'Dai' - The Best Secondary Teacher I Ever Had

May 26th 2017
Published: May 26th 2017
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Reading, England, United Kingdom
Thursday, January 1, 1970

My French teacher at Stoneham Grammar School between 1963 and 1970 was Dai Gwynn Evans. We had nicknames for all our teachers, and Mr Evans' nickname was 'Dai' – which testified to his Welsh nationality and also happened to be his real name.

His classroom was on the top floor at the end of the corridor, with a view of the playground and Cockney Hill (in the first and second photos it is top left). Its lofty situation and comparative isolation were symbolic, because Dai was a man apart, a law unto himself, who ran the French department with pride and great skill. Dai was the Head of French – the only language taught at my school until Sixth Form (when Spanish was another option). He was a martinet, a communist, a superb linguist (he spoke English, Welsh, Russian, French, Spanish and Esperanto and also taught Latin) and had a formidable personality. Nobody messed with Dai. When he was angry, we trembled. His face would go red; his eyes blazed; he became the devil incarnate. We looked away, hoping not to be picked on. Boys would occasionally miss a French test by hiding in the toilets, so terrified were they of him. I was a top student – diligent and good at French – so I never incurred Dai's wrath.

Mind you, I took a great risk during French in Sixth Form and was lucky not to be caught. We had a young French 'assistant' at our school for one year, who was a bit of a card and who loved chess. And chess at this time was one of my passions. Our class was supposed to go with this man once a week for oral practice, but I had a clever idea: I would play chess with him, while the rest of the class hung out in the Sixth Form Common Room. We did this many times, and Dai never caught us. If he had, he would have gone berserk. I remember feeling nervous once when Dai complained about the poor standard of our spoken French and wondered what was going on in our weekly sessions with the assistant.

Dai was a very progressive teacher for his time. In the 60's, teaching methods were largely archaic, but Dai taught us French as if it was our mother tongue: for one whole year at the beginning of Secondary we spoke and listened to French without ever reading or writing it. This must have been very demanding for him: no quiet times during class for us to study or for him to relax – just relentless oral practice every lesson. No English was ever spoken, only French. Dai’s refusal to ever speak English to us during that first year of French could be frustrating - both for him and us. On one occasion he tried to explain in French the difference between ‘la rue’ and ‘le chemin’. The former means street – a road with houses and shops; the latter means the roadway on which traffic travels. Try as he might, using all his verbal and acting skills, he could not get us to understand the difference. In the end he had to give us the English words. I remember, at the beginning of Year 2, when we read and wrote French for the first time, being surprised at the spelling of 'Oui’, the French word for 'Yes’. I had expected it to be spelt 'Wee’. Dai’s aim was to have us speaking French like little natives by the end of Year 1. I remember him saying that our oral standard at the end of this year was good enough to pass ‘O’ level (the exam we took in Year 5). Visitors from Reading University came into our class at least once; no doubt Dai’s unusual methodology made him a star in the language teaching community.

Dai, as I’ve mentioned, was a martinet. Even the rowdiest classes and students were cowed in his presence. He maintained discipline and achieved excellent results through fear and rigour. I now realise there are other and better ways of teaching a subject – by building personal relationships with students, by engaging them through good humour and stimulating lessons. Dai was a harsh taskmaster who rarely joked with us. On one occasion he kept us all in during break until somebody answered his question (in French, of course): what English word is related to the French ‘asile’? Dai became more and more irate as we sat silently, unable to supply the correct answer, which was ‘asylum’.

In those days corporal punishment – slippering and caning - was allowed, and it was not uncommon for a teacher to physically assault a student by hurling chalk or a blackboard rubber at him or slapping him on the head. Dai did not need any of these crude punishments; his fiery personality, his rages - and the threat thereof - were sufficient to keep us in line. However, I do remember one occasion when he lost his temper with Dave Jones, a big rugby-playing lad, punching him on the body until he cried.

