Obituary - Catherine Dyer, 1948-2011

4th March 2011 at 00:00

Catherine Dyer liked things well-ordered. A tactical raised eyebrow or a quiet "I'm so disappointed" would be all it took to ensure that the world around her slipped neatly into place.

But, in return, she was always willing to give time and effort to help colleagues and pupils put order back into their own worlds.

Catherine Gibb was born in May 1948 in Falkirk. At that time, girls from her village school did not go to university. But, even as a teenager, Catherine was iron-willed: she enrolled at Edinburgh University to read history.

History was a lifelong passion. People fascinated her, and she loved analysing the ways in which personalities could influence events. A university debater, she also thrived on sharing ideas and passing on knowledge. Teaching, therefore, was a natural career progression.

While at Edinburgh, she met Tom Taylor, a geography student. They married in 1969 and the new Mrs Taylor began her career in the rough schools of inner-city Glasgow. Here she inspired the kind of pupil trust and loyalty that would follow her throughout her life. "Don't worry, Miss," one playground bruiser told her. "Any problems you have, I'll make sure you're all right."

As a teacher, she drew on her public-speaking skills. She was old-fashioned in style: she recounted facts and asked questions. But she was also a stickler for detail. "My brain hurts," a pupil would later moan after one of her lessons.

A daughter, Susie, was born in 1977. But within two years she and Tom realised they had married too young; the divorce was amicable. An enthusiastic rifle shooter, she went on to meet Ken Dyer at her local shooting club. They married in 1980; two children, Sarah and Richard, followed within two years.

Moving south for Ken's work, Mrs Dyer was appointed head of history at Berkshire girls' boarding school, St George's Ascot. Here she immediately set about "learning to speak English", as she put it: changing her accent from broad Scots to something her pupils could understand.

Equally quickly she acquired a reputation as a tough disciplinarian. Her voice was inevitably calm: she seldom raised it. But her softly spoken "I'm so disappointed" would affect girls far more than a resounding telling-off.

No pupil wanted to be responsible for Mrs Dyer's disappointment. Her door was always open to them. "Come in, sit down," she would say. "What is it: boyfriend trouble? Schoolwork? Ucas?" Her gift was to make people feel that she was interested: whatever they had to tell her, she genuinely wanted to hear it.

Promoted to head of sixth-form, she spent time with each fifth-former, talking about A-level choices. By the time they reached the sixth-form, they would regularly drop by her office for an after-dinner chat. As a result she often worked 14-hour days.

She believed strongly in protocol and old-fashioned courtesy. Friends who had her round for dinner would invariably receive a thank-you message the next day. And she expected similar standards from others: it was a sorry girl who failed to stand up when she entered the room. They knew the way to her heart, however: bring Mrs Dyer a Starbucks coffee and a packet of plain crisps and she would forgive a multitude of sins.

Adults, too, benefited from this knowledge. Rhetorical questions were her speciality: "You're not going to be difficult, are you?" As a chief examiner for Edexcel, she would raise her eyebrows during meetings and deliver a withering: "You're not saying standards are dropping, are you?"

But she was fiercely loyal to her friends, and always made time for a chat and a cup of coffee between lessons. Possibly as a result, she was always late: she was renowned for hurrying around school grounds with her hands in her jacket pockets. Last year, this led to an accident on the ice. Bruised and immobile, she rang up a colleague: "Can you get me into school? I can't let down my sixth-form."

They knew better than to ask for directions: she had been known to lose her way going home. She did, however, regularly find her way back to Scotland, singing along to Dolly Parton as she drove. When Sarah and Richard took jobs overseas, she travelled further afield, developing a fondness for a Cayman Islands cocktail called the Mudslinger.

Her tastes were not always exotic, however. On a sixth-form trip to a university open day, she discovered her own version of heaven: a library with a built-in Starbucks concession.

On 6 January, Mrs Dyer collapsed suddenly at school. Medics were unable to revive her.

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