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Obituary - Jeanette Smith

Jeanette Smith 1947-2009

She spent her career deliberately standing on the sidelines. But, her colleagues insist, it was because of Jeanette Smith that everything got done.

The 61-year-old primary teacher was born in the north-eastern town of Houghton-le-Spring in 1947. As a child, she and her sister would regularly act out classroom scenarios. Even though she was the younger of the two, Jeanette always took the role of teacher.

It was working with children that appealed to her: she could think of no better way to spend her professional life. So after school, she trained in primary education at Bangor College of Education.

On graduation in 1970, she returned to Houghton-le-Spring and took a job at Usworth Primary, replacing a young teacher called Alan Smith. At the staff Christmas party, the new teacher impressed the old one with her love of life and her "daft as a brush" sense of humour. They married five years later. Mrs Smith remained at Usworth for nine years before moving to nearby Rickleton Primary. In both schools, she taught Years 5 and 6, preferring the challenges that older children brought.

Indeed, she relished challenges and chose to work with special needs pupils whenever possible. They were, she felt, perpetually overlooked by society, and she wanted to give them the extra time and help they deserved. This was always her reaction to someone who needed help: that they could achieve if only given the right attention.

She also took on responsibility for the school nativity play and end-of- year productions. It was the latter she particularly enjoyed: she would write scripts mocking the head and other teachers, allowing free rein to her slightly wicked sense of humour.

But she was never centre stage. Instead, she would oversee and co-ordinate productions, identifying those who were talented enough to take on different roles. She preferred to be the catalyst, sparking chain reactions.

It was a role she reprised in her local youth theatre. There, too, she worked quietly in the background, sitting back and smiling as others took the limelight.

And she had no time for internal politics or bitchiness. Rather, she always played the peacemaker, defusing arguments with a few well-chosen words.

Her love of her job was infectious. While the couple's younger child, David, became a banker, Lucy, the elder, was sufficiently impressed by her mother's tales of classroom life to train as a primary teacher.

In 1986, Mrs Smith was appointed assistant head at Silksworth Junior School in Sunderland. Here, too, she acted as facilitator and negotiator. For example, when pupils visited a living museum, she persuaded a local manufacturer to make Victorian clothes for them.

At just 5ft tall, she was physically diminutive. But no load was ever too large. Colleagues were always impressed by her willingness to take on any task, however much work it involved. Her size became particularly obvious when she and one of her colleagues took up tap-dancing. The colleague was 5ft 10in; together they made a distinctive pair.

In 2003, Mrs Smith developed ovarian cancer, forcing her into early retirement. But she continued to volunteer as treasurer of her local branch of Save the Children.

She was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, and she sought out Princess Anne, patron of the charity. "She won't want to speak to you," her husband warned her.

"She will once she knows I'm treasurer of Save the Children," Mrs Smith retorted, marching up to the Princess Royal.

Despite apparently effective chemotherapy, the cancer returned in late 2007. This time, it did not go away. "It was like someone had taken her batteries out," her husband said.

  • Mrs Smith died in May, aged 61. She is survived by her husband, Alan, and her two children.

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