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How my teacher taught me a lesson for life

Kerry McKittrick meets four well-known local people who say their futures were inspired in the classroom

By Kerry McKittrick

Published 23/07/2016

Top class: Radio presenter Vinny Hurrell’s St Michael’s Primary School class photograph, with him and favourite teacher Mrs McErlean.
Top class: Radio presenter Vinny Hurrell’s St Michael’s Primary School class photograph, with him and favourite teacher Mrs McErlean.
The broadcaster today
Creative mind: presenter Vinny Hurrell in the BBC studios at Broadcast House
Vinny Hurrell as a schoolboy
School of thought: Dan Gordon’s class at Sullivan, with teacher Charlie Grimes in the front row, sixth from right
Dan at primary school age
Write stuff: Dan Gordon today
Mary Doherty
Winning recipe: chef and author Paula McIntyre says teachers helped inspire her love of writing

In the course of their long careers, every schoolteacher will have former pupils pay tribute to them for the contribution made during their formative years; for example, sparking a passion that went on to have a huge effect on their lives. Not every teacher, though, will have an international rock star thank them for launching them on the path to stardom.

Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody, did just that; thanking Mark McKee, his teacher at Campbell College in Belfast, for introducing him to Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. This introduction, Lightbody said, had sparked his 20-year career in the music industry and led to global stardom.

In return, Mr McKee paid tribute to the Bangor musician, comparing him to his literary hero Seamus Heaney, saying they were both grounded, dedicated individuals who never forgot their roots.

And Gary and Mark remain in contact after all these years.

Here, four well-known local people pay tribute to the teacher who made the biggest impression on them, and explain how they set them on their chosen path.

Vinny Hurrell (34) is a radio producer and will be presenting The Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster next week. He lives in Belfast with his partner. He says:

I went to St Michael's Primary School in Randalstown before moving to St Olcan's - I think it's now called St Benedict's. After that, I went to Rainey Endowed in Magherafelt for Lower Sixth, but my parents decided to move down south, so I finished my education down there.

There's one teacher in particular who springs to mind when I think back to those days.

Her name is Anne McErlean and she was my primary six and seven teacher - you tend to have the same teacher for both of those years. She was one of those people who always seemed to put in extra effort and extra time. I really loved doing art and creative things and it always seemed that Mrs McErlean would go out of her way to give me projects and things that I could be involved with.

I had a lot of great teachers, but Mrs McErlean took things that little bit further. I was devastated to leave her class.

On the last day of P7, I was walking back to the shop my dad had in Randalstown.

Two or three people had to stop their cars to ask if I was okay, because I was in floods of tears at the thought of leaving her behind.

Ultimately, I went on to Staffordshire University to study journalism and media.

It wasn't until then that I found the same fun and enjoyment as I had in Mrs McErlean's class. I wasn't able to find that again until I had pared away all of the subjects I didn't want to do.

In Mrs McErlean's class, it was okay to like learning and like what you were doing.

It was okay to find a subject and be passionate about it.

Even if there were subjects I wasn't particularly good at, she would put the effort in to help steer me.

That's stayed with me as I got older.

It's okay to stay with the things you like and enjoy, instead of studying more academic subjects."

'I think, because you don't listen to your parents, school can really spark an interest in you'

Dan Gordon (46) is an actor and playwright. He lives in Belfast with his wife Kathy and their daughters, Sarah (26), Hannah (23) and Martha (17). He says:

I had some great teachers when I was growing up and I even ended up training as a teacher. I went to Strand Primary School in east Belfast. I had Mrs Johnston in P6, who taught us choral speaking, and, in P7, Mr Kennedy, who sat with his feet on my desk and read us Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.

A big influence on me was my English teacher - they tend to be great communicators - called Mike Tregenna. He's only just retired and they asked me back to pay tribute to him.

He taught me in my junior years at Sullivan Upper in Holywood. Charlie Grimes took me in my senior years.

Charlie was the one who taught me Shakespeare. Also in my class were Dermot Murnaghan, who now reads Sky News, JFD Northover, who now directs Have I Got News For You and Tommy Beattie, who ran the Scottish Ballet, so we all got motivated by Charlie. He gave us a whole insight into plays and playwrights.

He's passed away now, but the school has named their theatre after him.

He would break down the plays for us - we always put on school plays.

I've been very lucky in all stages of my education and I tried to follow in their footsteps, but I found it too hard.

I only "subbed" as a teacher for a while before I became an actor. Funnily enough, I even had a message from a guy on Facebook, who told me I changed his life. I couldn't have taught him for very long, so I found that extraordinary. I think, because you don't listen to your parents, teachers can really spark an interest in you.

I loved school, even though I wasn't that good academically. I loved the social side of things.

This was during the heart of the Troubles, so if you didn't go out for a school thing, then you didn't get out at all.

Teachers are fantastic - it's a job I couldn't do, because it was too hard.

You might be shouting at some fellow for forgetting his homework, but you don't know what his home life is like, or what's going through his head.

It's difficult to see individuals in a class of 30."

'I would not be writing or broadcasting now if it had not been for three teachers in particular at Dalriada'

Paula McIntyre (49) is a food writer and broadcaster and lives in Portstewart. She says:

I went to Coleraine High and then left for Dalriada School in Ballymoney to do my A-Levels. Coleraine High was a good school, but everything changed when I went to Dalriada. It was more about teaching you to think for yourself and to analyse things.

Two teachers in particular have always stood out. Roy Alcorn and Mary Doherty both taught me English and they were both brilliant.

They constantly asked me what I thought of literature and there was never really a wrong answer.

They also introduced me to Tennessee Williams and he has remained a life-long love. I keep going back to him over and over.

I knew I wanted to go into catering, but my parents weren't keen, so I kept it quiet.

It wasn't much of an option for a woman back then and they thought it was a waste of A-Levels.

I'm so glad I did do those A-Levels, though, and that I did them at that school. I write every day now and use the things that I was taught by Roy and Mary. I went off and studied catering, but I have continued to read and to love literature since there.

I also loved my ancient history teacher, Lynne Vincent.

She was so full of fun; she really made the subject come alive.

None of those teachers were intimidating and they wanted to know what I thought.

They all have influenced what path I followed in my life.

I certainly wouldn't broadcast, or write, now if they hadn't given me the courage to do it."

'He'd long hair and dressed like someone from Spandau Ballet'

Leesa Harker (36) is a playwright. She lives in Belfast with her daughters, Lola (8) and Lexi (5). She says:

I went to Seaview Primary School and, in P5, I had Mr Irvine. He was just out of training college and was absolutely brilliant.

He was the kind of teacher who was "in with the kids" without trying to be.

He looked really cool, too; he had long hair and dressed like someone from Spandau Ballet, with a long tweed coat. The mothers at the school gates were all of a flutter.

He was great fun and I probably didn't appreciate him as much as I should have at the time.

My girls go to the same primary school now and I hope they end up in his class.

He comes to my plays now and looks the same age to me as he did when I was at school.

Another teacher I had was Miss Moneypenny, who taught me French at the Girls' Model. She came into class and told everyone to laugh at her name, so we could get it out of the way at the beginning. I remember thinking I liked her just because of that.

She was another one who was one of us, without trying to be one of us."

Belfast Telegraph

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