It has taken me a few days to firstly hear, then to process, the news that my old Head of Year, (Mr) Gareth Warren, has passed away. He was just 61 years old when he died of pancreatic cancer.
I don’t want to eulogise him here. Nor do I want to place him on the pedestal that society reserves only for the dead. Instead, I want to explain why I respected him, even as a teenager when respect was perhaps in shorter supply than it should have been, and significantly why I still respect him to this day.
Mr Warren (it still fills wrong referring to teachers by their first name) had the image of being tough. Almost to the point of caricature, he had a way a sweeping into a classroom that would bring silence and apprehension to even the worst behaved of kids. Invariably he would burst in, take a few exaggerated slow steps through the door and pick with a trained eye the instigator of the troubles before muttering through a thick growl their surname (a hangover from rugby coaching that found its way into the classroom). Their surname would inexplicably gain a syllable at the end adding an ‘e’ noise (Hynd became, Hynd-e).
This, if your name was muttered, was your cue to follow him out of the classroom.
This demeanour though was at least only part charade. Embedded within his teaching was a philosophy of tough love. I have never met a teacher before or since that was better equipped to deal with the plethora of problems, mood swings and anxieties that teenagers have.
When it was needed he was there with his thick growl to bollock you, and believe me, bollock you he would. But, at the same time, he was also there to support you when you needed. I can think of a dozen kids in my year that would have been expelled from most other schools but who stayed at Chosen Hill thanks to Mr Warren’s personal intervention and support.
The current Deputy Head, Shirley Bridgen gave a reasonable summary of this approach to the local paper saying:
“He genuinely believed that all children deserved a chance, especially those who struggled at times to find their way.
“To these students there was an open door, always a way back – this was his philosophy”
This is true. But all of this though makes him sound incredibly earnest like some sort of British Erin Gruwell. He wasn’t – he had a great patience and sense of humour when dealing with kids and style all of his own.
Maybe an anecdote will serve best to illustrate this:
I can remember flouting the no jewellery rule day in day out at school wearing some wooden beads around my neck (don’t ask, something to do with the fashion in the late 90s). To begin Mr Warren asked me to take them off, which I did before putting them back on again. Later, he tried confiscating them for a week – after which I would put them back on again. Finally it got to point where he walked up behind me one day and put one hand on my shoulder, untied the beads, and said (and I remember this very clearly), “Steve you are as insolent as you are annoying” before smiling to himself and walking off shaking his head.
Later that day I got called into his office. He was sat behind the desk wearing my beads and my sunglasses (also confiscated earlier that week). He sat me down and asked me why I didn’t want to be a year 11 prefect. To which I answered, in a way that only as insolent and annoying 15 year old could, that I didn’t want an unpaid job that made me stop people wearing their own necklaces.
Trying not to smile but obviously smirking he then asked me if I would help him out. He asked me if I would speak at some careers event at Gloucester Rugby Club later that day on behalf of the school. I agreed I think mainly because Mr Warren had asked me, not because I actually wanted to.
I guess this anecdote is just about his skill as a teacher, balancing hard-nosed discipline with a light touch of humour and goodwill. Turning around a situation in one day to be about the student and ultimately what was best for them.
When leaving the Rugby Club after the event Mr Warren thanked me for giving such a good speech. Despite myself, I remember enjoying the compliment. Maybe fishing for another I then asked him why he asked me to talk at the event. He answered, “Because Hynd-e, I can’t get you to shut up so I thought you might as well put your gift of the gab to good use”.
13 years later I work in Communications. I think he might have spotted something in me before even I did.
UPDATE (from facebook):
A celebration of the life of Gareth Warren will take place on Friday 20th June, 3:30pm at Gloucester Cathedral. All are welcome.
Family have requested no mourning clothes.
Donations to Pancreatic Cancer UK via www.justgiving.com/GarethWarren