'Never was an opportunity lost for learning'

17th July 2009 at 01:00
The latest in our series on teaching dynasties introduces the Jackson family. Jack is HM inspectorate's former national science specialist. His wife Sheilah is a primary head in Edinburgh. They have four children - Juliette, 34, Andrew, 32, Jillian, 29, and Gemma, 27. Jillian is a trained secondary and primary teacher in Fife

JACK JACKSON, Former HM inspector and specialist in science

When I got the science principal teacher's job at Ayr Academy, we moved out to Stair and bought a manse. We had three acres of garden and the use of 30 acres around it. I bred sheep, goats and we had four dozen free-range hens. But 10 years later, in 1983, I saw a job advertised for an HM inspector of biology. I applied for it and was fortunate enough to get it, but it involved moving.

It was heartbreaking to leave this idyllic lifestyle, but in those days the inspectorate insisted you had to live within so many miles of the office and initially you had to move out of the area where you had been working.

If you are a secondary-qualified HMI, you tend to work in both primary and secondary. I've been fortunate having Sheilah, who is not just a primary specialist but also an infant teacher-trained, so I got all that theory from her as well.

Sheilah and I have known each other since we were born. We were brought up together about half a mile apart. We got together when we were in high school, at Ayr Academy. I think I was around 17. We were married in 1969.

Our lives have been about education, but in the widest and richest sense. We have both been very supportive of each other's careers. In some ways, though, women have the harder deal. Sheilah, when she was assistant head at Auchinleck, gave up teaching when Juliette was born in 1975 and had 10 years out.

Education in our household is almost inescapable - the children would laugh about that - we both have such a passion for learning and teaching. Ever since I was a young child, probably under five, I've been fascinated with the natural world. I've shared my enthusiasm with my family, to their chagrin. It wasn't about forcing, but trying to find areas of interest through holidays or walks. That's where the best learning takes place.

I think Jillian, Sheilah and I probably have similar teaching styles and ideas because we have talked about it so much.

I believe a good teacher is someone who is interested in people. I was interested in all the children who came into my class as learners and I helped at a lot of extra-curricular activities - rugby, chess club, music club. I was the producer of school concerts. I teased pupils a lot, but never to the point where it was hurtful. You are just trying to find every way to develop them as people, but you need to find those robust enough to answer back - like Fiona Hyslop (the Education Secretary), who was one of my pupils.

I got some great advice from one of the medical lecturers at university. He said if you want to teach, don't stay at university, because all the promotion there depends on academic research.

I trained at Jordanhill. They had an accelerated route for people with PhDs; you could get your teaching qualification in a term. That one-term course brought into teaching some of the best science teachers of my generation.

In those days, there were so many posts in schools you could go into any education authority and name where you wanted to go. I chose Cathkin High, where the head was Sir James Munn, who chaired the committee on the S34 curriculum back in the 1970s. Picture someone in the civil service out in India and you might have an image of what he was like.

When I went back to Ayr Academy, the philosophy was still that bright children did chemistry and physics and the less bright did biology. That made me irate. I remember being asked in the interview if I would be willing to teach biology to first and second year. I couldn't understand the question. If you want them to study biology, of course you do that. We started an integrated science course in S1, and eventually the brightest pupils were able to study the three sciences at O-grade.

When I left Ayr, I remember saying in my speech I'd never forget what it was like to be a teacher. I've tried hard to do that and, as an HMI, never to place unreasonable expectations on people. Some people, I am certain, did not feel they were treated fairly or justly, but in my heart I always tried to do it.

SHEILAH JACKSON, Headteacher of Queensferry Primary in Edinburgh

I home-schooled our first child, Juliette, for a while. I didn't really intend to do it for long, but she had been at school for a year and I was not happy with what she was learning. We wanted her to go to the school she would have gone to if we hadn't moved, but it was full. In the end, I did it for a year. We could only work in the morning because we were getting too far ahead. Because her younger brother Andrew wanted to play at the same thing as her, he was learning at the same time.

