MAKING THE GRADE
Alan Cochrane reflects on his school days and reminisces about the power of inspirational teachers to change lives for the better
Alan Cochrane celebrates the influence of inspirational teachers
With the last of my daughters having now left home for university, it is perhaps inevitable that I should sometimes cast my mind back to her and her sister’s schooldays and occasionally try to work out what the influences were that set them off on the courses they chose to follow. Mind you, there’s very little point in my insisting to them that it was this or that teacher who mattered most because my choice would almost certainly be challenged. Thus, it’s probably better if I return to my girls’ pick later and concentrate, in the first instance, on the teachers that made the greatest impression on me – for good or ill. But before I start I should declare my firm view that good or, better still, great teachers can have a massive impact on a child’s future. And I’m sure that most people can think back to those that inspired them. In my case a certain Miss Neil (the abbreviation ‘Ms’ did not exist back then) might always have reeked of her favourite fags but she got me reading anything and everything, a trait that’s never left me. Later on it was Ken Dron who enthused us – well me at any rate – with a love of English literature, especially Shakespeare, and who cast me as Cassius in a city-wide production of Julius Caesar. I had a most definite ‘lean and hungry look’ back then, so it was perfect type-casting. Mr Dron, who sadly died when far too young, had an open, encouraging attitude towards his pupils and a hugely attractive personality, even if it wasn’t attractive enough for the young lady music teacher who we all knew he fancied. There were others, of course, who were hopeless but it would be invidious to name names; suffice to say that there was one gnarled old PE master, who had in fact taught my father before the war (I’m talking about the sixties here) and who clearly didn’t think much of either of us and made no attempt to hide his disdain. As a parent I, obviously, took a very keen interest in the calibre of my daughters’ teachers and there was one in particular in whom I had always the utmost respect and, more than that, with whom I always seemed to hit it off; indeed, as the lady is still very much to the fore, I should say that I still do. She probably won’t like being singled out in this way but Judith McClure was, I think, an inspiration to several generations of pupils at the schools where she worked – St Helen and St Katherine, Abingdon and Kingswood School, before becoming head of the Royal School, Bath. Scottish parents got to know her best during her time at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, where she was Head until 2009. Superficially, her image was one of a galleon in full sail as she marched, no matter the weather, in flowing gown and sensible shoes from one part of her charge to another. When I asked her what being a medievalist – her academic calling – meant, she replied briskly: ‘Nothing after the 14th century!’ However, there was nothing old fashioned or fuddyduddy about Judith and there was nothing which she didn’t think her girls could achieve if they set their minds to it. That was her priority. Not what the girls looked like; not what length their skirts were – assuming she even noticed – but the quality of their work and their determination to succeed. She was held in something approaching awe by her pupils, a sentiment shared by their parents, but in truth Judith was enjoyable and relaxing company and a marvellous hostess. That’s not to say that her formidable intellect wasn’t always obvious – in her latter years at St G’s she became (and remains) something of a pioneer in Scottish education, especially for the teaching of Chinese. Through my daughters I know how inspirational Judith McClure has been as a teacher and I was delighted to hear that she’d written a mini-memoir ( Thinking About Snow by Judith McClure). It’s not about her teaching career; it’s mainly about her time as a nun. Yes, that’s right, a nun, a vocation she followed for six years. In this marvellous little book she explains her change from the path she was on – initially of becoming a solicitor, saying it was ‘a profession I much respected but one that seemed to me to be concerned with the smooth running of society and business’. Instead, she insisted, ‘I wanted to contemplate the infinite and to find the perfect life’. I wonder if that’s what Judith McClure is still chasing. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it is.
That was her priority – the quality of their work and their determination to succeed