Each term we ask members of staff a few light-hearted questions about themselves so that friends of St Mary's School, Cambridge can get to know our team a bit better. Enjoy reading about our members of staff by clicking on each link below.
Head of Religious Education and Director of Christian Life
What was your favourite subject at school? Biology and English. I continued both to A Level with some success before switching to Theology at degree level. I had a wonderful teacher for GCSE Music, Mr Gorman, and I think it became a big part of my life (and I might say my favourite subject) much later as a result. I wrote to thank him when my extra-curricular music ‘career’ really got going in my late twenties and thirties.
How did you get in to teaching? I don’t really know, that is the honest answer. I’m encouraged that a number of very gifted colleagues and a lot of good priests I know (another option I was seriously considering for some time), when asked why or when they ‘decided’ to follow their particular path, reply: ‘I didn’t!’. It’s what’s happened so far and, as I sometimes say to my own children and my students when they are discussing their futures, ‘I’m still not sure what I’m going to do when I grow up.’
I finished my degree, did a PGCE as I was not tired of Cambridge and university life, and was appointed to a teaching post quite early in that postgraduate year. Teaching posts offered the advantage of paying bills for a growing family, and a wife qualifying part-time as a medic.
Two things, however, suggest a potential deeper reason. I have vague memories of playing schools with my younger sister when we were little; we would teach our teddies various lessons in front of an easel blackboard. I could also name five or six teachers I had between Junior School and Sixth Form who for one reason or another would be worthy of that overused adjective ‘inspirational’. Usually it comes down to a mixture of love of learning, love of people and inherent kindness – describing someone as inspirational means we want to be at least something like them.
While I am perhaps unconventional in terms of OFSTED tick lists and approach to management, I have been pleasantly surprised along the way to find a number of colleagues, students and examiners who seem to think I’m making a much better job of it than I think I am.
Why did you decide to work at St Mary’s School, Cambridge? I did a brief teaching practice here at the end of the Summer Term of my PGCE. It was examination season so I’m not sure how much teaching was really going on and I was busy planning my wedding as well. When years later I was looking for a move I saw the advert for a teacher of RE here and thought, ‘there was something about that place that felt right’. Two of us were interviewed and Acting Head Dr Jackson offered us both a job – an example of unconventional but wise and inspired management. He asked if we knew why we had both been asked back into the interview room at the end of the day. I remember replying, ‘Is there a tie-breaker question?’
What’s your favourite thing about working here?
Wonderful students and an atmosphere based on mutual respect – while acknowledging that, being human, we don’t get it right all of the time. I love having seen a large number of students over the years develop and flourish and become much more impressive than I was at their age, or indeed am now! I love the fact that students leave us with fond memories of their time here and are surprised to discover that not everyone in the world outside feels the same way about their school. I’m lucky to be teaching students who I am pleased to see if I meet them in the street; I know teachers at other schools who would hate that. I am lucky to count a number of students from past years as friends and correspondents. Colleagues who are very supportive and colleagues with whom I laugh a lot – an awful lot – to keep myself a bit more sane. These are a few of my favourite things.
Favourite things! What's your all-time favourite…
Book: I regret that I don’t really have time to read very much these days. In the last few years I have particularly appreciated Sebastian Faulks’ A Possible Life, Mitch Albom’s tuesdays with Morrie (a good one about inspirational teachers and students). Reading stories to my children, the ones I am most pleased to return to from my childhood are perhaps Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood series and Paddington. All-time favourite is a tough call – it might well be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, in four parts, by Douglas Adams. Should I have said the Bible?
Poem: Many by Philip Larkin. We studied Larkin at A Level and I didn’t like him at first but grew to love the slightly depressed introspection of his work. Then there’s the musicality of several poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, also the American civil war poet Walt Whitman, who I have come to appreciate via the settings of his works usually by English composers like Vaughan Williams, Holst and Delius.
Film: Perhaps Mrs Brown or Iris – I’m a great Dame Judi Dench fan, although Nanny McPhee has to be up there somewhere.
Joke: Difficult to write down. The humour I really appreciate most is spontaneous wit and ludicrous word play – the sort of thing Bill Bailey, Tim Vine, Paul Merton and others are good at. Some of my best jokes are actually a bit risqué so I won’t repeat them here. How about something silly like:
Q: What’s orange and sounds like a parrot?
A: A carrot.
What inspires you to do well? I don’t have a figure behind me who is a constant source of inspiration. I am often inspired in one way or another by every day acts of compassion and humanity, or the patience and kindness in some of the people I am lucky to know. I am moved by those like Jean Vanier who speak powerfully of the inherent value in every person, even and especially those whom society tends to reject. I am inspired by those who have nothing or who have lost everything or been in very difficult situations and have made something of their lives or made a big difference to the world or their community. I think this in the moments when I reflect how lucky I am in the opportunities I have had or could have had. Sometimes then I wish I was naturally more ambitious.
What’s your favourite hobby? In real life I’m a singer. I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity in the last 10 to15 years of singing at quite a high level with a number of choirs and ensembles specialising in renaissance sacred music, including choirs at OLEM (Our Lady and the English Martyrs) church where I enjoy also being allowed to conduct from time to time, The Petrucci Ensemble and De Profundis and as soloist for a couple of regional groups. Considering I came to singing relatively late, I am privileged to have sung with some very talented colleagues and directors. I am not quite good enough to earn more than pocket money from it. I have also been persuaded out of my early music comfort zone to sing jazz classics with the great St Mary’s School, Cambridge jazz and concert bands.
What sort of music is your favourite? Music is a big part of my life and I enjoy many and most sorts. Mostly I listen to what people would call ‘classical music’ (as on Radio 3 which I have on as I’m writing this), but there are many styles within that and I like all sorts from early mediaeval to stuff written last year. Jazz, musicals, any pop or rock outfits who are real musicians (i.e. able to write intelligently and perform live), particularly Queen, Dire Straits, Sting. This week I have been listening to Verdi, Madness, Elgar, Howells and Ella Fitzgerald, so all a bit of a mix really.
What’s your worst habit? Spending far too much time, thought and detail writing and honing responses to tasks like this as a way of procrastinating all the other important things I should be doing.
Team trivia: which country was the only country to have hosted a Summer Olympic games and not win a single gold medal (clue, it was in 1976)? I have no idea. Sport is not the round on which I would play my joker. I managed even to miss or avoid most of the coverage of the 2012 Olympics in London. The country which popped into my head first at random was Mexico - have they ever hosted the Olympics? A colleague who knows how to use a search engine tells me it's Canada. I said that would be the Winter Olympics but, apparently, they are right. [Mr Bennett’s colleague is indeed right – the correct answer is Canada]