WHAT drives a person to spend 50 years at the chalkface?
“I think there’s something special about the job of teaching,” said Peter Sheppard.
“I think, like my father did, that it’s the most rewarding experience that you can have, to work with young people, helping them to achieve their full potential.
“But my teaching style is still quite formal in a way. If I walk into a classroom they stand, and the first lesson I give is setting out what we’re going to do.
“They know the rules and they know the rules are to be followed at all times anywhere, and they all face the front.
“People come into my room and say, ‘Sorry, have we entered an examination?’ Then they go out again and the class and I smile at each other because we are special.
“They are the A-Team.”
As far as Mr Sheppard is concerned, every one of his classes is the A-Team, and like a lot of teachers with his classroom style he inspires both respect and affection. He reckons to have taught just about every Royal Wootton Bassett area native under the age of 60, and has no intention of stopping.
“My primary belief is that if you are as optimistic and rewarding as possible with your students, so they feel involved and important, you would be surprised how much they can achieve.
“Some people used to think that by shouting at students you would get them to work better. I have never tried that. Make them believe, ‘Your teacher cares about you’ - it’s the best possible thing. They value that; their parents did before them and their grandparents did before them.
“You’d be surprised what they can do.”
Mr Sheppard is from Malmesbury, where his family can trace its roots back to the 10th Century, when his ancestors were involved in the victory of West Saxon King Athelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh against Scots and Vikings.
He was an identical twin; his late brother was a teacher. He also has a sister, who is a shop worker.
Their mother was a housewife and their father a warehouse worker who had left school at 14 but could recite countless verses of classic poetry and check columns of figures in seconds.
“I went to Malmesbury Grammar School. My ambition was to play rugby well and football better.
“I think it was my father who inspired me to be a teacher; he thought it was the highest profession that you could aim for.”
Mr Sheppard started a three-year teaching certificate course at Worcester College of Education. He would later add a bachelor’s and a master’s degree to his CV.
As a 21-year-old newly-qualified teacher, his first job was at Droitwich County Secondary School, teaching English and History. His salary was £27 a month and his digs cost £18.
“I was there for three years. It was quite old fashioned. It was a school where you queued for everything. You queued when you arrived in the morning, you queued at break and dinner, and you queued to catch the bus home.
“I think my interview took about five minutes - nowadays it would take a whole day.
“I was told, ‘By the way, Mr Sheppard, nobody has passed their probationary year here for the last five years. I trust you will be the exception to the rule.’”
His duties included Walking the Line during lunch and break times. The Line was white and separated the grounds into halves. The young Mr Sheppard asked what the line was for, and was told by a department head: “The girls stay that side, the boys stay that side and never the twain shall meet.”
Mr Sheppard was told the line was black during summer with boys and girls linking arms across it. “I said I’d be careful where I stepped. ‘No you won’t,’ he said, ‘a few bruised and crushed fingers and they won’t be doing that again in a hurry.’”
The move to Wootton Bassett, where he has now served under five heads, came in 1966. He wanted the job because the town was nearer his then home in Malmesbury. Mr Sheppard would be head of English from 1974 to 1980, head of sixth form from 1978 to 1986 and deputy head from 1978 until his retirement in 2003.
After retirement he came back part time and still teaches for three or four hours per week, leading classes in critical thinking.
The young people of 2013 are different in many ways from the young people of 1966, but Mr Sheppard rejects the cliche about pupils of years gone by working harder and being more knowledgeable.
“The one from 2013 would by and large be a harder worker - which not everybody will agree with - because they had all this course work and all these examinations to do. They would both be very, very genuine good people.
“The one from 1966 would also have to work hard, but nowadays education has become more and more challenging and much more driven to ensure everybody reaches their full potential.”
His advice for would-be teachers?
“First of all, you have got to want to do it - to work with young people. You have got to have knowledge of your subject area and - much more importantly - you have got to be able to impart it.
“You’re not a friend to the students - you are there as a teacher and mentor. Always be professional in your dealings at all times.
“It’s a wonderful job and very rewarding. I can’t think of anything so inspiring as to work with young minds.
“I get through to them that I feel very privileged to teach them and I expect the same back from them, because they’re my class and I would defend them against the world.”