My best teacher

8th August 2008 at 01:00

We go to the chalkface and ask teachers to name their most inspiring teacher, those who made a significant difference to them.

Gerry McLean, Castlemilk High, Glasgow

English teacher

The one I remember most is Hugh Clifford, an accounts teacher when I was at the old St Pius's Secondary in Drumchapel. He treated you as if you had potential, even just in the way he talked to you.

He was quite witty and there was something about the way he looked - the way his eyebrows went above his glasses - that made me think of Woody Allen; there was an element of stand-up about him.

He left copies of The Sunday Times Magazine lying around for us, and the fact that he was making them available felt to me like someone was taking an interest in my development and crediting me with being able to read at a decent level. Those magazines introduced me to things like Philip Norman's book on The Rolling Stones.

Mr Clifford helped us become people.

Katrina Bowes

Tapestry Learning Partnership

Director and founder of Tapestry

My best teacher was affectionately known as Fuzzy, although his name was Mr Neilon. Everything was fuzzy about him. He was my history teacher at Elmwood Convent School in Bothwell, which has now been converted into luxury flats.

Fuzzy was very popular because he was one of only four male teachers.

We didn't know many of the surnames of our teachers at Elmwood and we certainly didn't know their Christian names. We addressed our teachers as Sir or Miss, or Sister or Mother.

What came back to me when Professor Jerome Bruner was speaking at our Tapestry conference recently was that Fuzzy had been integrating much of Professor Bruner's methodology into his lessons. Not only had he very strong interpersonal skills, he was also a very caring person and had a sense of humour. But he was engaging our limbic systems in every single lesson.

He would give us the facts and integrate some gory stuff, some sexual exploits, some romantic notions and places and characters for us to aspire to. He would talk to us, and we took notes. Then we would talk and feed back our feelings on the topic, after which we would do some group work. In some lessons, we would re-enact a particular scenario.

He really did all the things that a good teacher should do.

Moira Leslie

Raigmore Primary, Inverness


Picture this scene: a P1 class working on the topic of space. Pupils are busy in their groups: one discussing how best to build a rocket; another composing a space-themed tune; another researching picture books. All are totally engrossed and there's a real buzz.

But where's the teacher? Well, she's down at pupil level getting stuck in with the groups. There is lots of discussion and laughter, but every pupil knows exactly what will happen if they step out of line.

This is actually my own P1 classroom from over 50 years ago. The teacher, Mrs Urquhart, was truly inspirational and her enthusiasm for teaching was totally infectious. I rushed home after my first day and announced to my mother: "That's what I'm going to do!"

Many years later, I had the pleasure of starting my career with a P1 class and I often thought of Mrs Urquhart and how she made teaching and learning so much fun.

I was lucky enough to meet another lady who was to become influential: Mrs Elma Webster, my "infant mistress". She also had a strong emphasis on pupils' learning and the craft of teaching. Pupil-centred, active learning was always at the heart of departmental discussions.

Lynn Sweeney

Netherlee Primary, East Renfrewshire

Probationer teacher

I changed school to Hutchesons' Grammar in Glasgow in P5 and Miss Graham - I think her first name might have been Alison - was my new teacher in my new school. She was lovely - very approachable and funny. She didn't shout but had great authority. She was a bit like a mother figure outwith the home.

The thing about Miss Graham which really inspired me was that she taught me my first French word. I went on to do an honours degree at Glasgow in French and Italian, and she instilled in me a love of languages.

She practised what we now call active learning. I remember her putting one boy, Carson Wallis, behind the door, and then teaching us all to say: "Carson est derriere la porte."

She also did a production of The Wizard of Oz with us, which led me to joining the choir and then doing My Fair Lady and other musicals in secondary.

I worked as a recruitment consultant for eight years and then took a break when I had my children. I've just finished my probationary year and it has been brilliant. It almost felt like an out-of-body experience when I've been teaching my P5 class French. I've felt as if I've been acting out what Miss Graham did.

