Dennis Richards was Headteacher of St. Aidans CE High School from 1989-2012. In retirement he has worked as a French Language assistant at St.John Fisher RC High School. He was awarded the OBE for services to education in 2007. In the same year he won the National Teaching Award winner for Lifetime Achievement, named for the first time that year in memory of Ted Wragg, Dennis’s old teacher. Now, he writes a monthly column on educational matters for the Harrogate Advertiser.
Here, Dennis shares his journey from teacher to published author, the influence of educators on a pupils path to success and the joy of young minds.
I was lucky, being one of those teachers, who came into the profession because I had an inspirational teacher myself. In the pre-internet era, The Times Educational Supplement was THE gospel for school leaders, and indeed teachers in general. Its star columnist was the late great Ted Wragg. His weekly column on the TES back page was invariably a hilarious put-down of educational pomposity in all its forms. In the Nineties and early years of the new millennium, Ted Wragg reached national status as a Government adviser and renowned conference speaker. He also happened to be my French and German teacher when I was at school. By a quirk of fate, the TES ran a feature for years under the heading “My Best Teacher”, based on the premiss that a famous personality would describe a particular teacher’s influence on their path to success. The sort of column you could imagine Marcus Rashford writing. I turned it on its head and, as a relative nonentity, wrote about a famous teacher. My first published piece of writing. Which soon developed into a semi-regular feature in the TES, other regular assignments with the Church Times and a dream of writing for children.
Originally, I had hoped to write a book of off-the-shelf assemblies, the sort of volume a Head Teacher picks off the shelf, in a panic on Sunday evening, before facing 400 half asleep students the following day. 2014 changed my agenda. The Tour de France in Harrogate was an inspiration, which endures to this day. Rather than quickly forgotten assemblies, how about stories with a moral? As Head of St.Aidans CE High School in Harrogate for 23 years, another stroke of luck. The NYCC English Adviser was a certain Gervase Phinn. Blisteringly funny and a brilliant communicator. “Sylvie on Tour”, my first children’s book, relied heavily on his prescription. A story to captivate the interest of children = Imagination + Creativity + Technique.
As an educator, I would also want there to be a lasting message in my books. My third children’s book to be published on December 1st this year. “Chloe In A Race Against Time” was improbably inspired by the 1966 Le Mans 24 hour road race, made into a film in 2019. Ken Mills the leading driver, lost the race by stopping short and celebrating. He was 5 metres short. Chloe in a Race Against Time brings the Hare and the Tortoise into a new setting in the South of France. It also serves as an introduction to simple French vocabulary and idyllic setting of Provence in the South of France. Aimed at the 5-8 age range in easy to read (as a bedtime story!) rhyming couplets.
As a Head Teacher I saw family tragedy at close hand and crises of all kinds. Nothing compared to the stress placed on Heads, and indeed all teachers, in relation to COVID-19. But, maybe, just maybe, one of the possible silver linings will be to see an increase in the figures for teacher recruitment. One of my most enjoyable tasks in semi-retirement is writing references for generations of past students. Many of them are applying for teacher training. First decision for them to consider? Primary or Secondary? In my case, having spent two weeks, supposedly “on observation”, in a Wakefield Primary School, the decision could best be described as random. It was down to one child in the end. A stroppy restless 10 year old, who had driven me to distraction by 9.30am. I realised, to my horror, that he would be under my supposed control until the end of the day. At least, in a secondary school, I concluded that I could move said child on for someone else at 10.10am. Taking my “Benji goes to the Seaside” writing workshop around thirty very different North Yorkshire primary schools, both private and public, has made me wonder…..did this experience do me a disfavour? The sheer joyous enthusiasm, the willingness to have a go, the forest of hands which shoot up in response to any question (whether they know the answer or not!). Contrast that with teaching 14 year olds in Year 9. Ask a question, and it will look like an auction sale of a rare painting. A vague twitch, a tiny hand gesture and you guess that one child may be wanting to answer. Either that, or in the end, you abandon the process and answer the question yourself.
Younger children have this marvellous capacity to suspend belief. To say this is not to patronise them. I learned from the great children’s writers not to avoid at least some “difficult” words. “When Pierre sees Chloe, he’s scornful….”. Later in the story he is “shamefaced”. Nor is it difficult to convince them that writing is an adventure. It takes you where YOU want to go. Imagination is the key which opens the door. Literacy is the tool which enables children to exploit it.
Imagine a snail bailing out a whale, a giraffe who cannot enter “Strictly”. Or in the case of my stories, a world where buses and cars have feelings. One day I would like to imagine a train. But somehow, Thomas always gets in the way.
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