The Gift of Mrs Fraser
By Cathy Ferguson
I met Mrs Fraser when I was thirteen. She was my terrifying health teach in year 8. She had a deep, gorgeously husky voice and was, I think, at that time in her 50s. I don’t really think she looks much different now.
I went to a very conservative religious school and I got the sense that while Mrs Fraser was a religious woman, she didn’t feel the need to shroud anything in mystery.
I realised that Mrs Frazer was my spirit animal the following year. I was in Year 9 and one of my electives was a French Revolution subject. While I spent a lot of time flirting with the boys, I also spent a lot of time losing myself in her stories of the time. It was at once gruesome and romantic. I saw what she said. It was amazing. The final assignment was a diary from the perspective of someone living through the experience. I spent ages on this as I just wanted to. I adored this class and never wanted it to end. I actually did quite a lot of work for it. I don’t even remember the grade, although I know I nailed it. I just remember working really hard on the task and trying to ensure that it was as representative of the events as possible, and that I loved it. I wanted Mrs Fraser to see that I’d drunk in everything she’d said and that I’d been in my happy place during every lesson of that class.
Fast forward to my first teaching gig. I was 23. While I had a great relationship with most of my Year 9s that year, they weren’t exactly scintillated by history. So, one day I channeled Mrs Fraser and read to the class and answered their questions in a British accent. They refer to this as “talking like you’re from Harry Potter”. Even though it was eight years ago, my students from that class still remember it. And I’m sure that even though they may not have learned much, it was a great building block to comradery and joy in the class. Students knew from that point that I was fun and fair and that I tried to bring some life to whatever I was teaching.
It was also during this time that I realised I had the power to silence and even to stop, with just a look. It’s specifically my eyebrows. They can wither. I wasn’t aware of this unique power, but numerous students have commented on it. I’ve even had kids who are so embarrassed by my “teacher glare” that they can’t make eye contact and ask me to stop looking at them. The power of silence and a glare, and then speaking very quietly, is something that I realised I took from Mrs Fraser’s teaching persona. It brings students closer to me, because it de-escalates behaviour without shaming them in front of their peers. They know that I know what they’re doing, and that they need to stop, but there’s no yelling or blood pressure raising needed. It’s just body language. And I know that Mrs Fraser was super attuned to the power of a quiet word or a look.
In “real life” Mrs Fraser is super friendly and warm. I’ve only bumped into her once or twice in a casual environment, but she remembered me (impressive) and was happy to see me. I know that she only taught me for a relatively short time, but the way she built rapport rubbed off on me more than any other teacher. She’s witty and at times sarcastic, which is dangerous, but it worked when she did it.
For the first few years of my career I didn’t know where I got my inspiration from. I’ve been very fortunate in my teachers over the years. I’ve had many teachers from whom I’ve learned lots of great things and some totally “avoid at all cost” things. But Mrs Fraser is the one from whom I learned that it’s good to be passionate, to joke and to be knowledgeable all at the same time. That I adore history. That it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still inspire respect and even love from your students. That you can make teaching history engaging, and that loving your subject is critical. She also taught me that a love of teaching and learning can last a lifetime if you want to be a career teacher and that storytelling is powerful.
I’ll always be so thankful to her for being such a fierce force in my life. During school I didn’t realise I wanted to be a teacher, but thanks to her, I found myself teaching as an authentic version of myself. Scary eyebrows and all.