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My Best Teacher - Sebastian Coe

Features | Published in TES Newspaper on 19 June, 2009 | By: Vicki Shiel

A steely sportsman in a smart school offered sound advice and became a good friend to this athlete

My geography teacher David Jackson was in large part the inspiration for me to join the local athletics club. He understood what I wanted to do because he ran cross country for Derbyshire schools. He wasn’t a PE teacher, but he was an accomplished sportsman.

He encouraged me to play all sorts of sports in the early days. He understood that it’s good for children to do that before they start specialising.

David taught me from the age of about 14 at Tapton School, a secondary modern in Sheffield where he was head of geography and head of year.

He also took me for religious instruction, which I have to say I don’t think was one of his natural subjects.

A memory that has always made me laugh is that he’d occasionally ask me in these classes how I was doing for mileage that week, because he understood what I was aiming to do in athletics. If I said I was a bit below target, he’d let me leave class early to go for a run. I think that probably partly accounts for my success in track and field but also my rather uncertain underpinning. I was always grateful for that extra 40 minutes or so.

As a geography teacher, he brought the subject to life. He took six or seven of us through our geography O-level a year early. I did it so I could lessen the burden of work the following year to give a balance for my athletics training. We came into school early and studied during assembly to do it. I always enjoyed geography and he inspired me to take it at A-level.

It was a terrific school - really ambitious for its pupils. Even though it was a secondary modern, which became a comprehensive during my time there, there was this teacher who was driving kids through O-levels early in order to have balance and excitement in other areas. So it was a really smart school - the best thing that ever happened to me actually.

David was a hard taskmaster and didn’t give you an easy time. He was a sound, sensible guy who to this day exudes common sense. I also think he was tough - a disciplinarian. He came from a solid working-class background. He was ambitious, and incredibly ambitious for his pupils.

He was always the one that could get me to put my foot back on the pedal if I ever eased up with my school work or sport. He would let me know that it really didn’t matter that I’d won an English schools track and field title - he’d treat me in exactly the same way he treated others in the class. He’d then step up the workload. And I was left in no uncertain terms that celebrity was not on his agenda. The fact that we have remained friends for such a long time is testimony to those qualities.

He’s a lovely guy and I still see him regularly. I saw him for lunch at the House of Lords a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about Tom Daly, our young Olympic diver, having difficulties at school because of his celebrity.

I asked David how he would have dealt with that situation and he said he wouldn’t have, because it wouldn’t have happened with him around. And I got a flashback of the kind of steeliness he had when he taught me.

I’ve been in touch with him throughout my career. There may have been periods of a few years where we didn’t see each other but he is a diligent letter writer. For the big moments in my life, whether it was the birth of children, the announcement that London would host the 2012 Olympics, or when I was elected as a member of Parliament, his would always be the first letter to arrive. We now try to make a point of catching up once or twice a year. He has been the most inspirational teacher and person I know by some distance.

Sebastian Coe helped secure the London 2012 Olympics bid. He is a double Olympic champion and 12-time world record holder in athletics. He supports the Lloyds TSB National School Sport Week, which starts on June 29. See www.schoolsportweek.org. He was talking to Vicki Shiel.


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