The Sad Death of a Great Teacher

Posted on by Nancy Slessenger This entry was posted in Brain and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


On Wednesday I was quoting my old Maths teacher, Mike Bullen (always known as Mr. Bullen to us while we were at school). “If you’d just get the easy questions right you’d all pass the exams.” When I got home late on the following day it was to a letter containing the sad news that he had passed away.




What made him such a great teacher?




Our first day with Mr Bullen



We were not happy to be informed that we had to sit alphabetically in alternating rows of boys and girls. Not only that, but Mr Bullen made us move our desks apart so that they were all equidistant from each other.



We had not experienced this kind of draconian behaviour before. But it did not take us long to identify that we now had a brilliant maths (“math” if you are in the US) teacher.




Some of his skills


One of his many skills was to be able to explain things in a way that seemed to make them easy in spite of some odd quirks like his unbelievably inaccurate diagrams.  He would draw with a huge, sweeping windmill actions on the board. A strangely shaped roundish outline (usually the ends didn’t even meet) would appear along with a few lines that were meant to be a triangle contained within it. But that never mattered.



The unconventional seating arrangements became insignificant; we loved his

English Doughnuts just like the ones Mr Bullen bought for us all those years ago

English Doughnuts just like the ones Mr Bullen bought for us all those years ago

lessons. How do I know he was such a great teacher? Not just because he got us all through our “O” level a year early. (In fact he managed to finish the syllabus a term early on top of that.) But because he inspired us.

At the end of our first term with Mr Bullen, he brought us a huge bag of doughnuts, one for each of us. I was amazed. And very pleased.




The personal connection


But if you didn’t put in the effort you knew you had personally let him down. It was as though you had caused him physical pain and you felt ashamed of yourself. He had the ability to inspire you to do better.




Being told off


I remember one day when he told me off.  With a flourish he brandished my exercise book and flicked it open in the way only a teacher who has done this many times before can, to display my latest homework. He was clearly very unhappy.



He pointed to a silly mistake. I cringed. But there was worse to come. He pointed to the very same mistake in the homework of one of the other girls in the class. He told me not to copy my homework. I was mortified.  But I also was trying not to laugh.



Unfortunately the truth was that she had copied from me (oh dear, I know this is probably illegal now, but in those days it used to go on). I had made the mistake, not her. But I realised that in his mind it must have been the other way round.



I was stuck in an awkward moral dilemma. I didn’t want to get her into trouble too, so decided that discretion was the better part of valour and didn’t say anything. I can’t remember if I stopped the dreadful copying practice but I know I was a lot more careful after that.



I felt awful. I’d let him down. He looked so much more completely disappointed than cross or angry. Which, as I’m sure you know, is much worse than anger.




So many lives


In her letter to me, his wife Liz said that she had been overwhelmed by the number of cards and letters she had received. There were many people at the service who had travelled considerable distances to be there.



She said he was always delighted to receive Christmas cards from old pupils and colleagues. And that she didn’t think that he ever realised how many lives he touched, and I’m sure she’s right. He was the kind of person who was probably unaware of what a difference was making – it was just what he did every day.




Make sure you let them know


So, I know you’ve heard this suggestion before and probably from someone other than me, but here it is again anyway.



Remember those great teachers you had, the ones that really made a difference to you, and let them know. Drop them a line and tell them just what a difference they have made to your life.


2 Responses to “The Sad Death of a Great Teacher”

  1. December 16, 2014 at 10:46 am

    My brilliant teacher, Mrs Barnfather, died many years ago and I didn’t have the chance to thank her. She drilled us in English grammar, reciting the books of the Old and New Testament (awfully handy in pub quizzes), and Scottish country dancing. She was terrifying when you first met her but actually we loved her to bits. 40 years later I am making my living from words, barn dances and making music.

    • Nancy Slessenger
      December 17, 2014 at 9:26 pm

      Hi Fiona
      Mrs Barnfather sounds amazing. You were lucky to have her, as I was Mr Bullen. Thanks for sharing your experience.