Learning with Mr Clarke – Circa 1985

back to the futureThis weekend we cleared out the loft – not a pleasant job, but one that had to be done.  Whilst doing so we came across some of my wife’s old school exercise books.  Not surprisingly, I had a look through them.  The first ones I came across were chemistry.  Lianne attended Porthcawl Comprehensive in South Wales and was taught chemistry by Mr Clarke.  The first book I came across was when she was in the 4th year (Y10), in 1985. What I thought would be a quick flick through the books, turned into a couple of hours and a lengthy discussion about Mr Clarke’s teaching strategies.  It was absolutely fascinating and made me reflect on the effectiveness of some of the more modern approaches to teaching.  I’ll try to illustrate with a few examples from this historical ‘book look’ – supported by some anecdotes from Lianne.

High Expectations and effort

Mr Clarke had massively high expectations of all of his students.  He would tell his students that he would often teach O Level students, A Level content and A’ Level students, first year degree level.  To illustrate this in Y8, they were doing valencies:

clarke8And then in Y10, empirical formulae:

clarke5It’s worth mentioning that this was not a top set.  It was mixed ability, tutor group in a comprehensive school.  It’s also worth mentioning that everybody in the class achieved at least a grade C in their O’ Level.  Nobody failed.  Mr Clarke sounded like an interesting character.  He expected 100% effort and hard work from everybody, as illustrated by the following quote:

“You may think you’re clever McTiffin, but without effort and hard work you’ll fail”

He impressed on his classes that success was the result of hard work and effort – nothing to do ‘how clever you were’.   Sounds very much like ‘Growth Mindset’.  I asked how a low ability student would have faired in his classes.  Lianne said this was simple.  Everybody knew his standards and expectations, and you had to come up to that, he wouldn’t come down to you. So if you found it hard, you simply had to work harder – because you didn’t want to be one of the ‘Dirty Dozen’.  What was the ‘Dirty Dozen’? A list of the 12 students who had demonstrated the least effort in the previous lesson – displayed for all to see!

It was also fascinating to hear that Mr Clarke commonly used a strategy, suggested by John Hattie in this video clip. In it, Hattie says that if students are finding something hard, leave it, go on to something harder and then come back to it.  Mr Clarke did this regularly.  When O’ Level students were struggling, he’d leave it, go on to some A’ Level work and then come back to it – just to show them how easy it was. It worked.

DIRT is not new!

Mr Clarke marked all of his books, after every lesson.  His style of marking may well be frowned upon now (lots of red ticks and very ‘frank’ comments ….. see later), but he did this religiously and knew what all of his students didn’t know.  He would communicate this with them, in no uncertain terms:

clarke3So, the marking comment was simply ‘Corrections’.  The student then responded with ‘Exercise repeated’ and re-did the questions that were incorrect.  Another example follows:

clarke4The marking comment was ‘You need to balance these’.  The student then did this, wrote a comment ‘Now balanced’, which the teacher acknowledged with ‘Good’!  When I asked Lianne what would have happened if you wouldn’t have done the corrections – she laughed and replied ‘That didn’t happen…..you did what Mr Clarke asked!’

Mr Clarke also made it very clear about what your shortcomings were:

clarke1So, where there was a perceived lack of effort, this was made very clear – ‘I am NOT impressed with your work Lianne. Have you heard of chemical equations?

Deliberate Practice

The books were full of difficult past exam questions too and this was a key feature of Mr Clarke’s teaching – lots of exam practice questions:


What struck me here was the phrasing of the question (from 1975) – students had to assimilate a great deal of information from the question and then use this in a complex answer.  Another example:


These questions weren’t in isolation.  There were pages of them.  Mr Clarke clearly understood the importance of deliberate practice and didn’t care if it was a bit boring.  It paid off.  When they came across questions in exam papers, they knew them inside out.

A few other things that jumped out and were obvious from looking through the books and talking to Lianne.