We all wanted to keep out of trouble with Dai, and it was rare for him to lavish praise on any of us. I remember choking up one Spanish lesson when I failed to give a correct answer; I was desperate for Dai’s praise and disappointed to incur his displeasure. Another Stoneham student, David Chuter, who went on to become a leading civil servant, cried one day after doing badly in a French test. Such was the power of Dai’s personality. I was reminded of him when Martin O’Neill, the footballer, spoke about Brian Clough, his manager at Nottingham Forest. He used to be desperate, he said, to please Clough. It was just the same with Dai – we dreaded his rages and treasured his praise.

Dai was a passionate communist, who sometimes tried to indoctrinate us. We listened in silence, glad of a break from the rigours of French, as he extolled the merits of Soviet Russia. Looking back, I wish I had been able to challenge him, but in those days I was politically innocent.

Above all, Dai was a man of culture, an academic with a wide knowledge of literature and the arts. He recommended that we watch Kenneth Clark’s ground-breaking series ‘Civilisation’ in the late 60’s. He loved his literature, but he urged us to take an interest in other arts – such as drama, painting and sculpture. I remember his enthusiasm for the French Impressionists and for Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’. He took us to watch the film ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ at the Glendale Cinema. "Il faut avoir l’esprit academique," he used to say. Dai, as a good communist, despised religion, but he encouraged us to investigate the various faiths and even took us to a local synagogue one Saturday. I remember his knowing smile when, after 30 minutes or so, he decided it was time to leave.

I got to know Dai much better in Sixth Form. I chose English, French and Spanish as my ‘A’ level subjects, and Dai became my most important teacher. I was the only boy in my year studying Spanish, so lessons with Dai were intimate one-to-one tutorials. He was much more relaxed teaching just me than teaching a full-sized class (which in those days could number 30). He would often begin the Spanish lesson by making himself a cup of coffee, eating a bun and talking about culture or politics. Then in the remaining 20 minutes we would practise Spanish. I am sure he knew what he was doing. I was a scholarly and bright boy with an aptitude for languages, so I did not need the full lesson. Dai was insistent, in both French and Spanish, that I pronounce my words correctly; we spent a lot of time perfecting pronunciation. A handy mnemonic that he used for the French vowel sounds was ‘un bon vin blanc’.

In those days we students knew little about the private lives of our teachers. Over my 7 years at Stoneham I gleaned the following snippets of information about Dai. He lived in Caversham, a posh suburb of Reading. He drove to work every morning. He was a fervent communist, as I have said. There was a story that he’d once come to school with a hammer-and-sickle badge and been ordered to take it off. He used to captain rugby teams in his youth – which accorded with his Welshness and his trim physique. He had a low opinion of the Headmaster, Dr Smith. His rubicund complexion (grog-blossoms) may have stemmed from his love of alcohol, but the only evidence I have for assuming this is a remark he made one evening along the lines of "there’s nothing better than a night out drinking". An indelible memory I have of him is his brilliant rendition of a French poem – ‘Dejeuner du Matin’ by Jacques Prevert. He finished his performance by covering his face with his hands and pretending to weep. And while I was in Sixth Form, he very kindly offered to give me a lift in his car to France in the summer holiday.

Dai had a high opinion of me. He was especially impressed by my translations from French and Spanish into English. He entered me for French ‘Scholarship’ level, and I repaid his faith by getting a top grade. I achieved an A grade in my French ‘A’ level and a B in Spanish – proof of his good teaching. He wanted me to try for Oxford University, but I was daunted and chose a more modest university, Leeds.

Dai taught French at my school for many years, but it was a grammar school. Being a communist, he believed in the comprehensive system of education, so when comprehensives started appearing in the 70’s – superseding the old grammar and secondary modern system – Dai became Head of Languages at Highdown School in Caversham. I went there once to see him – during my first year at Leeds Unversity – but he had a meeting and couldn’t talk to me. That was the last time I saw him.

Since then I have tried to locate Dai on the internet, but to no avail.There appears to be not a single online reference to this extraordinary man. He was in his mid-50’s, I would guess, when I left Stoneham in 1970, so he is almost certainly dead now. Along with Mr Price, who taught me at Primary School, Dai Gwynn Evans was the most influential teacher I ever had.


3rd December 2021

I remember
I did French O level, taught by Dai Evans. My French, such as it is, has a welsh lilt. He is one of the few I remember.

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