My best teacher

18th April 2003 at 01:00
I distinguished myself by being so loud that I could be heard above everyone else - which was useful when I became a trade union official.

I went to St Mary's grammar school, Crosby, Merseyside,in the days when corporal punishment reigned. My elder brother, John, went before me so he tipped me off about the teachers it was best to keep on the right side of.

A lot of them used the strap big time, but the ones I remember fondly had a different style of keeping order.

Mr Rigby was a lovely man who never needed to use physical punishment. He taught maths and he managed to convert me from a disastrous student with zero confidence and poor exam results into someone who enjoyed the subject and sailed through to get a top grade at O-level.

He made maths fun and we all looked forward to his lessons. He used his scouse humour to great effect. There would be lots of jokes, yet he cracked people along so they were learning all the time. He set us problems that related to our lives and he had a nickname for every lad in the class. He was a very experienced teacher - I guess he was in his fifties, a tall, thin, angular man.

My other special teacher was Mr Slade, who taught music. St Mary's placed immense store on its speech day, which was held in the impressive Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. As well as prize-giving, there was a performance from the school orchestra, and choral and speech choirs (reciting spoken works).

Mr Slade took great pride in organising this. Auditions and rehearsals for the next year started as soon as the day was over.

I was in both choirs. At first I was an alto, then later a tenor. I distinguished myself by being so loud that I could be heard above everyone else - which was useful when I became a trade union official. I wasn't in the school orchestra - I'd tried to learn the trumpet without success - but I was in the speech choir. One year half the choir got lost backstage and I had to do most of the solo lines myself.

Mr Slade constantly reminded us of the importance of appearing and doing well on the concert platform. He was stricter than Mr Rigby but he, too, communicated his enthusiasm and passion and commanded respect.

In the sixth form I became a prefect and ran the cultural and social society, organising dances, folk concerts and political debates. I was in the school team that entered the Observer Mace debating competition, and we got through to the finals encouraged by Miss Keenan, who taught elocution.

I was in a couple of drama productions we put on with the girls' school across the road, and played Professor Plonk in the pantomime Old King Cole.

Then I became a teacher myself. I taught English, Latin, history and geography at a Catholic missionary school in Ghana through Voluntary Service Overseas. The pupils ranged in age from 12 to 29 and I was just 18.

I coped by emulating Mr Rigby, and using humour in the classroom.

While I was in Ghana I got a letter from my father saying there wasn't time to consult me about university applications so the school had put me down for a mix of subjects in a variety of institutions. I went to City, in London, where I read social sciences.

A few months into my first job I became a trade union official. At school I had developed an interest in social and racial justice, as well as learning organisational skills and how to speak in public. St Mary's also taught me how to get along with many types of people because the boys came from such a wide mix of backgrounds.

TUC general secretary elect Brendan Barber was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1951 Born in Southport, Merseyside

1962-69 St Mary's grammar school, Crosby

1969 Teacher for Voluntary Service Overseas in Ghana

1970 Social sciences degree, City University, London

1974 Researcher at Ceramics, Glass and Mineral Products Industry Training Board

1975 Joins TUC's organisation and industrial relations department

1979 Appointed youngest TUC head of department (press and information)

1993 Deputy general secretary, TUC

1995 onwards Represents TUC on ACAS

2002 Co-ordinates discussions between unions and Government regarding teachers' workload

2002 Appointed general secretary elect, TUC (taking over from John Monks next month).

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