Do we take on the personality and behavioural traits of those teachers who inspire us?

Image: a scene from A Summer at Grandpa’s by Hou Hsiang-hsien

The longer I have been a teacher, the more I think back to those teachers who have inspired me in my own school days. I have started to sketch out the similarities and differences between us, and the results are pretty uncanny.

I want to remember one particular teacher as he embodied so many facets of an inspirational teacher who has fallen out of favour in the pursuit of competence and standards in modern teacher professionalism.

Arriving in Taiwan with the desperate exodus of the Nationalists, my Chinese teacher, who also happened to be my form tutor, like many of his age, was already shrouded in mysteries. Single, middle-age and on the large side, with a peculiar gait that was likened to a penguin waddle, this teacher commanded fear and respect in equal measures. I didn’t come across him until my first summer at the local junior high school. Back then, all pupils were required to attend school six days a week for a certain number of weeks during the summer holidays. He was my Chinese master.

As I reminisce, this teacher only began to make a real impression on me when I started my second year. He was my form tutor, too; I was delighted. One of the memories that has stuck in my mind was our first form time in which we had to hold an election for all the posts of various monitors, including a class leader. I can’t remember exactly who nominated me or whether or not my name was ever put forward. All I can remember is that my form tutor announced to the whole class that he wanted me to be the class leader. I felt a little embarrassed, but secretly flattered.

Apart from his trademark waddle with his hands sticking out, palms down, the extent of his quiet eccentricity only began to grip our fascination when the new term actually started. For example, not only did he dish out lashes with his cane, he cared about the aesthetics, too.

As his assistant, I had to make sure that there was a tablecloth for the teacher’s desk upon which a small vase was placed with a single fresh flower peering out. Our form room had to be kept immaculately tidy and dustless. To that end, there should be no rubbish in the bin! All our waste paper had to go into the open drawers of our tables, only to be emptied out during the routine, end-of-the-day tidying up. In addition, all tables and chairs must be straightened up in equal distance like pawns on a chessboard. On top of all other responsibilities, I was entrusted with this awesome task every day for the entire year. Week after week, we kept winning the first prize for maintaining the tidiest form room of the year. The little commemorative flag was never taken down from under the sign above the door of our form room.

Since the first three years of my primary school days, I had not felt so special or so good about myself. I relished my role as a class leader and I suppose I succeeded in making him proud. In reflection, I simply cannot remember what conversations we did have. It is more then likely that there were never many conversations between us. He was my teacher, and I was his pupil. The hierarchy was stringent and the line was never to be crossed. I suppose, our relationship was built on a mixture of respect and fear on my part. And perhaps there was a little bit of mutual affection that connected us. I remember clearly how this teacher used to take me with him on his bicycle, with me straddling the pillion and my hand gripping the springs under the saddle, to accompany him on his home visits to every pupil in our class. Such arrangement would be unthinkable now.

Long lost were those innocent days.

Fast forward to 2013. For the first time in several years, I have a first-year as my form. More importantly, I have a form room. It isn’t the biggest or the brightest, and it had suffered for years as the poor relation to all the other English rooms on the corridor. Like reliving my childhood memory but in a role reversal, I find myself implementing the rules imposed to us by my old form tutor when I was 13. I ask every group of my students, regardless of the age, whom I teach in my form room to “straighten up the tables,” “pick up the litter on the floor” and basically to keep the room in general tidiness.

Except the absence of a tablecloth and cut flowers in a porcelain vase, my old master would be smiling.

Or, instinctively, somehow we can identify those teachers with whom we share many of our personality and behavioural traits since we are of a very young age?


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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