My best teacher

16th March 2001 at 00:00
John Jackson taught all his career at Burnley grammar school in Lancashire. He was a classics master, and he was not only my Latin teacher but also my form master during the first four years of my time there. My first impression was that he was distant, incredibly academic, head in the clouds - somebody I didn't particularly like.

It was a very old-fashioned, stuffy school in antiquated buildings, and all the masters wore gowns. I had never seen anybody wearing a gown before.

There were horrendous customs and practices. When you arrived as a new boy you were thrown into a hole and everybody jumped on top of you, and there were cuffing corridors where all the boys would stand in line for the young ones to go through and be cuffed on the head. It wasn't what you would call a client-friendly organisation.

My main interest was sport. All I lived for was playing football, running, and going to see Burnley play on Saturdays. John Jackson had not the slightest interest in sport; I doubt if he had run more than a few metres to catch a bus in his life. And here I was stuck with him. Things were uneasy.

Then, in my second year,my mother died of cancer and the bottom fell out of my life. She had come over from the west coast of Ireland, met my dad and had two boys. I had been born during the war, when my father was reported missing, believed killed, in Egypt. So we went over to Ireland and then, when my father was found at the end of the war, we came back to Britain.

I had a remarkable bond with my mother. My father was very distant, a strict disciplinarian who didn't show a great deal of affection to me and my brother. He was incapable of coping after my mother died, although he did his best, bless him. My brother promptly packed his bags and left and I was left in the house with my dad.

John Jackson demonstrated just how important teachers are. I always say this man saved me. he seemed to have an antenna that fixed on me nd my problems. From being distant and aloof, he started to take an interest in me. He talked to me and I used to tell him how I felt. He was a guiding hand at a crucial time.

As a teenager I was very difficult, constantly in trouble. He took an interest, not only in my work, but in my life, in school and out, in an unintrusive, non-directive way. He built up my self-esteem, made me believe I could cope during these times and move on. This is the unsung job of the teacher.

It was a strange thing. I had put up a set of barriers, like lots of kids do, and said I'm not going to like this person because he didn't fit in with my criteria for being a cool guy. But good teachers have a wonderful knack of finding a connection with kids, providing they have time.

He wasn't the most popular teacher in school. But a few months ago I met a constituent who was at Burnley grammar at the same time as I was, and who did he pick out as one of the most influential teachers? John Jackson.

The last I knew, he had retired and was living in Burnley. He would be quite elderly now but I think he's still alive. I think he was aware of the effect he had on me. He left an indelible mark on that period of my life.

Phil Willis is the Liberal Democrats' education and employment spokesman. He was talking to Harvey McGavin


November 30 1941 Born Burnley, Lancashire

1953 Starts at Burnley grammar school. Has trials for Burnley FC

1963 Qualifies as a teacher after studying history and music at City of Leeds and Carnegie college

1978 After teaching in Leeds, becomes headteacher of Ormesby school, Middlesbrough

1983 Returns to Leeds as head of John Smeaton community high school

1985 Joins Liberal Party

1988 Elected to Harrogate council, becoming leader two years later

1993 Made deputy group leader on North Yorkshire county council

1997 Elected MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough

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