All hail the Cardiff ‘maths whisperer’ – and other life-changing teachers

Sirin Kale
Photograph: Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

Francis Elive deserves a bonus. The 55-year-old maths teacher recently helped his entire class of 30 year 11 students at the Fitzalan high school in Leckwith, Cardiff, to achieve A* grades in their GCSE maths exam – six months early.

Inspirational teachers like Elive, who has been dubbed the “maths whisperer”, don’t come along often. But when they do, they can have a lifelong impact. When Lauren Aitchinson was 17, she had a wobble with her mental health. Her boyfriend had dumped her for her best friend and her confidence plummeted. “I thought I was the most stupid person alive,” Aitchinson, a 31-year-old caseworker from Perthshire, remembers. “I didn’t deserve to go to uni.” Aitchinson refused to sit the exams she would need to pass to go to university.

“All the teachers thought I had an attitude problem, so were like: ‘Let her fail,’” Aitchinson says. Only Mr Pullar, her RS teacher, thought differently. “He said: ‘No, she needs encouragement.’” Pullar arranged for Aitchinson to sit her exams on a day the school was closed. When she passed them, he didn’t make a big deal of it. Aitchinson went on to college, and has a book coming out next year. She plans to send him a copy when it is published, with a note saying thank you.

If it weren’t for Miss Cockburn, Léonie Drury’s life would have turned out very differently. It is down to her that Drury, who is 36 and lives in London, became a teacher. “In my 20s, I was lost and I didn’t know what to do, so I went to see her,” recalls Drury. “She said: ‘Become an English teacher! You love books.’” She was right – Drury has been an English teacher for seven years, and loves her job.

Cockburn was an inspirational teacher. “She had a bright-red bob and was the most literary person I’ve ever met,” Drury smiles. “She could bring anything to life.” Cockburn started a poetry competition at Drury’s all-girls school. “We all thought we were Sylvia Plath, obviously,” Drury laughs.

“It was the sort of school where everyone’s ambition was to be a football hooligan,” says Shaun Paul Tomkiss, a 42-year-old chef from Shrewsbury, of his secondary school. “You weren’t allowed to like books or art. It wasn’t on.” As a result, Tomkiss kept his passion for books quiet. After school, when his classmates were playing football, Tomkiss would read Oscar Wilde in the privacy of his bedroom.

Miss Herbert changed everything. “She’d read aloud from the The Catcher in the Rye, but insist on doing it in a New York drawl,” Tomkiss laughs. He was transported, and took the JD Salinger novel home to finish in his own time. The next lesson, Herbert noticed he seemed disengaged, and pulled him aside. What was going on? “I said: ‘I took the book home and read it already and loved it to bits. Are there any more books like this?’” Her eyes lit up. She wrote him a list of books, which he devoured. Tomkiss credits her for his lifelong love of books.

Drury and Cockburn remain friends to this day, catching up once a year to talk about books and life. Sadly, Herbert died whilst Tomkiss was in his late teens, so he never got a chance to say thank you. “It took a lot for a 14-year-old council estate boy to follow such lofty pursuits,” Tomkiss says. “I’m not sure I’d be the same person without her.”