Remembering Shaun Holman

In March 2013, a friend and great Classicist, Shaun Holman, who had taught at Bristol Grammar School for many years, passed away. I worked with him for 14 years, and when Roy Jones asked me to speak about him at the second annual Shaun Holman Memorial Cricket Match (July 2014), this is what I said:

You’re probably expecting some puns from me, because one of the things I have most to thank Shaun Holman for is puns. In fact, one of the proudest moments of my career is when Shaun reported to me a conversation he’d had with a Year 8 girl, who asked him if he’d learnt his jokes from Mr Keen. Shaun protested that he taught that boy all he knows.

In fact I remember spending many a break-time or pub evening with Shaun thinking of as many puns as possible on a particular topic – names of herbs, or fish, or something. But this is not the thyme or plaice for that…
I was having lunch a couple of weeks ago with Dan Watkins, whom some of you will know is a member of the Classics Department, having joined us a few years ago. There was a group of teachers from the Infants and Juniors next to us, and they had a guest with them. Dan and I were half way through our fish and chips, and the guest asked for directions to the toilets. The Juniors teacher, whose name I forget right now, explained how to get to the toilets, and which numbers to press on the keypad. The guest was very grateful, and headed off downstairs.

Later on, Dan said that he’d had a moment of “what would Shaun do?” and said that in such situations, he finds it useful to consider this. We both agreed that Shaun would have leapt up, leaving his lunch half-eaten and insisted on showing the guest to the toilets, waiting for her outside, and then escorted her back to the table, where he would continue to inhale his food. We also agreed that we had both considered this and decided not to, whether because we were enjoying our lunch too much, or because we were worried it might have embarrassed the guest or the Juniors teacher. But Shaun seemed to have the facility to do such things without causing embarrassment.

The other thing that I know Shaun would have done is to remember the name of the Juniors teacher. And the names of her husband, three children, dog and chiropodist. And be able to tell a lengthy story about the first time they’d met, and what she’d had for breakfast that day.

I feel like I’ve been spending quite a while with Shaun over the past few days. I’m going to be teaching Lower 6th Classical Civilisation in September, and I’ve decided that we should do the topic entitled “Aristophanes and Athens” – for those of you who don’t know, Aristophanes was a Greek comic playwright in the 5th century BC, who spent most of his plays puncturing the pomposity of public officials, creating silly characters and situations, and making well-crafted but tortuous puns. The last teacher to prepare for this unit was, of course, Shaun a couple of years ago, and he has left tests and other resources, which I have been working my way through, but you can see from the description why Aristophanes has made me think of him in more ways than that.

In fact, the tests and worksheets I have discovered in his computer drive are testament to something else about Shaun. Because they’re pretty much unusable in their current state. Not content simply to create a document, copy and paste a chunk of text and generate some exam-style questions, Shaun clearly felt the need to write little explanatory comments to the students in the class, by name, with little in-jokes and comments about things that had been mentioned in earlier lessons.

To me, Shaun was in some ways the very antithesis of the stereotypical Classics teacher – a fearsome intellectual with his head in the Clouds, or the Acharnians (that’s an Aristophanes joke, for those of you who haven’t studied Lower 6th Classical Civilisation). For Shaun the most important bit by far was the students, and their engagement and interest. And yet, he not only loved his subject, he was also very, very good at it. And that’s because he kept on learning, and had a brilliant sense of how to put it across to students from Year 7 to the Upper 6th.

Inspectors these days have various different boxes on a lesson observation they have to tick, and give evidence for… Are students learning? Is the teacher altering his lesson to take into account students’ individual learning needs? Does the teacher have a flexible approach to lesson planning? There’s also something called SMSC: social, moral, spiritual and cultural. This is the bit it’s easy to complain about – right, kids, how does the genitive plural of a second declension noun make you feel? But Shaun was excelling at that way before the abbreviation was thought of. He was always bringing out the human element, the personal touch, in whatever he taught. Students learnt a huge amount in his lessons. And he’d been taking into account individual learning needs since way before it was called that, but not only because a student might have dyslexia, or might need 25% extra time in tests. Because it was Alice, or Jack. And as for flexible lessons… well, Shaun was the master of the digression. Not only would he argue that it wasn’t really a digression – a debate about the rules of cricket… LAWS of cricket (sorry Deric)… a debate about the laws of cricket was entirely relevant to the Peloponnesian War, but also his class then ended up the year getting some of the highest marks anyway, so it did them good.

Anyway, too much on Classics, I do apologise. All I need to say really is that I miss Shaun Holman. I think about him every day, and there are three things I think of when I think of him.

1) Look out for colleagues and friends who are working too hard, and keep an eye on them. We have several colleagues at BGS who do too much, trying to fit a week’s work into every day, and they need to slow down. Matt Bennett, Roy Jones, Kevin Blackburn…

2) Keep on learning, and never think you’ve learnt all there is to know.

3) If in doubt, go and talk to someone. Listen to what they’ve got to say, and talk about something other than work, if possible. Tell them some puns. They don’t have to be about herbs or fish – cod knows, I mustard done enough of those!

Thanks, and TO SHAUN HOLMAN!