I feel the need to reserve the first blog of this new year for some thoughts about my ex-colleague, Alan Yeates, who sadly passed away on Thursday 4 January. Alan was a German and French teacher and the head of modern languages at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, where I taught for several years. He had been struggling with illness for some time, but his death came as a shock and a blow nonetheless.
When I left that school, almost three years ago, Alan told me that if I ever wished to apply for a job working in foreign languages, he would write a reference for me “with a heavy heart”, since he did not want me to go. It is with a heavy heart that I sit here writing this.
My feelings on the importance of learning and sharing languages can be read in most of my blog posts, and it will come as no surprise that I feel a keen sense of loss that there is now one less teacher of German in our schools. Alan expressed understandable concern that spending cuts in schools, notably at sixth form level, had led to the shrinking of modern language provision and even the disappearance of some languages as GCSE or A level options. I wish he had lived to see an upturn of this trend in his lifetime.
I often quoted Alan during my own lessons, and on my bookshelf I still have a booklet he produced as supporting material for a course on teaching languages to the sixth form, which he organised and delivered for language teachers both within the school and from other schools in the local area. I remember the course very vividly, and I have since used his ideas in the classroom, both in teaching science and languages, for classes and tutoring individuals. One of his many great teaching techniques was a collection of highly amusing photographs, which he would show to his year 12 or 13 set, asking them to invent a story in German that related to the images.
As the head of a very large department, Alan had the rare quality of being able to stand back and allow members of his team to do their jobs in their own way. He could accept a diversity of styles, recognising that the sparkling, “all-singing, all-dancing”, high-tech lessons worked for some, while careful plodding through the exercises in a textbook worked for others, and that both were valuable, both had their place, and both could lead to good results. His organisation of teaching materials was meticulous, and I have yet to see a filing system and store cupboard more rigorously systematic than the ones in his classroom.
On a personal level, he went well beyond expectations in supporting me. As a science teacher who also wished to develop skills in teaching languages, I had some inevitable adaptations to make, and I was struck by Alan’s unquestioning understanding of what some considered eccentricity on my part. On too many occasions when I had a period one French lesson, I would arrive late, breathless and flustered, having hung back to dismiss boys from assembly and spent too much time dealing with the crowd of individuals hanging outside my office first thing every morning, to find Alan waiting patiently in the corridor with my class. Never once did I get the reproach I deserved for delaying his lesson. I remember him helpfully agreeing to evaluate a lesson for me, calmly explaining what he would be looking for and concentrating on the positive aspects of my teaching when giving feedback.
A piece of advice of his that rings in my ears, something that I hear myself saying to anyone I teach, is that “nothing is too simple to revise”. How right he was here. I repeat this endlessly, and in my opinion, it applies to any subject at any level. Specification content learned in year 7 or 8 can seem simple at the time, but it can be forgotten, and preparing for tests and exams should include filling in those gaps that were not quite grasped the first time around.
Alan leaves behind two good-natured and outstandingly able sons who are also members of the school community. Having lost my own father at a similar age, I have some sense of what they must be experiencing now, and I can only hope that circumstances and events proceed as easily as possible for them and for their family and friends, and that life will become more bearable as time moves on.
I greatly appreciate the support, help and understanding I received from Alan and what I learned from him, and I will remember him with huge fondness and respect.