Liz Lochhead

Poet, playwright

Former art teacher

I would find it hard to choose between two teachers at Dalziel High in Motherwell: Wilson Humphries and David Valentine. They changed my life. They taught brilliantly and they picked up on my writing early on and really encouraged me to keep doing it.

In many ways, teachers were particularly important to those of us growing up in Scotland with Scottish parents who didn't want you to get above yourself. They didn't want you to try too hard lest you got hurt. My parents encouraged me to get a good education, but they would have been terrified at the thought of my being a freelance writer. They wanted me to have a good job, and teaching was the high spot of what they wanted for me.

Now I bump into people and they say things like: "You're that art teacher. You weren't interested were you?" And, I regret to say, I was not - or at least not enough, nor often enough. But I met one young man recently who made me feel better. He was a millionaire and the owner of a graphics firm. He said I had encouraged him to stick with it and go to art school, and he had never looked back.

Sandy Campbell

Working Rite Community Interest Company


The 1966 General Election sticks in my mind. I was 10 and at the then Daniel Stewart's College in Edinburgh. To help us understand what was going on, our teacher, Mr Cochrane, got us to stage our own election.

I volunteered to stand for the SNP when most adults wouldn't have heard of the party, never mind kids. There was a chewing gum then called Snip. People thought I was standing for a chewing gum. It was a wonderful idea: instead of teaching about the election, let's have one.

We have a similar approach at Working Rite: instead of going to college, let's get teenage boys working alongside somebody who's done it all before.

Mr Cochrane seemed to have a way of encouraging everybody to develop their own personalities, letting us know we were all individuals. For about 20 minutes every day, you were allowed to take out a blank workbook and do anything you wanted and he never asked to look at it.

He combined some of the liberal attitudes which were beginning to come through in the 1960s with authority and a definite presence. He had perfect discipline.

Tommy Mackay

Educational psychologist

Director of Psychology Consultancy Services

My best teacher was Roy Smith, still universally remembered and respected in "Hutchie" (then Hutchesons' Boys' Grammar in Glasgow) circles as Wee Roy. He taught PE, and frequently reinforced his instructions with Latin maxims.

He was very strict and had the highest standards, and we viewed him with a mixture of awe and affection. I never saw him smile - not even for the school photo - but I loved his dry humour. He was economical in his praise, but its currency was very high and was worth working for.

Other than bursting with enthusiasm, I was everything he would not have liked - scatty, disorganised, undisciplined. I turned up for the school sports day having forgotten it was on and without my kit. He saw me standing on the sidelines as the third-year mile was about to start and I melted under his look of silent disapprobation. I entered on the spot, totally unprepared and in my bare feet. But I was ready to run through any pain thresholds - Wee Roy was watching. When I won he still didn't smile, but gave an approving nod, saying only: "Don't forget your stuff next time, MacKay". For the rest of the day, I had a warm glow: Wee Roy was pleased.

He had the ultimate virtue in a good teacher - the ability to give lifelong inspiration. Half a century later, when I plunge into icy winter waters or face new pain thresholds as I try to run that faster mile, I still feel his influence keenly and know he would have been pleased.

Rosa Murray

General Teaching Council for Scotland

Professional officer

My RE teacher in fourth year at St Augustine's High in Edinburgh was very significant for me. She was Kathleen Donnelly and I have at the back of my head that she had been a nun.

In those days in Catholic schools, primary and secondary, you tended to teach religious education not because you were a specialist in the subject but because you were baptised and had space in your timetable. She was the first RE teacher I met who was specialised, who knew about theology and scriptures and was able to engage in searching discussion.

She was someone who wanted to explore ideas from a basis of knowledge and under-standing and allow us as young people to really think about things. Her approach opened us up to other cultures and religions, to humanity and to the human condition.

It was just fabulous - so much so that I went on to become an RE teacher. I did a history degree first and then another degree in RE and scripture.

She was a quiet person, not an extrovert and quite plain, but she had confidence in her knowledge and she loved the subject. She was willing to take the risk of having a dialogue with young people.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today