This week’s Old Aylesburian needs no introduction. Teacher, Head of Year, man of the people – Mr O’Driscoll (Pa 87-93) returned to AGS in 2003 after studying at Oxford University and teaching elsewhere. In the decade since he rejoined the school he’s introduced hundreds of students to Spanish in his ‘unique’ style: often weird, occasionally a little disturbing, but always entertaining. Read on to learn about his experience at AGS the first time round, and how he found the challenge of returning to the school as a teacher.
Hello Mr O’Driscoll. What are your memories of your time as a student at AGS?
I remember it as a very good school for me, I enjoyed my time here. I had some great friends and I really enjoyed my time here. Many of my memories are of the house activities that I did and the lessons that I enjoyed, which would have mainly been the languages.
I did quite a few house assemblies. I remember at one point borrowing someone’s lab coat to pretend that I was a scientist, we re-enacted a Monty Python sketch, I once got inside a giant beach ball… I can’t completely remember the reason for that, but it was in the Lecture Theatre and the assembly ended with me inside the beach ball being thrown out.
How would you describe yourself as a student?
With hindsight, I was actually very quiet indeed for the vast majority of my time at school. My parents came back from the first parents’ evening and told me that one of the teachers had said that they’d only just noticed me, and that was in March. Going through the school I didn’t put my hand up much, I was quiet and just got on with my work.
I was really quite shy, but that started to change a bit later in the school. I think when I got into sixth form I became a bit more extroverted and outgoing. I have a lot of good memories of free periods and lunchtimes getting up to all kinds of nonsense.
Looking back I’m obviously very different now to how I was then. It’s interesting to be able to tell boys or their parents who are concerned that they’re very quiet in school that this was the journey I had – I was that quiet and I’m definitely not now.
What did you enjoy about languages?
It was all about the teachers. Looking specifically at Spanish, which is obviously my first love, there was a teacher called Mr Hunt. He’s basically the reason why I’m doing Spanish, and the reason why I’m a teacher. He was superb, a great guy and absolutely inspirational. He would teach you all the language but he also had great stories, great anecdotes and got you to work hard because you wanted to impress him.
What particular highlights stand out from your time here?
In terms of house activities I was not incredibly sporty, and I’m still not, but I did do house swimming a couple of times when I was further up the school. I won what was called ‘The Plunge’ twice. It was a competition where you stood on the end of the pool, you dive in and you let your momentum carry you as far as you can go. There was a great moment in house assembly when one of the teachers paced out my dive to show how far I’d gone because he was so impressed with it!
When I was in Year 13 we won house music. I was in a production of Primal Scream’s Loaded, which is a great song. I played the block, and it’s a joke amongst all my friends because I was so bad at music that I was once sent out of a music lesson to go and read in the library; my lack of ability was putting other people off… I’ve got no sense of rhythm and I’m basically tone deaf, but I wanted to be involved. Thankfully, because it was very loud you couldn’t hear me at all. The rehearsal went fine – I was out of time but it didn’t matter. Then when the real thing happened, I froze ten seconds in and didn’t hit the block once. One of the things the adjudicator said was “it was great to see everyone taking part”, but I’d literally not moved.
Did you ever imagine that you would end up becoming a teacher while you were at school?
I didn’t have the vaguest idea that I would be a teacher, no. I went through a variety of jobs in my head: pilot, until I realised that I had very poor eyesight, psychiatrist, I don’t know what the thinking was there because I was never good at sciences…
In the end I went off to university knowing that I wanted to do languages, which was key. Then I started to think that I wanted to do a job involving languages, so I looked into all kinds of things before I suddenly realised that if I’m a teacher then I would get to speak Spanish every day; that’s what I wanted to do.
At first, that was it. There was a vague idea that I could make a difference but it was mainly about the language. I think after the first few proper lessons though I realised that there was something else to it as well – the creativity, the freedom to improvise, the combination of unpredictability and laughter. When I first started thinking about my career I didn’t really understand what teaching was, but as soon as I started I felt like it suits me as a person.
Was it a weird experience to come back to the school as a teacher?
It was, yes. It’s quite odd at the start, seeing people who taught you and having to use their first names. It does make you feel quite old too, I don’t want to make this too autumnal and sad, but off and on I’ve been here for over 25 years, which is a very significant amount of time.
On the other hand it’s good to know the mind-set of the boys that you’re talking to. For example, the boys still occasionally talk about lift passes for the tower block and that sort of thing, they were talking about that in my time too. You know where there will be problems as a Head of Year, and you quite often know what a boy is going to say because you’ve been through the same process yourself.
You’ve developed a reputation at AGS for your…unusual…sense of humour. Where does that come from and how does it work in the classroom?
I’ve always had a slightly odd sense of humour, as my friends will attest. I’d say that it fits in the classroom because boys don’t deal well with confrontation, if you tell them off and are in their face about it then I think that they react badly. You can use humour to defuse the situation and to make them laugh at themselves, and to show that you’re human yourself.
I also think that if you’re able to laugh at yourself and act the fool in the classroom then your students will not feel as bad about making a mistake. That’s one of the things that’s a huge problem for boys, the desire to not be seen to get things wrong, which is a really negative thing in languages where you need them to be willing to take a risk. If they see that their teacher occasionally uses glove puppets to demonstrate dialogues or has a pumpkin of knowledge to throw around at the start of the lesson, or uses Miley Cyrus too often in grammar examples then I think that can help. Basically, if I’m bored in a lesson then I imagine the boys will be too, so that’s what I’m trying to avoid.
There are a lot of schools where I couldn’t get away with the odd random moments of humour, where students wouldn’t get it or work with me. Because of the boys here and the level of intelligence they have, that’s what allows me to do this. I was utterly blown away in my first lessons here with the response from students, so the way that lets me teach is more of a reflection on the boys than anything to do with me.
What advice would you have for the boys?
My advice for the boys is, now more than ever, to find what it is that you enjoy doing and do it.
If I hadn’t taken the risk to go into teaching, because I wasn’t sure that it was for me, then I wouldn’t be here and I don’t think that any other job could have been as good. I found out what it was that I loved and threw myself into it.
Increasingly people talk about the job market or employable skills, I think the best thing is to do what you love. If you do that then things like qualifications will come from it. If you don’t know what it is that you love doing, then that’s what you need to be finding out.