Relatively speaking - Against advice of his colleagues, she followed suit

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
Members of teaching dynasties explore what links them and what separates them in the first of our summer series, Relatively Speaking. For Bruce and Jan Robertson, it was a case of like father, like daughter

Bruce Robertson, director of education, learning and leisure, Aberdeenshire Council

I was born in 1951 at Ellon Cottage Hospital. The family home was in the fishing village of Collieston. We moved because of my father's job, to a post-war council estate at Bucksburn, in Aberdeen. He'd been in the Navy, then became a clerk at Aberdeen and Northern Marts. My mother was a librarian for the blind. There was a teacher in the family: my father's sister was at Collieston Primary before it closed in the 1940s.

Education was seen to be very, very important for my sister and me. We were the first generation of my family to go to university. I really enjoyed my days at Cloverfield Primary. I had an excellent teacher, Mrs Glennie, who lived on a croft which I occasionally visited. She was very thorough and managed to get much more out of me than some secondary teachers.

I was far less happy at Inverurie Academy. I found the change to streaming, in what was a very academically-motivated institution, quite difficult in terms of how I was thrown in with a whole new group of teachers and young people from different places. I struggled to keep my head above water.

I wasn't the easiest in school because I was easily distracted. I found if there was a subject or teacher I didn't find too interesting then, unfortunately, I didn't give it my best shot. I was far more interested in sports. Some of the learning and teaching styles were extremely boring.

One thing that was very wrong, was the culture of the belt, and how a minority of my teachers abused it. There was a custom of gratuitous violence and fear in some classrooms. That was very wrong. I was at the receiving end on a number of occasions. I didn't respect those teachers in any way and, unfortunately, that probably rubbed off on my attitude.

The school had a fantastic reputation and an excellent and understanding headteacher, Norman Dixon, who was very good to me, particularly when I went into teaching. He knew every pupil by name and would stop you in the corridor and know your personal circumstances. It wasn't just a gift, it was something he worked hard at.

I almost left school in fourth year. I had ideas of joining the RAF, but was advised I was going to be far too tall for a pilot. If I'd followed the advice of the careers adviser, I'd have probably left, but my parents encouraged me not to do that, and I blossomed in S5 and S6.

A history teacher, Robbie Sim, and his colleagues in PE, saved me. Robbie had a major influence on my career, latterly as a history adviser in Grampian. His teaching style was very imaginative. He'd take me aside and say, "There's more to life than being good at sport." I could have fallen through the net but for the likes of Robbie and Norman.

From 15 onwards, I spent four summers in England working on building sites and motorway construction. The working conditions were very hard, more akin to the 19th century. We worked from six in the morning to nine at night. We lived in caravans on the motorway sites. I saw a completely different side of life. It motivated me to get into university.

I did history and economics at Aberdeen University and didn't really think about teaching until the end of my degree; I was never one of those people trying to map out a career. What got me in was unpaid youth work, during which I found I could strike up a rapport with young people.

After Northern College, I started as a history teacher at Bridge of Don Academy in 1974. By 1983 I was assistant rector at Westhill Academy. I had a rector, Peter Gibson, from whom I learned a great deal. We were doing things very differently. We had mixed-ability classes throughout; there'd be a whole morning or afternoon of a subject; in third and fourth year there was compulsory community studies, including work experience and voluntary service for all. We were before our time, and a lot of eyebrows were raised.

In 1990, I made the hard decision to go into the directorate. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and had a fairly meteoric rise, I suppose. The 17 years in classrooms served me well - I came across a number of people who hadn't had very much time in classrooms. A big influence was the late James Michie, Grampian director of education, who gave me sound advice when I became a young director in Highland, aged 47.

Jan was born in 1979. She had a set of drums as a teenager, and for a while wanted to head for London and become a punk rocker. By the time she was 15 or 16, she started thinking about teaching. I didn't discourage her, and one of the really sad chapters in all this is that quite a number of my ex-colleagues said: "Don't allow her to become a teacher" - I think because they felt the job had changed so much. I found that very disappointing.

She's really at home in teaching. Jan's always been a caring person, even as a child, but she's no push-over. She's so young and pupils can relate to her in a way they can't with older staff. I admire teachers today, because pupils' needs and parents' expectations are far more challenging than ever before.

We're both people whose glasses are half full, we tend to put pupils' needs first, and we've got the gift of relating to others; people feel comfortable talking to us. Unfortunately, I think some teachers talk down to pupils or parents, which can be intimidating.

It must be difficult at times for Jan to have her father in this role. If we'd felt it would be in any way difficult, I wouldn't have expressed an interest in the Aberdeenshire job. She's certainly quite happy to give me her views, whether she agrees or disagrees. When she has a very difficult issue to deal with, I sometimes give her a wee bit of advice. It's quite helpful for me on occasion to have a sharp reminder of what life's like for a teacher.

Jan Robertson, principal teacher of guidance, Ellon Academy, Aberdeenshire

I was very aware growing up that my dad was a teacher. My elder sister, Julie, and I used to go along with him to his school during the summer, and we'd run riot. I had to go along to a disco at his school when I was about 10, when it was getting to the stage that it's not cool to be with your parents.

I'd always wanted to do something that involved helping others. I did consider other professions, like psychology and social work, but I had a very positive experience of teaching. My mum's dad, Bob Riddel, was also a history teacher, at Ellon Academy. He'd been a station master at Kintore, and came into teaching quite late in life after the station closed in the 1960s.

My dad never really pushed me into teaching but never put me off either. He was keen for me to get experience before deciding, and while I was studying history and international relations at Aberdeen University, I got work in a school through a scheme run by BP. I wouldn't say Dad was a huge influence in my decision - I'd made up my own mind.

I think the first thing he said when I got my first job - I also went into history teaching - was to keep everybody onside, including the janitors and cleaners. If anything, they're the most important people in the school. He also gave me the attitude to treat everyone fairly, and not go into things with preconceived ideas.

It just so happened I started as a teacher at Dingwall Academy in 2001, when dad was education director at Highland Council. We were thinking, "Oh, how are people going to react?" But, to be honest, I've always felt people have taken me for who I am. A lot were delighted when they heard Dad was coming back as Aberdeenshire director. I think we've both got over finding ourselves at the same meeting.

We do get into trouble from my mother, sister and partner for talking shop. We're quite similar in trying to do the best we can for young people, but we might have differing views with my being at the chalkface. That might be to do with the structuring and management of certain things.

But on the big issues we're on the same sheet. He's always been quite good at keeping his finger on what's going on in schools. He knows I think guidance teachers have got a really raw deal. Fewer and fewer young people want to go into guidance because they see the workload we have to deal with, which does make you feel a bit under-appreciated and unworthy. The job-sizing just does not reflect what we do. My dad is very sympathetic to that.

I'm happy in my role. I don't envy my dad, having to keep all the schools happy. I like to think I'm more sympathetic to some of the tough decisions that have to be made, in terms of budgets. It doesn't come easily to him. Sometimes others don't realise that.

I'd rather be dealing with the kids at school. I think sometimes he does miss being in class because he always did have a really good relationship with young people. I come across a lot of people who had him as a teacher, and they're always very positive. It's really nice hearing that.

As told to Henry Hepburn.

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