Experience of that way of working was good, but I'd only ever have done it for a short period of time. The children missed things like proper PE. And while you could invite wee friends in, they weren't socialising in a real way or being exposed to the wonderful breadth of skills teachers have. But now that Juliette is a surgeon and Andrew went to Oxford and studied law, I still maintain it was due to the good grounding they got from me.

I had a place at university, but I knew I wanted to be an early stages teacher. At Jordanhill they were offering a Froebel course, which was an additional qualification. His philosophy was built on the notion of a "kindergarten" - a garden that you prepare and let children loose in to learn.

I got a distinction, which I was very proud of, and my first job was at Jordanhill College school. We were doing active learning and integrated curriculum - and they think it's new today. We worked with much bigger classes in those days. My grandfather started with 52 children in Coatbridge; I started with 43. There was hardly room for the desks and chairs, but we found wee corners for water trays and book corners. Nowadays, we're down to 25 in P1 and they're wanting it to be 18, which would be wonderful.

My grandfather was the first of our family to go to university. He walked all the way from Skeldon in Ayrshire to Glasgow and was in digs in Gibson Street. Three generations on, and Jillian's digs were in Gibson Street too. My mother was also a teacher.

Jillian is superb with young children and always has been. Although Juliette does a bit of teaching and Andrew is doing some at Trinity in Dublin, Jillian was the one destined to be a teacher. She got a distinction in both her primary and secondary PGDE. Having got her secondary qualification, she was still determined to be a primary teacher, even though she had to pay her own way through.

I hear people saying they don't want to be heads, but it's the most wonderful job under the sun. You're king of your castle, in a way. You're working on one thing one minute and something different the next. I had a couple of secondments, both of which made me realise this is the best job in the world.

JILLIAN JACKSON, P1 teacher at Carnegie Primary in Dunfermline.

The school is scheduled to be completed in 2011 and is being temporarily housed in Inverkeithing Primary in Fife

Any school I go to, someone will ask, "Are you Sheilah's daughter?" or "Are you Jack's daughter?" I can't escape, so I've learnt to accept it.

I'm not sure if it works in my favour or not. With Dad being an inspector, I find myself constantly selling HMI. Everyone has a negative attitude, but at the end of the day we're all working towards the same goal. Having said that, I remember Mum saying, when HMI turned up at her school: "I'm going to embrace this." But by day three she was saying: "I want them out!"

With Mum being a primary teacher, every day was a school day. Never was an opportunity missed to teach us something. When I think back to my Highers and Standard grades, it's just hilarious. My sister tutored me in chemistry, my brother did English and Dad biology. They ran bets about who would get the best grade.

I pity anybody who's round at Mum and Dad's when I visit. We just talk about education, education, education. It's brilliant to bounce ideas off them and to hear their take on things. They have shaped my thinking a lot. Never mind how many hours of continuing professional development you are supposed to do, we do weekend CPD and CPD over dinner.

They inspire me every time I talk to them. I've never known two people who have enjoyed their jobs more. Dad says there has never been a day he didn't want to get up and go to work. Mum is working up to the day of her 65th birthday in November. She is dreading retiring. She loves working with children.

Mum and Dad could be old-school thinkers, but they keep up to date with everything and they are open to change, which is so important in education. When Mum's school won a UK-wide ICT award, I remember thinking that was fantastic, the fact that my mum could do more on a computer than me.

I've been lucky since I entered education, because there's been a big focus on active learning and I've never known anything different. Dad tells me stories of science being taught through worksheets and I just say: "You're lying." I just don't believe that goes on.

There will be 13 kids in my class in August. The kids just can't have a better start. Having said that, my mum tells me I don't know I'm born. I think my great-grandpa had about 60.

As teachers, we are taught to build children's confidence and self-esteem, to praise and encourage. My parents do that to me constantly and one bit of praise carries you so far. But I think secretly Mum didn't want me to go into primary teaching. I think she thought I'd never meet a husband. As if six grandchildren already aren't enough! She's probably hoping for a few more, so she can set up a school.

As told to Emma Seith.

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