Today is World Teachers’ Day and an excellent opportunity to pause, reflect and recognise the contribution that our teachers make. – Michael Russell, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning.
Ever since Sir John Jones keynote at the Scottish Learning Festival last month I have been doing exactly that; reflecting and recognising the huge impact one particular teacher has had on my academic career. Sir Jones keynote talked about a person’s Magic-weaver, he claimed that if you had one you would know instantly, without deliberation. Only one name sprang to my mind: Mr Smith.
I attended Charleston Academy, Inverness, from 2001 to 2007. Mr Smith was my first year Religious and Moral Education (RME) teacher. He told us within our first few days that he would see our year through to our leaver’s ceremony and then he would retire. I always remembered this; it was as though he held an unbreakable bond with our entire year. We were holding him to the school and there was something incredible powerful in that.
I never sat Standard Grade RME; a decision I do not regret; but just before summer, at the end of 5th year, I went on a school trip to Rome, and quite literally everything changed.
I was there as part of my Higher art class, but we were joined by Standard Grade RME and Mr Smith. My pivotal moment of the trip, a moment that I will remember forever, was walking through the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. The architecture, the art, the passion, it was overwhelming and by no means overdramatic to now say that it was a life changing experience. I am not Catholic, at times I’m not even religious, but standing at the heart of such magnificence, such unapologetic sanctity, moved me to tears and my world was forever altered.
Back in our hotel I found myself being cornered by Mr Smith and all of a sudden discussing me taking on Advanced Higher RME the following year (baring in mind I hadn’t even done Standard Grade!) But he had watched me as I breathed in the magnificence of the Holy See, he observed my enthusiasm as I absorbed as much information as I possibly could, asked as many questions as I could think of, and he decided that he believed in me. I was never the best academic, never the worst either, I fell into the middle bracket of those who plodded along with little notice; the surge of appreciation I had towards the teacher before me was unexplainable. His belief in me sparked a belief in myself that I never had before. I was always inquisitive, but being encouraged to explore this part of my nature was new.
In the end I decided to sit the Higher course; Advanced Higher with no prior experience was a little daunting! I actually took RME over Advanced Higher art; already this amazing teacher was changing my path without really being aware of it. I was always going to take Advanced art, build my portfolio and assess the possibility of art school, Mr Smith changed everything; and I know that no other teacher would have had the same effect on me. It is true that Rome sparked a deep interest in religion that I hadn’t possessed before, but I took RME because of the teacher, not the subject.
I think anyone who has ever attended Charleston and been taught by Mr Smith will agree that he carried an infectious aura that was impossible to dislike. It’s as difficult to explain now why I was so enthralled by him as it was when I was a first year; but I guess that’s all part of the magic. He allowed me to embrace, explore, test and deny my faith all in an hour’s lesson; he encouraged expression; opinion; critical thought. Not once did he force his belief upon us, instead he listened to ours and helped each individual flourish in their own way. He understood that dictated belief was false and so he encouraged us to foster our own. He wanted us to be informed, to push the boundaries, and at the same time he taught respect for other belief systems. He made me realise that I was an individual, that my opinion mattered, and that I didn’t have to follow the grain; in fact he promoted going against such. I completely changed as a person in my final year at school. I became more independent, more self assured, more confident in my convictions, and it was all thanks to Mr Smith.
My last day in Charleston was also Mr Smith’s last day. The strange connection that he held with my year was amplified in our last RME class; a sense of we did it crept over us all. For me it was like he was my own personal guide through those scary six years, only present at Charleston to see me through it; he welcomed me into the security of secondary education, he prepared me for the world beyond and when it was time for me to leave, he left too. Job done.
I received an A in RME and I went on to receive a 2.1 honours degree in Law; a degree I chose after fostering my inquisitive and analytical skills under Mr Smith’s instruction. My degree brought out my passion for equality and justice – something so intrinsically liked to RME I don’t think I need to point it out – and led me to my first graduate job; researching the best means of achieving equal access to a first class education throughout the Highlands. Everything comes back to that fateful trip to Rome and the amazingly inspirational Mr Smith. I guess at the end of the day all education needs is a few million teachers like him…
Today, on World Teacher’s Day, I want to extend a sincere, heartfelt thank you to Mr Smith; my Magic-weaver.