Like mother, like daughters

18th July 2008 at 01:00
Continuing our summer series in which members of teaching dynasties discuss what links and separates them in education. This week: Elizabeth Doherty, who has just retired as headteacher of Gourock's St Columba's High, and her daughters Claire McInally, a principal teacher of English at St Joseph's Academy in Kilmarnock, and Laura McBride, a principal teacher of guidance at Paisley's Gleniffer High

Continuing our summer series in which members of teaching dynasties discuss what links and separates them in education. This week: Elizabeth Doherty, who has just retired as headteacher of Gourock's St Columba's High, and her daughters Claire McInally, a principal teacher of English at St Joseph's Academy in Kilmarnock, and Laura McBride, a principal teacher of guidance at Paisley's Gleniffer High


My parents were Irish immigrants from County Donegal. I was born in Derry in 1945. We moved to Scotland in 1949 because there was no work for my dad, who was a joiner. I had an uncle in Greenock who encouraged us to move as there was plenty of work there after the war.

My parents also thought I would get a good education in Scotland - they could never have afforded the fees in Ireland - but they didn't realise it was free. I was signed up to a fee-paying convent school until someone said at church, "Are you not putting her into the primary school?" The next day I was enrolled at St Mary's girls' and infants' school.

It was a slum, long gone, but I got a superb education. I had Miss Postlethwaite to begin with, at the East Shaw Street annexe of the school, and she was light years ahead of her time. She did drama, school shows, history, geography, music, drill (PE) - and she had high expectations for learning. It was A Curriculum for Excellence before any- one had thought that up.

I loved school. I truly wasn't happy when the holidays came. Miss Postlethwaite made me feel special, as I'm sure she did every child.

Then I had Christine Morrison from the age of seven until the end of primary. She was inspirational. Apart from the quality of her teaching, she had me and others doing what was effectively leading learning. I remember teaching another girl - I had to help a child beside me with her sums, and I was given papers to correct.

She used to test me out. She sent me at the age of 10 down to Greenock Library to choose books for her - can you imagine nowadays sending a child down the street? I think she just wanted to see if I could do it. She had our self-esteem way up, she had us thinking we could do anything. Again, you could look back and see the four capacities.

My parents encouraged me. Dad took me on bus runs to Burns country and walks to Princes Pier, the docks at Greenock. I had dancing and elocution lessons (they thought an Irish accent might be a disadvantage), and Girl Guides. They saved to buy a set of encyclopaedias.

Miss Postlethwaite and Miss Morrison inspired me, but I can't remember a defining moment when I decided to become a teacher - it was something I'd always wanted to do. For an Irish immigrant family, being a teacher or a priest was the best thing you could hope for for your children because you had a job for life, status, you had a regular income.

I started in 1967 and was a principal guidance teacher by the time I decided to leave work in 1973 after our second son was born. I went back in 1982, and in 1998 I became head at St Columba's.

Claire, Laura and my husband, James, are all teachers - James is retired but was head of St Columba of Iona Secondary in Glasgow - and all English teachers originally too. We get together most weekends and teaching is always up for debate. I feel sorry for their husbands!

Claire and Laura still ask me for advice, but more and more they'll tell me what they're doing rather than asking me what to do, because they're very, very able. They've both got the same approach - there's no compromise when it comes to the job and their pupils, and they put in long hours. They like reassurance, but I only give advice if asked. I never hear anything where I'd say "You shouldn't be doing that."

Their breadth of knowledge is far in excess of what I would have had at the same stage. They're trained in leadership well above the level we were: Laura is a child-protection trainer in Renfrewshire; Claire is responsible for literacy in her school. Neither decided to be teachers from a very early age like me, but when I saw how hard they worked at it and how good their people skills were, I knew they were right for it.


We have three completely different jobs. I have nothing but awe for what Laura does in pupil support. I wouldn't want her job - I don't know if I could have some of the information she has in her head space.

Sometimes it's frustrating talking to Mum because, naturally, she has a sympathy for senior management. But being a subject leader is a different job now, and I think she realises the issues we have to deal with are bigger than they once were. My job can be really, really hard, although I'm well supported in my department. It takes so much time that mum offers to do my ironing!

We're practising Catholics, but Claire's school is non-denominational. There's not much difference between the sense of community we have and what you find at a good non-denominational school. Some things are different from Catholic schools - everything is talked about in sex education. Laura says "God bless" a lot, and I wonder if that is seen as a bit quirky in her school more than in a Catholic one.

My husband hates that we always talk about teaching. We do talk about others things, like how our kids are getting on - I have a daughter, like Laura - and TV dramas like The West Wing and Brothers and Sisters. Laura and I get into Big Brother - it's a sign summer is coming. Mum would never admit to watching it!

We were always someone's daughter when we went into teaching. I used to work in St Cuthbert's High, in Johnstone. The staff knew Mum. I was working alongside someone I'd first met when I was little and he was Santa at a Christmas party. There were ladies there who'd had baby showers for me. It was never a huge issue but it could get oppressive, so I loved it when I started working in North Lanarkshire - nobody knew who I was. But teaching is a tiny profession.

The three of us have a shared set of beliefs that are fairly strong in terms of the importance of family. We're possibly a little unusual in that Laura, me, and our two brothers live within three miles of Mum and Dad. The reason for being teachers is the youngsters. Probably because we felt so valued when we were young. We're aware that we were loved, that our parents are still together.

I'll mention my family in class, if appropriate to the lesson. You have to share a bit of yourself - to show you're a real human being. Pupils appreciate honesty and can see whether you're an honest person or not.


Mum's career is an amazing story. She left work to bring up her children and came back, started at the bottom again, and became a headteacher - she's admired by everyone. I started teaching after my daughter, Sarah, was born, so it's not a choice I had to make but, apart from the financial pressures families are under these days, I couldn't have stayed away from my career for long. I was lucky enough to have a year with my daughter, and that was a real luxury.

I think Mum's a total inspiration. She gives you belief that you can do this, and have a happy marriage, and you can also do it without being cut- throat and ruthlessly ambitious, but just by being interested in children. I aim to have the same type of honesty and integrity. But she also makes hard decisions. She won't take the easy way out; if something needs to be said, she'll say it. Myself and Claire are quite direct. The one thing I've taken from her is the interest in the outcomes for children - she looks out for every one of them.

For me, the job is about the children. They are the same wherever you go and everywhere you will approach the job in the same way. Claire's in a Catholic school, but I don't feel any less happy working in a non- denominational school.

I worked with Mum at St Columba's for a while, but people took me for who I was - it's not been a problem. It's great having family who are teachers - if you're having difficulties, you can come home and sound off to them. We probably talk about teaching 99 per cent of the time when we're together. My husband thinks we're mad, but you can't understand what it's like being in education unless you're in it yourself.

We're terribly close as a family - that's important. We all feel lucky to have people you can absolutely rely on. Very strong family foundations have allowed us to go forward - your values in life definitely translate into the work place.

As told to Henry Hepburn.

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