made a huge impression on me. She dressed differently to most of the people I knew – she made me think of the people in the books I liked (I had set myself a challenge of reading one Penguin Modern Classic – those beautiful orange-spined little books – each week) – and she thought and talked differently too. She was interested in what the students had to say and made a real effort to engage us. She asked me what I thought about this or that and listened while I answered. She liked my writing (there was a lot of course work), encouraged me to do more. I started to think there was something I might be good at. And I worked hard, really hard, on that course. I got an A (the only student that year who did). I never really told Carol but that course changed things for me. I realised that if I concentrated, if I was passionate about something, I could do things, I could get good at something.
I got on my course and I got my start in journalism (this was back in the day when working-class kids could still access a profession and the Guardian still occasionally employed journalists who hadn’t been to public school and Oxbridge). I worked for a couple of papers and really liked it but I always had university at the back of my mind. I thought it was something I could have a good go at. I didn’t have the best qualifications though. My grades at college were a bit mixed. But I applied through UCAS to a few places, really picked at random (I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or where). All but one turned me down. The one that didn’t was Cardiff University, where I’d applied to do philosophy. I was asked down for an interview and it was there I met Barry Wilkins. I was incredibly nervous. No-one in my family had been to university and it was my first time on a university campus. I was struck by his little room, crammed with books and papers, not only on the shelves, but piled on the floor. I loved the disorderliness of it, the wonderful musty smell. I had no idea what the interview would consist in. He asked me what I liked to read and we talked about Milan Kundera. He asked me what I thought of ‘the idea of the unconscious’ and we talked about Freud and Bruno Bettleheim. I felt an immediate affinity, and when I was offered a place I jumped at it.
Barry was my tutor. He taught the history of political philosophy, Marx especially. But it was Barry’s pastoral care that was the most remarkable part of his work as a teacher. He took real interest in his students, in their wider lives as well as their academic lives. He inspired and encouraged. He resisted the treadmill. He made sure he saw all of his students, really saw them, and engaged with them too. He made you feel he was really interested in what you were doing. And it wasn’t just me; other former students of Barry’s have told me the same thing. His commitment to his students and to the principle of pastoral care was remarkable. He was invigilator of one of my finals exams. I was answering a question about Machiavelli, speedily regurgitating an essay I’d written some months before. ‘You’re off to a good start, Paul,’ he said, as he passed. I laughed. And straight away I calmed down, got a bit of perspective, and thought about the question. It made a difference.
Both Barry and Carol, in their different ways, inspired me and made me see the world, and myself, differently. I’m sure I am not alone. Many of us, at some stage in our life, have met someone who inspired us, challenged us to do better or made us look at the world in a different way. I guess what they had in common was an ability to listen, to appreciate. They both took their students seriously; both saw education as a shared endeavour, a joint venture in which student and teacher met as equals. Encountering that for the first time, as a young adult, was really remarkable and inspiring. But that’s just what teachers do, isn’t it? They light a fire.