Obituary - Janice Johnstone, 1942-2011

1st April 2011 at 01:00

Janice Johnstone loved language. The Essex English teacher's playfulness with words and predilection for pseudo-Latinisms - along with a dedication to high fashion and even higher heels - helped to convince countless pupils of the value of language.

Janice Kay Morley was born in the Essex town of Barking in January 1942. Her love of language was visible early on. At Barking Abbey Grammar, she was the only pupil to score 31 out of 30 in a grammar test, spotting points that had eluded her teacher.

Also at school, she met fellow sixth-former Keith Johnstone. Teenage sweethearts, they married in 1966.

With A-levels in French, English and Latin, Janice set her heart on studying French at London University. When she was not offered a place, she instead took up a secretarial position at a tobacco-importing company.

She held this job until 1970, when her daughter Nicola was born. A son, James, followed two years later.

Musical from an early age, Mrs Johnstone played piano in a local classical group. When her children started school, she decided to broaden out into classical guitar. She went to her local university intending to enrol on a guitar course but emerged having signed up for a degree in English and history.

By the end of her degree, she was eager to share her love of literature and language with others. In particular, she wanted to be able to introduce children from bookless homes to the joys of reading - to classic literature and to Shakespeare and Chaucer. And so she decided to enroll in a teacher-training course.

Her first job was as English and history teacher at Romford Royal Liberty School. From the start, her inability to conform to staffroom stereotype made an impression. Going to work was an occasion, and she dressed for it in up-to-date designer outfits. It was not uncommon to hear girls - and occasionally boys - asking her where she had bought a particular top.

These outfits were immaculately accessorised with precarious heels and designer bags. The latter led to an invariable classroom routine: pupils would watch her put her bag on the floor and then wait until - inevitably - she would trip over it during the lesson.

This consistent clumsiness, however, did not affect her ability as a teacher. She knew the power of well-chosen words, and discipline was not a problem. She also realised that, taught incorrectly, Chaucer and Shakespeare could prove dull: her delivery was always lively. She helped to establish a school library, acquiring the funding to pay for an on-site librarian.

After nine years, she took a promotion at nearby Shenfield School, becoming deputy head of English. Here, she set up a public-speaking group, helping pupils to present and persuade through language. She was constantly grateful for her own Latin studies and regularly commented that it would be impossible to teach English without some knowledge of a foreign language.

By 2000, she had served as acting head of English for several years. When a permanent appointment was made, however, Mrs Johnstone was advised that she was too old. She was hurt and outraged: almost immediately, she found another job.

At independent Brentwood School, it was made clear that her expertise was valued and welcomed. Her colleagues, for example, eagerly picked up on her tendency for pseudo-Latin coinages: "lapus topus" for a computer, or "grumpus pussus" for someone in a bad mood. And her expensively-perfumed ability to waft in and out of rooms became known as "Janicey".

No longer head of department, her organisational ability was instead channelled into ensuring that her English colleagues always lunched together. Workmates, she felt, should also be sociable. Whether academically or socially, she wanted to be able to help people.

She retired from Brentwood in 2005. In 2007, the cancer struck. She had been through three rounds of chemotherapy when Chelmsford County High asked her to come in as a supply teacher for three months. Adjusting to the unfamiliar syllabus and set texts gave her renewed vigour. She was determined to provide her pupils with the support they needed.

She was still reading, still listening to music during her final years. She did not, however, ever learn to play classical guitar.

Janice Johnstone died on 30 January.

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