  • Students were expected to take pride in the presentation of their work – all headings were underlined, diagrams in pencil etc
  • Students were expected to do a lot of writing and expected to use very accurate scientific language and work layout, from a very young age.  There was no dumbing down.
  • Every lesson had either a demonstration or a practical to support the explanation of the chemical concepts being studied.  Time was always set aside the next lesson to discuss and explain the results from the practical work, to ensure that the learning was embedded.

clarke7  I found this brief look into the teaching of Mr Clarke – almost 30 years ago – absolutely fascinating.  I still believe that as teachers we do a brilliant job and I love hearing about new and interesting approaches to teaching, but I can’t help thinking we would all benefit from reflecting on Mr Clarke’s approach from time to time and do more of the basics…. and less of the gimmicks.  Whilst some of his approaches may be questionable, I think he had many approaches to teaching that are essential to successful learning.  To summarise:

  • Set the bar of expectation high and expect all students to get there…..and beyond!
  • Make it your business to know what your students can’t do….and let them know too.
  • Expect hard work and effort from all students and make this ethos the highest priority, every lesson.
  • Make all students believe that they can do better.
  • Expect students to respond to your feedback.
  • Provide lots of opportunities for deliberate practice.

This confirms to me that we are on the right path with our approach to teaching at DHS – I’d like to think that Mr Clarke would agree:

expert teaching4

Lianne says that Mr Clarke was the best teacher she has ever had and that his teaching continues to shape her own practice today.  She achieved an A at O’ Level and a distinction at S’ Level – to prove to Mr Clarke that she could!  Mr Clarke won the ‘Teacher of the Year’ award!  He is now retired and enjoying life in Porthcawl – much deserved!  I think we still all have much to learn from Mr Clarke.


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39 Responses to Learning with Mr Clarke – Circa 1985

  1. Marooney, Sue says:

    How lovely and inspiring!

    Sent from my iPad

  2. So inspiring. Wonder how I can do this in MFL. Wish I had had such teachers at school!

  3. ollismark says:

    I can remember clearly my Mr Clarke; he was Mr Bazire and he taught Biology. He used to draw a red cross on the glass board – a new, fangled device in 1981 – and then hit it with the spelling mistake.
    Recently we have introduced long dates, class work annotations and underlining titles again. I would like to think of myself as a creative and imaginative teacher with high expectations but I can still see the influence of Bazire and Reiach and Johnson and co.

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  9. Ree Mahoney says:

    Mr Clarke is still going strong, we see him down the Jolly Sailor regularly. That is the only thing to dispute in this article, he is without doubt the best teacher in Wales, then and probably still now. A little bit of fear and a lot of high expectations 🙂

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Just a note to let lianne know that at least up to a month ago mr Clark was very much alive, unless something very recent has happened, I live in porthcawl and was taught back in 1967 by mr. Ted Clark .

  11. Pippa says:

    Mr Clarke has not passed away, he’s thoroughly alive and kicking. He lives in porthcawl still and is a friend of my father’s.

    • We are both delighted to hear that Mr Clarke is still going strong in Porthcawl. He has generated much interest since I blogged about him and rightly so. He sounded like an amazing teacher and Lianne certainly thinks so. If any of you are able to, please pass on our very best wishes.
      I’m also intrigued about the sudden flurry of replies tonight?

      • Rhian power says:

        My brother in law watches swansea city as he is a season ticket holder each week and he is fighting fit xx

      • Anne Clarke says:

        From his wife,
        He’s out at the moment. He will be so delighted when he reads all this. And, by the way, I can confirm he is a one-off!

      • Anne – Thank you so much for replying! I hope Ted likes the article – please let me know what he thinks and remember Lianne to him. He had a huge impact on her. As you can see – he has become a bit of a phenomenon. Would be great to buy him a pint the next time we are in Porthcawl.
        Best regards

  12. Leigh Kembery says:

    I saw your article via Classroom Teaching tonight and Facebooked it. My friend saw it and linked it to a Facebook page Porthcawl First to see if we could get it to Mr Clarke – that could be why! Hope he gets to see it!

  13. EmmaW says:

    Lots of happy memories from Mr Clarke for me, from the mid 90’s – he was still very animated, funny and just a bit scary too! As people have mentioned, he is still going strong and lives just around the corner from my parents in Porthcawl 🙂

  14. Adam Phillips says:

    Ted was easily the best teacher I have ever had (even though i was a thorn in his side at times) along with Catherine Powell (who is sadly no longer with us). And he still remembers his students names – saw him a couple of months ago in the Jolly Sailor.

    I think a lot of modern day teaching could use him as a role model. Just my thoughts!

  15. jen says:

    Mr Clarke was my first chemistry teacher and started my interest in chemistry that will lead to at least a degree in it. He was brilliantly insane! If you didn’t pay attention or work he physically put you in the bin (saw this happen once and never repeated again). Glad to see he’s still very much alive!

