New president for a new parliament
The union's new president has been so long associated with the secondary school sector, having taught in Glasgow for 27 years, that it also comes as a surprise to learn that he spent three years as a history lecturer at Aberdeen University after postgraduate work at Oxford. Mr McCalman who is aged 55, says he had "had enough of the groves of academe" and eventually found a job at Springburn Academy, which may be thought disillusion indeed.
He enjoys the company of thinkers - that much remains from the academic groves - and is close to the union's other cerebral celebrity, education convener George MacBride (who was on the same course when both converted to learning support).
Although there are impressions to the contrary, Mr McCalman is a thinker with a sense of humour. But he is not known for taking prisoners and has not entirely lost the traits of his firebrand past as a leading left-winger, which made him one of the most colourful conference performers. Others have not forgotten his past either as John Cairney, the EIS's house poet, reminded delegates: "Look where he has got since this zealous Trot, Joined with Labour."
The path from Glasgow activist to EIS president is well trodden by now and some observers detect in Mr McCalman a willingness, perhaps even the skill, to build coalitions. As president of an extremely broad church, he could do no less. His view of consensus, however, is that it is "not a cosy process but one that emerges after vigorous debate in the best traditions of Scottish education".
Mr McCalman, now a senior teacher of learning support at Smithycroft Secondary in Glasgow, is well equipped to preside over the new thinking required to influence the structures and policies of a Scottish parliament. He is one of its most passionate supporters in the EIS and a leaderx of the Scotland Forward campaign. This is a perfect vehicle for Mr McCalman: strategic thinking is one of his favourite things.
The most profound question, he believes, is how powers and responsibilities in the education service are to be allocated between the parliament, councils and schools. The EIS has started its own internal debate and Mr McCalman is too canny to be publicly drawn. But he is well aware that key union figures are in no mood to make many concessions to councils that, as one put it, "treat teachers as just another bunch of local government workers".
Mr McCalman will not shirk contentious issues. Sometimes he even seems drawn to them, which could account for his close interest in further education. He will probably devote more time to what he terms the "mess" in the colleges than is usual for EIS presidents, and that will take him on to the delicate territory of the relationship between the institute's main body and its FE arm.
None of Mr McCalman's best friends has ever accused him of polished diplomacy but he is clearly practising studied statesmanship in the face of journalistic probing. "We are having positive discussions," he says of the relationship with the College Lecturers' Association.
New McCalman perhaps but, while showing the influence of New Labour, he is not entirely forgetful of his own past either and continues to believe strongly in the EIS's twin - "and compatible" - pillars of union action and the pursuit of sound learning. Courting popularity will not be the name of Mr McCalman's game in the coming year. He thinks, therefore he is.