Obituary - Maureen Burke 1934-2009

19th June 2009 at 01:00

Before "multicultural" became a political buzzword, Maureen Burke (pictured with one of her classes in the 1980s) had embraced it in her classroom.

From the start of her career in the 1950s, the infants teacher delighted in celebrating Eid, Diwali and Chanukah, and learning about her pupils' languages and cultures.

Maureen Mayock was born in Sheffield in 1934. From childhood, she was notably free spirited: every day, she commuted an hour by bus to her grammar school in Rotherham, an unusual journey for a working-class teenage girl.

But her parents were adamant that her academic potential should be realised. It was an attitude their daughter later adopted: she saw it as her duty to help pupils identify and fulfil their potential, wherever it lay.

Determined to work with others, she enrolled at Notre Dame teacher training college in Liverpool. Again, it was unusual for young women to live and train away from home. But Burke was irresistibly drawn to the adventure of a new city.

The teacher she later became owed much to her experience at this college. Trainees were taught to focus on child development, rather than solely on results. And they learnt that the status quo was there to be challenged rather than accepted passively.

This fitted her outlook perfectly. She began her career in a local secondary, but soon realised that she preferred teaching younger children. She delighted in working with nursery and reception pupils, watching them acquire new skills and grow in confidence.

Roman Catholic herself, she took her first job in a Sheffield Catholic school. But the comfortably familiar was not for her. Instead, she sought out less conventional classrooms, working with children from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures.

She chose to teach in disadvantaged areas, where there were a range of immigrant pupils, from Pakistan, but also from Kenya, Uganda and Hong Kong. She loved helping these children to adjust to life in Britain - everything from teaching them English to explaining how to use a pair of scissors.

But she also derived huge satisfaction from exploring their various cultures. All religious festivals were celebrated in her class. An ersatz qibla in the corner of the room marked the direction of Mecca, and she and her pupils regularly went on visits to the local mosque.

This willingness to explore cultures reflected her adventurousness. In the 1960s, when air travel was relatively unusual, she travelled to Italy and Spain in a turbo-prop plane. School holidays were spent exploring the Irish countryside on a Vespa scooter.

After retiring in 1994, she continued to travel. Always a devout Catholic, she particularly relished the chance to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem. But she was just as pleased when she was invited to a Sheffield synagogue to discuss her Israel trip: she was still talking about the welcome she received there right up to her death.

She had met her husband, maths teacher Ronald Burke, at a teachers' social in 1962. They were married a year later, and their only child, Frances, was born in 1964.

The marriage eventually broke down, but this was not something Burke ever really spoke about; she was intensely private. When she developed the lymphoma that would ultimately kill her, she told no one. She was the consummate teacher, and her first instinct was always to protect other people: she did not want to inconvenience or frighten anyone with the news.

But she hated the fact that illness forced her to give up the supply teaching work with which she had filled her retirement.

Perversely, she flourished in the hospice where she spent her final weeks. The atmosphere was notably school-like, with a culture of mutual support, and she could be a teacher once more. She died looking younger than she had in years.

Maureen Burke died on April 26 at the age of 74. She is survived by her daughter, Frances.

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