  16. Helen says:

    Ted Clarke was the best teacher I ever had. He made me work had and realise I had the ability to achieve if I worked hard. I honestly don’t think I would have become a doctor if he had not been my teacher

  17. Carolyn Richardson (Walters) says:

    As one of Mr Clarke’s A level class of 1989 I was so pleased to be sent this link by my sister who is now a teacher. I have spent many years trying to explain to my husband how exceptional Mr Clarke’s teaching was. I, and many others would not be where we are today without having had such inspirational A level teaching.

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  19. Karen says:

    Ted Clarke was the best teacher I have ever had. Went onto study A level and then a degree in chemistry, and a job in pharmaceutics, none of which would have been possible without him. Great memories of being in his class. A true legend.

  20. Tim Richards says:

    Ted Clarke is a fantastic person. A wonderful personality and teacher. Needed to work on his accent work when performing in the school shows, but his energy always won through. 😉 He’s a terrific person.

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  22. ed says:

    I remember learning lots whilst in Mr Ted Clark’s chemistry class through the early 90’s!!
    His blunt and often abrupt character was often misunderstood, but he genuinely expected the best from everyone and found ways to encourage each student, whether it was through belittling (in my case) or through praise!
    I only came across this whist looking for the porthcawl’s learning resources web site for my son, made me reminisce for a while!

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  26. GDM says:

    I was also taught by Mr. Clarke from the first year of Porthcawl Comp until A levels.

    It was upon a random search for him, that I came across your blog. He was a good if not somewhat scary teacher.His teaching style definitely helped with university. We were encouraged to make extra notes from what he was talking about in class.

    I have memories of him smearing graphite on his face in class and singing “mammy”. An Al Jollson reference we were far to young to get. If you got on the wrong side of him, he’d put you in his ‘hall of fame’, which meant your name would be scrawled on the back of the door in chalk and you would have lunch time detentions until he thought you had learned your lesson. For Alevel classes, I would bring a dictaphone into class with me.

    I was terrified of his file inspections where he would shake our files and if any paper came out, you would fail the file inspection.

    Those notes were good to see. I had a similar set myself. Chemistry GCSE and Alevels did seem pretty straightforward compared to a lot of the examples we covered in class.

  27. Phil Jones says:

    Ted Clarke is a phenomenal teacher and, apart from imparting to me in vivid and memorable terms all manner of chemistry-related information which to this day I recall in his terms rather than anyone else’s, his teaching had an emphatic quality that I try to emulate now as a Consultant in a Lindon teaching hospital. There is no doubt that many undergraduates and postgraduates are bemused, surprised or even taken aback by the shock tactics but what I imagine Tes understood and exploited was that if you find a way to make it understandable and, above all, memorable, then the light will dawn and I count myself among the many for whom my potential was unlocked, and then developed, under the tutelage of a master. It wasn’t always fun, and it was never easy but I absolutely admired his insistence on high standards of work, accuracy in what you did, and above all that you have your best. If I am half the teacher Ted was then I will be far and away the best in my institution and the success I have had in inspiring and challenging my students and trainees owes more to Ted than it does to me. Lianne and I were in the same class, and it’s a real pleasure to see that a contemporary of mine values Mr Clarke as I always have. I think his contribution was incalculable and I have never forgotten the vital assistance he gave me to help me on my way. I really cannot imagine hat I would ever have succeeded without him, and I still recall my parents enthusing about him based on nothing more than my starry-eyed anecdotes about an ebullient, brilliant, demanding, intimidating teacher who I later discovered to be as kind and supportive a man as you could wish to know. Invited him and his wife to my wedding, 17 years later, at the other end of the country, and still refer to him – by name – when explaining certain concepts.

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  30. Emma Burke says:

    Great to read all these comments about Mr Clarke, he was an inspirational teacher and has left his mark on many Porthcawl pupils. My memories are always seeing his performances in the fantastic school shows which encompassed another excellent teacher Mr Burnell. I recently bought your book on the recommendation from a fellow teacher and saw the name Mr Clarke I laughed to myself remembering Mr Clarke in school then proceeded to read that your were talking about the same legend, it has made the book evoke images and memories which I was not expecting. I am involved in teacher training and have spent the past 20 years in secondary education, myself and my brother (Emma and Jonathon Dodd) both went into teaching when we left Porthcawl Comprehensive, I have great memories from the school Thanks.

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