The Late Professor Stephen Hawking: From Student to Teacher

Professor Stephen Hawking was so many things. His groundbreaking work in the field of theoretical physics made him the most famous scientist in the world. In his private life, his determination and unfaltering spirit throughout his battle with ALS was a source of hope and inspiration to so many. He was also an educator. He took pride in his position at Cambridge University and strove to bring his knowledge to a wider audience. On the eve of his funeral, we look back at Professor Stephen Hawking within the field of education.

Stephen Hawking at School

The Late Professor Stephen Hawking at NASA's StarChild Learning Center in the 1980s
The Late Professor Stephen Hawking at NASA’s StarChild Learning Center in the 1980s

Stephen Hawking was not always the best student. During his time at The Byron House School, he was unable to learn to read. At the age of eight he moved to St Albans High School for Girls, where younger boys could attend, and later moved to Radlett School and then St Albans School again after passing the eleven-plus a year early.

While he was a gifted student, his former St Albans classmate, Micahel Church said there was ‘no hint of impending greatness’ during his formative years.

His family had hoped he would progress on to the prestigious Westminster School but illness prevented him from taking the entrance exam. His family were unable to afford the school without a scholarship so he remained at St Albans.

There he was taught mathematics by Dikran Tahta who helped him build his first computer and to whom he attributed much of his passion and success.

When speaking about his education, Hawking said:

“I was never top of the class at school, but my classmates must have seen potential in me, because my nickname was ‘Einstein’.” – Professor Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking at University

Despite discovering his passion and progressing on to undergraduate study at University College, Oxford, he frequently missed classes, claiming that he was too busy enjoying himself. He became more interested in socialising and joined the University College Boat Club. His final exams became a challenge due to his lack of study and he was almost unsuccessful at attaining the grades to progress on to postgraduate study at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Fortunately, he succeeded, but during his postgraduate research, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (ALS). Although this news initially sent him into a depression, it was not enough to stop his quest for knowledge.

Stephen progressed quickly at Cambridge University and in the 1970s he was proud to secure the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, a position once held by Sir Isaac Newton. He remained in this position for 30 years, and even after held a special research professorship at the university.

His teaching approach was collaborative, often working through complex theories along with his PhD students and learning along with them. Ex-student Marika Taylor went so far as to say that he treated his students and collaborators as a second family.

We feel that his position on learning and potential is very much in line with our own. He took the position that:

“No matter how difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.” – Stephen Hawking

The Teacher Who Inspired Him

Stephen Hawking, like all great people, was once just a child with potential. He attributed much of his success to the teacher who inspired him.

His words on why #teachersmatter should be an inspiration to all the teachers reading. It certainly reminded us of the importance of what we do. Who knows which of your students could be the next Stephen Hawking?

Listen to his moving tribute below:

Rebecca is the founder and chief executive officer of Silly Fish Learning Ltd. She is a children's playwright with a vast and varied career in education, primarily teaching drama and English.

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