Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Mr Spearman by Michael Rosen: Feature

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Mr Spearman by Michael Rosen: Feature

Article excerpt

A teacher who claimed not to understand a poem taught the children's novelist and poet how to think for himself and encourage others to do the same.

He was in his mid to late thirties, tall, thin and totally unthreatening. Mr Spearman - I think his first name was David - taught me English when I was in the upper sixth at Watford Grammar School for Boys.

A kind, softly spoken, almost shy man, he had just arrived at the school as the new head of the English department. The first set text we had to tackle was John Milton's Comus, a long poem known as a "masque" - a royal court celebration dating at least from the reign of Elizabeth I.

Mr Spearman's first lesson was unforgettable because he said something that amazed us all. "To be absolutely honest," he said, "I don't understand this poem and I want you to help me to understand it."

This was something unheard of at Watford Grammar, a school where teachers usually presented themselves as brusque, all-knowing experts in their fields. Yet here was a brand new teacher, a head of department no less, who was suggesting that this 17th-century poem was beyond him.

I went home and told my dad, Harold Rosen, who at the time was training English teachers at the Institute of Education, University of London. "That's brilliant," he said. "What a great dodge, what a great teaching trick! He's trying to get you to explore the poem yourselves."

Over the rest of the academic year we went through the poem, and whenever we asked Mr Spearman a question he would say: "Well, to be absolutely honest, lads, I don't really know." Then we would look things up in the notes at the back of the book or go and find the Cambridge History of English Literature, trying to find out everything we could about the poem. I wrote an essay and showed it to my dad. "That's good," he said. "The teacher's method is working."

Some 15 years later I was at a school reunion and Mr Spearman, by now a principal, was there. He came up to me and said: "I'll never forget that year with you boys in Watford. I had no idea what that poem, Milton's Comus, was all about, and you boys were amazing."

He said that the experience had taught him his best lesson in teaching: that sometimes the best way to teach is not to say, or even pretend, that you know everything, but to encourage the students to explore it for themselves. …

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