The ‘inspirational teacher’ is a classic protagonist in films such as Dead Poets Society, Mr Holland’s Opus, Dangerous Minds, and my own personal favourite, School of Rock.
We laugh and we cry while watching the teachers and their young charges deal with the vagaries of life both inside and outside the classroom walls.
We cheer as the teacher perseveres with the troubled student and finally makes the all-important breakthrough.
The credits roll, and then we go back to reading negative pieces in the press decrying the state of education – falling standards, falling results, not teaching the basics and at the same time not teaching kids how to prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist.
We get distracted by the public debate and my point is that in real life, we seem largely unwilling or unable to acknowledge that teachers do so much more than teach students things that are written in curriculum documents, assessed through assignments and examinations, and then reported back to parents every six months. The labour of teaching goes well beyond what can be measured.
This brings me to my reason for writing this piece – I want to share a story about a real English teacher, in a real school in Queensland.
Earlier this year, Graham Potts had his debut novel, No Free Man, published. Dedicating the book to his High School English teacher, Graham wrote:
To John Acutt: to me you are a Promethean figure, a great teacher who opened up a world of words and ideas. Dedicating this book to you is the least I can do – you started this, after all.
At the book launch, Graham again publicly acknowledged the influence of John’s support and guidance as a teacher, and toasted his contribution. A story in The Courier Mail following the launch highlighted the important role that an English teacher played in his decision to pursue writing.
I asked John how he felt about having a book dedicated to him, and he told me:
The significance of these gestures was not lost on me. He genuinely believed, and publicly acknowledged, that his teacher had made an impact on his life. It’s not something that we hear very often from our students, and when it happens, it reinforces the significance of the job that we do.
Every day, every teacher, has opportunities to make an impact on a student’s life. When I encouraged Graham Potts to enter a short story competition, and showed faith in him, I helped unlock the potential he had to help him find the determination and confidence to undertake the arduous journey of writing, and having published, his own novel.
When I asked John if he would be happy for me to share the story with Words’Worth readers, he was a little concerned that it might come across as wanton skiting.
In an email to John in late 2015, Graham wrote the following:
I graduated from Rosewood State High School in 2001 and, while my memories of school are a little faded, I do remember that you were my English teacher – in fact, I don’t think I could forget it. You were a teacher that recognised that I had a talent for writing and encouraged me to do more of it.
I’ve come a long way since the first seeds were planted (arguably, the first seed was planted in primary school, but saplings need care before they can become trees). And, now, I’m sending you this e-mail to share the good news: I’m about to become one of Australia’s newest published authors.
Thank you for all of your encouragement in those formative years. Your insistence and dedication were important. I am especially grateful to you for helping me enter in a writing competition (Somerset College Novella Writing, I think). Believe it or not, some of the early ideas from that manuscript survived and are in the final draft.
Without your early assistance, I’m not sure I would’ve made it this far, and I am very grateful for that.
It’s been a long journey, and I still have many more stories to tell before I’m done, but thanks for the education – I wouldn’t stand a chance without it.
And here’s the thing. I know that Graham isn’t making any of this up, because John was also my English teacher at Rosewood State High in 1995, and is in no small part responsible for me wanting to become an English teacher.
I now teach future English teachers at the University of Southern Queensland and I constantly remind them that our work involves much more than delivering curriculum and assessment, and the thousand administrative tasks that teachers are expected to undertake. Our work is about connecting young learners to the love of the word, and to engaging them with rich texts and language experiences that meaningfully connect to their lives. If just one of my graduates goes on to have the impact on one of their students that John has with Graham, it is all worth it.
In my correspondence with John while preparing this piece, he wrote to me:
During this whole adventure, as a teacher, I have felt incredibly humbled by the generosity of Graham. He didn’t need to give anybody, other than himself, any credit at all. Writing is a long and lonely process, and for the most part you travel it alone. So, for him to acknowledge me in the way he has, and for sharing his success, speaks very highly of his humility.
He has been busy since the publication with many book signings and writing workshops from Sydney to Darwin. He also made his debut at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on the 20 May this year. On the day before he was kind enough to come to Ipswich Grammar School and run two creative writing sessions with Year 11 and 12 students. Maybe he planted a seed in someone’s mind on that day.
Graham claims his writing effort in the competition he first entered was no great success but the experience ignited a slow burning ambition, the best sort, that didn’t extinguish. And an English teacher helped to light the flame.
Graham’s book, No Free Man, is available from Pantera Press.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, it is “an action-packed espionage thriller in the mould of Robert Ludlum or Lee Child…taut and suspenseful and skilfully plotted…there’s no question Potts is the real thing.”
This article was originally published in Words’Worth, vol., 49, no. 2.