‘If you’re going to be here, why not be all you can?'

Adam Black nearly joined the army in his teens - until an inspirational teacher set him on the path to her own profession

Adam Black

Army boots lining up

I had lots of teachers I was extremely fond of for various reasons, but one that I had in the fifth year of secondary school really stands out: Mrs Johnston.

She was a modern studies teacher and fairly new in the school. I had done well at Standard Grade and had taken five subjects at Higher even though, if I’m honest, I wasn’t that interested in school. I was treading water as I had ambitions to join the army, and had only put it off for a year to pacify my mum, who was really keen on me getting some Highers (something neither of my parents had the opportunity to do).

Mrs Johnston was passionate about her subject and you could tell she really knew her onions. I found myself listening to her in classes and enjoying those classes even though I had no real interest in being in school.

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There was one assessment quite early on in the course where we had to write an essay about American politics and I hadn’t studied one bit. My essay was reasonable (a C grade) and I’d done it all from memory of her classes.

Kick up the backside

Mrs Johnston pulled me aside after marking the essay and explained that she could see the potential in this essay but knew there wasn’t much behind it – she basically called me out for not studying and being lazy. I told her about my army plan and only being there because my parents wanted me to be.

She listened and understood what I was saying but said to me something I’ve never forgotten: "If you’re going to be here, why not be all you can be?" She said this with a knowing smile on her face, as it was an army recruitment slogan at the time.

I thought about it. She was right, what was the point in not studying and wasting a year? Without her giving me a bollocking or being over the top, Mrs Johnston had given me the kick up the backside I needed.

Higher purpose

It was invigorating being involved in Highers as a committed student: the teachers treated you differently at that age than at any other point I’d experienced in school. I could actually see how hard they were all trying for me, for no other reason than they wanted me to do well. (I don't buy the idea that teachers are driven by results – in my opinion, teachers want the best for students more than anything, with results the second priority.)

I was inspired to do more and ended up volunteering to help at different clubs as a senior student that year, while attending supported study myself. I went on to pass my Highers and thought twice about my army plan. I had seen how hard teachers tried for me that year and something really clicked in me. I knew I wanted to become a teacher after that year.

My journey into teaching can be traced back to one teacher. Without her insight, humour and skill I wouldn’t now be a teacher of 10 years’ experience, trying my best with my own students.

Mrs Johnston, I really hope you read this: thank you.

Adam Black is a teacher in Scotland. In 2019, he received the British Empire Medal for raising awareness of stammering. He tweets @adam_black23

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