I went to a Catholic boys school in Blackpool in the North of England. In my first year in the senior school I was a nerdy kid, with spectacles and short trousers. For one hour a week the class had elocution lessons from an old, portly teacher called Mr Priestley. He had a hard task wrestling with our flat northern vowels and trying to get us to enunciate the Queen’s English. One day he came up to me and said,’ Sloane, I want to put you in for a speaking festival.’ ‘Why me?’ I grumbled. ‘Because I think you can do it,’ was his reply.
I had to learn to recite a poem. It was ‘Play up, Play up and Play the Game’ by Sir Henry Newbolt; a classic motivational poem ringing with the heroic values of the British Empire. I had to practise it in front of the class, which was rather embarrassing; especially when dear old Mr Priestly said, ‘That’s good but you need to pause and to put feeling and emotion into it.’ Eleven year old boys are disinclined to express feelings.
The Saturday of the festival came and I went there on the bus (my parents never had a car). I gave it my best shot but there were other children there who were more polished or experienced than I was and they scooped all the prizes. So I had to return to school on Monday and tell Mr Priestley and the class that I had not won. I was then, and still am, very competitive so it felt like a failure to me. We did not have Mr Priestley again after that year and I never thanked him for that intervention. It is too late to do so now.
In my work I go around the world giving keynote talks on leadership and innovation and I often address large, prestigious audiences. Part of the reason that I can do that is because one teacher took the initiative and gave me a challenge. He asked me to do something I had never done and helped me to learn how to do it.
Education is not about league tables or exam results. It is about opening doors for people and showing them rooms that that would otherwise be hidden. If we can challenge children to try things and to learn what they can achieve then maybe one day we will be remembered with the gratitude that I hold for Mr Priestley.