When I look back at my childhood, and think about the moments that came together to inspire my love for science, there are a lot that stand out. But when it comes to the people, there are two: my Mum, and my favourite teacher at primary school- Mrs Stephen. Sadly, I received the news this week that Mrs Stephen recently passed away, so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the impact that she had on me personally, and that amazing teachers can have on their students more generally.
Sandy Stephen was that perfect balance that so many teachers aspire to- she was fun, friendly and welcoming, and we all looked forward to being in her classroom, but she could also silence a room with a simple crossing of her arms- and we all wanted to please her.
But while her science & maths lessons were great, it was the extra-curriculars that she introduced that really shaped the person I became. Sandy was passionate about spotting those students who needed a bit more stretch and challenge, and making sure they got the opportunity to flex their problem solving skills. She ran extra maths and science lessons, pulling small groups of us out of hymn practice, for example, to do hands on science experiments. I remember one particular lesson where we were asked to work out how many times a group of people would need to shake hands until everyone had shaken hands with everyone else. We started by doing the shaking ourselves, and ended the session having devised the formula to calculate it with any size of group. She also started an after school science club, where we were able to work our way through the Crest Science Awards, doing experiments in a fun environment and learning lots more about the scientific process in the meantime.
Then, there were the school trips. Our school had a habit of taking its students to the Natural History Museum each year, which was great- who didn’t love the giant dinosaur skeleton in the entrance hall*?! But one year, myself and a group of friends were feeling rather jaded as we looked at the same displays for the 4th year running, so Sandy decided to step in. She took a group of us across the road to the science museum and we spent a couple of happy hours exploring the exhibits before sneaking back, mischievous grins on our faces as we delighted in our shared rebellion.
Finally, and perhaps most memorably, were the end of term activities that our school ran as challenges. During these, years 3-6 would work in house teams, and compete in various ways, but all based around a science or engineering problem. This might be building a car and ramp combo that would travel the furthest, or a device that could safely deliver our egg to the ground, unscathed, from the school roof. But there would also be more artistic elements, like coming up with an advertising campaign to support our design. This melding of science and art, of curiosity and creativity, is something I am hugely passionate about to this day, and I credit a lot of that to this early opportunity to get stuck in and solve problems as a team
Sandy Stephen was the kind of teacher that many aspire to be, and I am sure I am not the only student whose life she impacted for the better. Teachers can have such a positive effect on their students, providing opportunities for growth whilst also being role models in themselves. Sadly, not every school has the resources mine did, and there may be many teachers out there who would love to introduce programmes like these or run school trips, but aren’t able to due to limited time and budget. But it wasn’t just these programmes that made the impact on me, it was also Sandy’s patience, her kindness and how encouraging she was of my curiosity and wonder about the world. And that’s something that those of us who work with young people can all aspire to.
* although I do remember being mildly traumatised by some of the animatronic dinos displays- one of which featured a graphic representation of a raptor (I think) eating another dinosaurs’ eggs.