Thank heaven for Uncle Bobs

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
It is a characteristic of our nation and perhaps our profession that we feel comfortable praising Caesar only after we have buried him. To do things in the opposite order leaves us open to the charge of being a sook, if only from ourselves.

So I come to my friend and colleague Robert Kirkhope who has passed over from this land to that of early retirement. I am writing this during his last week of teaching. By the time it is published he will be buzzing around Lanark on a little Honda and I hope he chooses to buzz schoolwards now and again.

For 10 years a pal in the chemistry department, I referred to this genial assistant headteacher guidance as "Uncle Bob" (behind his back, of course). Nothing could have been less of an insult, for he was indeed avuncular. He also was, and doubtless still is, a gentleman in the least corny sense of the word. In an age of sharp suits and power dressers, he arrived in school, always on foot, wearing a light jacket, dark trousers, a deerstalker and bright tie.

I became increasingly convinced that the tie contained a "magic eye" 3D picture that would reveal the secret of the universe should I ever manage to focus on it.

Uncle Bob had a light teaching load, being an assistant head. His favourite class was the fifth-year chemistry module. When the course was introduced he was wary of it. Many of us feel bound by Scotvec's rigid learning outcome approach but Robert was set free by it because he had the imagination to cover the outcomes in ways that interested him.

We used the same classroom and I would return to it from computing to find the air fragrant with the smell of baking bread. Robert didn't believe that a lesson on enzymes and catalysts should be based around a blackboard.

Teaching was not his first job. He had a spell in the RAF and spent several years working for a paint manufacturing company because a clerk at an employment office, seeing that Robert had a degree in chemistry and was interested in art, thought it the logical place for him to seek work. He loved the job because it took him into a huge variety of industrial situations, though he probably had more chance to exercise his creative bent as a teacher.

Few can have failed to appreciate his spectacular Christmas decorations. What I appreciated more was his openness. Robert was not afraid to admit that he still had the odd bad time with particular classes. Hearing this from someone of his experience was an immense comfort.

I'll remember Robert surrounded by eager first-years on one of his glorious Lake District trips. I'll remember him taking over the photocopy room as, with scissors, gold tape and Pritt Stick, he created his fabulous decorations. I'll remember his encouragement every second Friday when he would always comment on my TESS article of the day. If he hadn't liked it he indicated so by naming a piece he had preferred.

I have no doubt that there are scores of teachers out there who could do the chemistry teaching or AHT guidance part of Robert's job as well. I can give the Exam Board and the senior management team a few names myself if they are interested. What I would find much more difficult would be to suggest a candidate who could fill the large, deep Uncle Bob-shaped hole in our school.

Gregor Steele regrets that the first thing Uncle Bob did when his retirement was confirmed was to cancel his TES Scotland.

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