In addition to her writing achievements, the author blurb for The Eclipse of the Century noted that Jan ‘taught abroad, and visits schools frequently, paying particular attention to the plight of English teachers in the light of recent education reforms.’ She cared deeply about teachers and students. On this website, you’ll find numerous references to how she viewed her role as a teacher, but I’m also very keen to hear from students and teachers she worked with.
In a piece about poetry for Signal magazine, Jan offered her own appreciation of an influential teacher …
We did the Bible, we did poems. My secret sin, Comic and Curious Verse, ran not even upon a parallel track but on a rapidly divergent one, until in my last year at primary school something occurred which brought it back to join the main line or, perhaps more accurately, diverted the main line to join my solitary branch. It was, if you like, the day the express stopped at Adlestrop. Among us, at the beginning of term, appeared Mr Taylor.
He had just come out of the army; when we first saw him he was still in uniform, Captain Taylor. That alone gave him an edge over the rest of the staff, who were all female; not the fact of his masculinity, which he never flaunted and we never noticed, but the fact that he was the first teacher we had ever met who was demonstrably also a person, who had come from the world we ourselves inhabited … He did not teach manly games, he taught English. He was not a disciplinarian, he simply had no trouble. Nobody wanted to give him trouble…
I still give thanks for Mr Taylor. In a sense he taught us nothing because teaching, as the world and the current Secretary of State for Education understand the word, is not what he did. He simply stood before us and, without fear, offered us the thing he cared for most, and in his presence we cared too. We learned.’
Linda Newbery became a full-time writer in 2000 but before that was a teacher in Oxfordshire:
‘I first met Jan when I invited her to speak at a Book Week I organised, and she returned several times after that. She was always very friendly, and when she heard that I’d published fiction she treated me as her equal, which I most certainly wasn’t. Over the years I heard her speak to various audiences: teachers and librarians at conferences, authors and would-be authors, children of all ages, all with her trademark wisdom, directness and dry humour. I never did an Arvon course with Jan, either as student or tutor, but I know from others who did that she could be quite brusque; however, if you did get praise from Jan you’d know that it was really well-deserved.
‘One of her visits to my school was to speak to a bright, lively group of year 10s I particularly enjoyed teaching. Telling her about them in advance, I assured her that they’d have lots of questions and comments. Unfortunately, though, on meeting Jan they were awed into respectful silence! She, of course, was quite unfazed by that.
‘One distinction she made about students on writing courses I’ve always remembered: she said, ‘You get the ones who want to write. And you get the ones who want to be published.’ I’ve found that to be very true!’
Jan was also a regular tutor on Arvon courses and many of today’s children’s authors happily admit to benefitting from working with her.
Another former teacher, now full-time writer, Narinder Dhami was a fellow tutor on a Writing for Children course in 1996. She told me:
‘I was somewhat in awe of her as I knew her work very well, and I was pretty much just starting out as an author. However, I soon felt more comfortable when she insisted on us sharing a bottle of wine whilst discussing the course participants on the very first evening!
‘Although I was a tutor on the course myself, I feel I learnt an enormous amount from her, particularly from her workshops for the students. She could be a little brusque, but she was never unkind. A couple of the students kept in touch with me after the course and told me how Jan had offered support and advice even after the week was over.
‘Jan signed a copy of one of her books for me when we said goodbye. It was Carrot Tops and Cottontails which I think is one of my most favourite picture books ever, by any author!’
Narinder then very kindly contacted Jan Sprenger, who was one of the writers on Jan and Narinder’s Arvon Writing for Children course who was equally generous with her memories of that time:
‘It was my first writing course and I was very nervous. At first meeting, I was terrified of Jan, especially when she began the course by saying that we shouldn’t think about “Writing for Children” but just writing a good story. “Oh dear,” I thought, “I’m going to fail, miserably.”
‘However, during the course, Jan set us a writing exercise, by giving us the last line for a short story, and told us to write the penultimate line. Then we had to write the pre-penultimate line. As a result of which, I was fired up to write a story and it was NOT for children. I beavered away all afternoon to complete it. I then handed it in for her to read, and toddled off into the kitchen to help prepare dinner. As I was setting the table, she came in and said, “It’s wonderful.” I looked around the table – I couldn’t see how the way I’d put the cutlery out could be considered wonderful. Then she said, “Your story. I think it’s wonderful.” At which, I burst into tears and she came over and gave me a big hug.
‘The postscript to this is, a couple of years ago, I adapted that story and it was accepted for an anthology called Let’s Hear it for the Boys, which is sold on Amazon to raise money for Movember charities.
‘I should add, this was not my only experience of Jan’s kindness and encouragement. I wrote a Young Adult novel which nearly made it with a publisher. When I told Jan about the rejection, she insisted I send her the m/s to read. Next, she invited me to her home in Oxford, where she made lunch, and we talked through how I might improve the novel.
‘That novel never did make it to publication, although I have recently resurrected it and am bringing it up to date. Instead, my writing journey took a different turn, when I joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and began writing romantic comedies under the name of Rosie Dean.
‘But, I can honestly say, Jan’s interest and encouragement in those early days really helped fuel my ambition to write, at a time when I could so easily have given up. She was truly a generous and talented author – taken from us much too soon.’
Jan also became a regular visitor to Flanders – you’ll find wonderful photos and accounts of her teaching experiences there on this fansite.
If you encountered Jan in a school or on a writing course, I’d love to hear your recollections – please get in touch via the Contact page. Many thanks!