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Always open to debate

John Russell, senior education officer for BBC Scotland, talks to Dorothy Stiven about his best teacher.

Willie McLaughlin was an English teacher at St Mungo's Academy in the East End of Glasgow when I was a pupil there in the 1960s. He wasn't my class teacher - I really got to know him at the debating society when I was in the fifth year.

Then St Mungo's was a Catholic senior secondary school for boys. It had been founded by the Marist Brothers, who did a lot of charitable work, and had a great reputation for academic excellence. It took boys who lived locally but was also allowed to select from other areas - boys would even come from Ayrshire, 30 miles away - because it was so highly thought of. There was a strong ethos in the school passed on from the Brothers, even when the state took over, of supporting people in society who needed it.

Willie must only have been about 28 when he arrived. He was from the Gorbals, a big man, with great presence and very different in his approach from the older teachers. He thought everyone had a right to be brought on and he treated every pupil the same, whether he was in the top or the bottom stream. He felt that if there were learning difficulties then that was a teaching problem. He was a sensitive man, although sometimes impatient and I'm sure in his time he wasn't the most popular member of staff.

I remember walking into one of Willie's third-year English classes - not the brightest bunch - where they were studying The Merchant of Venice. There was Willie, in the one corner shooting it, a mob in another corner - the Rialto - and a cowering Shylock in another, and it was pandemonium but they were loving it, they were acting out just what Shakespeare meant. For the time it was just so unbelievable.

He put his heart and soul into debating. Each week we would have a school debate, then there would be inter-school debates and competition debates. Willie encouraged us to look at every aspect of the argument and taught us to respect other people's opinions - you might not agree with them but you had to be tolerant of them. Debating seemed to encapsulate his whole educational philosophy.

We would go to Willie's house on a Sunday afternoon where he would tear our speeches apart. It was then I realised that teachers were human beings. His wife never seemed to mind this group of gangly guys coming to her home.

It sounds very informal, but this was still the 1960s and there was a distance between us which was always maintained. He wanted his pupils, no matter if they were academic or not, to have self-esteem and self-respect - but he never allowed arrogance. He never called us "boys", we were always "men". He'd send us off to the big stores in Glasgow to sell advertising space in our programme so he could finance the minibus to take us to debates. If we lost, he would always blame it on the judging.

I went to Glasgow University to study geography and became involved with the debating society there. It was the greatest disappointment of my life when I was beaten in the final of the Observer Mace competition but it was good for me, it taught me humility.

After university I worked in industry, then decided to go into teaching. In 1974, I went back to St Mungo's - by then a mixed comprehensive. Willie was deputy head. He shaped a lot of my teaching practice, not just in terms of what I did in the classroom, but how I saw the school as a community. He felt that, after 12 years he'd done his bit with debates so he asked me to take over, which I did. He was very involved in learning support which I became very interested in too - finding ways of bringing the world into the classroom. Things had changed so much since I was a pupil, children were animated by completely different things.

In 1985 I came out of teaching and became involved with the BBC but still kept in touch with Willie. Last year he retired. So many people came to his retirement do - staff, former pupils, even the school cleaners. Each of the 12 years of the debating society was represented, they had come from far and wide. We presented him with a quaich on which we had engraved "Willie McLaughlin, Debating Society St Mungo's Academy 1963-1974. With gratitude from the Men."

John Russell is senior education officer for BBC Scotland and Secretary of the Educational Broadcasting Council for Scotland. For more information on debating, public speaking and communication skills, contact Trevor Sather at the English Speaking Union (0171 493 3328).

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