Teachers Matter

In the wake of Professor Stephen Hawking’s testimony to the influence of his Maths teacher from St Alban’s School, we have our very own Professor Alan Lucas, former student of Dunhurst and Bedales, giving us a powerful account of how an inspirational Bedales Biology teacher, Andrew Routh, changed his life.

The occasion was Civics, when Alan Lucas, speaking to students and parents, told the story of his extraordinary journey of ground-breaking research into paediatric nutrition.  In the audience was Andrew Routh, aged 91, the Biology teacher who had particularly inspired Alan during the later stages of his time at Bedales in the early 1960s.

Gemma Klein Photography

OB Alan Lucas with his former teacher, Andrew Routh

Alan’s description of the Damascene moment when his weak academic trajectory started to climb was particularly telling: his Physics teacher, Bill Crocker, sees him dawdling over a piece of work and gives him a strong verbal prod – “Who do you think you’re doing it for, me? No, you’re doing it for yourself.”  That comment changed his whole approach to school, making him an early riser and hard worker: it changed his life; he then went on to outstrip the two other undergraduates on the same course at Clare College, Cambridge who had been to a school with a much more “coercive, carrot-dangling ethos.”  Alan put his success down to this formula:  “inspiring teaching + life-changing self-motivating remark + freedom to develop in my own way.”

Currently Chair of Paediatric Nutrition at UCL and Fellow of Clare College, Alan has been instrumental in changing the way that babies all over the world are fed through alerting the medical world, not only to the importance of breast-feeding but to the effects of early nutrition on long term health and development.  The advice being given to nations across the world – whether by their own governments or by the World Health Organisation – is influenced by his work.

Like Stephen Hawking, Alan extolled the importance of inspirational teaching – both the kind he had here but also at university where university academics need to have the excellent presentational skills that the best teachers deploy. His advice to the students “If a teacher inspires you, try to analyse how they do it, because that is a great thing to learn.”

Alan spoke briefly last night about what he did when he won the James Spence medal for life-time achievement in British paediatrics.  When I talked with him in the autumn he told me the full story.  As soon as he had won this award, he phoned up Andrew Routh and told him “We’ve won a medal.”  He then drove down to Hampshire to see Andrew to show him the medal, congratulate him, thank him and, as he said last night: “We had a moment then.”

For any of us lucky enough to spend time with Alan and Andrew last night, it is difficult to feel anything other than gratitude for the power of great teaching and life-altering scientific research.

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Andrew Routh during his teaching days at Bedales