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Me and my teacher: We look at mentors that inspired you

After the tragic deaths of two Co Antrim teachers sparked tributes from pupils, Kerry McKittrick finds out about other unforgettable mentors

Published 02/04/2015

Master class: the school teacher in classic film Goodbye Mr Chips
Master class: the school teacher in classic film Goodbye Mr Chips
Jacqui Breen
Helen Hanley
Jamie Delargy
Vita Liberata chief executive and founder Alyson Hogg
Nichola Mallon
Peter Snodden
Dan Gordon

When it comes to childhood experiences, school can be a chore, a drag, a boring way to spend part of the day. Just about everyone will have a memory of sitting through a class - anything from physics to history - watching the minute hand of the clock crawl round until the bell rings while the teacher drones on and on.

However, some lucky souls have found themselves in the company of teachers who not only didn't bore them, but inspired them. Indeed, the news recently has been full of stories of teachers who have touched the hearts and minds of their pupils.

Since passing away from ovarian cancer earlier this year, tributes have flowed in for much-loved Greenisland Primary School teacher Jacqui Breen.

Her husband Dermot has spoken of receiving emails from Jacqui's former pupils who, even though they are now adults, have fond memories of her encouraging learning through play.

And the school itself has chosen to remember Jacqui by naming their new outdoor playground in her honour.

Meanwhile, Helen Hanley, a primary school teacher from Newtownabbey, died shortly after her diagnosis of a brain tumour last year. Colleagues and pupils at Abbots Cross Primary School decided to honour her memory by raising funds for Macmillan Cancer and held a Run A Mile In Memory Of Mrs Hanley event recently. Together they managed to raise £6,000.

Tributes also flooded in recently too when two nuns who had dedicated themselves to education - Sister Frances Forde and Sister Marie Duddy - died in a tragic car crash in October last year.

These are just a select few of the teachers that educate and inspire young minds across Northern Ireland every day. The right teacher can start any person on a career path or journey that will last them for most of their lives. Many of us have fond memories of those particular teachers who made their subjects come alive.

We talk to five well-known people about the teachers who have inspired them.

'He's the reason I won a place at Cambridge'

Jamie Delargy (61) is the business editor of UTV. He is married to Claire and they have three grown-up children. He says:

My favourite teacher has sadly since passed away. His name was John McClean and he took me for maths at St MacNissi's College, Garron Tower, near Carnlough, in Co Antrim.

He taught me almost every one of the seven years that I was there. I found him completely inspirational in terms of mathematics. It was a subject I liked but had always found it difficult, but he communicated it so well to me that I found it easy. Those were the classes I really looked forward to and the ones I enjoyed. He was definitely the reason I was able to win a place at Cambridge University to study mathematics.

It was the one year that John McClean didn't take me for mathematics that I slipped back.

It surprised me and made me appreciate even more what he was doing for me.

It wasn't just that he was a good teacher, it was also that he was a very warm person and related well to everyone. He was a popular teacher at the school in general, but many people don't like maths so they probably didn't have the same warm memories.

I found that he was generationally different from the other teachers in that he was someone you could chat to. This was in a different age when many teachers still used the strap. Mr McClean wasn't that much older than us - he arrived not long after he graduated so he didn't seem like a different generation.

About seven years later I was in Cushendall Golf Club and a man with a big beard approached me, telling me he had taught me at school. It turned out to be John McClean, but I hadn't recognised him because of the beard. I didn't get the chance then to say thank-you for everything he had done for me so although he has passed away, I'm glad I can say thank-you now. I always wanted to put it on record!"

'She taught me the power of being positive and happy in life'

Alyson Hogg (52) is the founder and CEO of tanning product company Vita Liberata. She divides her time between Belfast and New York with her husband, Colin Lewis, and they have five children between them. She says:

There were several teachers I remember negatively but certainly two that I remember positively from my days at Coleraine High School for Girls.

First of all there was my English teacher for all the years up to GCSE, Mr McIvor. He also ran the drama department and I liked to act.

Mr McIvor really knew how to bring books to life and to engage the class. You felt that he loved what he was teaching and loved the drama. Once, he let me off my English homework so I could learn my lines for a play.

I was only 14 when he cast me in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals and I had the lead as Captain Absolute. It was probably because I was the tallest girl in the school, but I was on stage with 17 and 18-year-olds who seemed much more mature at the time. I was incredibly nervous and broke down into floods of tears as I entered the building to go on stage.

Mr McIvor came along and made me laugh which put me at ease, and meant I could go on stage no problem.

The other teacher was the sports teacher, as I was much more interested in extra-curricular activities.

Her name was Rosie King, she was another person who really engaged with me.

She was very encouraging and happy, and really taught me the power of being positive and happy in life.

She was a wonderful woman and I've never forgotten her.

From both of those teachers I learned about being part of a team. I learned about pulling together and getting things done."

'She was a person who guided you through school and life'

Nichola Mallon (34) is the outgoing Lord Mayor of Belfast. She lives in Belfast with her husband, Brendan, and they are expecting their first child. She says:

There are two teachers who spring to my mind straight away. Sister Frances was my reception teacher at Mercy Primary School on the Crumlin Road and eventually became my principal. She was one of those people who guided you not only through school, but also through life. Right up to her tragic death in a car crash last year she would have stopped me when she saw me to ask how I was doing. One of the first things I did when I became Lord Mayor was to go back to my old primary school and she gave me a big hug.

In St Dominic's we had a very young politics teacher called Mr Scott, who had come straight from university to teach us for A-level. I think that his age and his enthusiasm was really infectious for us. I was always interested in politics, but he challenged the class to go and actually find out about political parties and join one if we were that interested. I went off and got all of the manifestos of the parties, and joined the SDLP at the age of 17 - I wasn't even old enough to vote.

Other people I know who went to different schools also talk about that inspirational teacher that they looked up to.

It's different for every individual, but it would be difficult to go from the ages of four to 18 without finding someone who inspires you."

'We'd do our own radio show for the last bit of class on Fridays'

Pete Snodden (34) is a Cool FM DJ and lives in Bangor with his wife Julia and their daughters Ivanna (3) and Elayna (5 months). He says:

The first person that opened my eyes to radio was my P6 teacher, Richard Hazley, at Bangor Central Primary School.

If memory serves me correctly my class were his first year of teaching at that school and we were camped out in one of those mobile classrooms. Richard was a great guy and had studied to be a teacher at Stranmillis College, which had a student radio station at the time.

Just before Richard left the college, the radio station updated all of their equipment and he bought the old stuff. He brought it into school and set it all up in the storeroom at the back of the classroom. On Friday afternoons I would go in and play old vinyl LPs and we would do our own radio show for the last bit of class. When the school fairs or discos were on, he would again set up the equipment at the back of the room and I would play the music while people came to the fair.

I can remember back then thinking to myself that I would really like to work in radio. He was also one of those teachers who would bring the best out of you, even if you were rubbish at a particular subject.

The other teacher who was a big influence was called Simon Bell. He took me for biology at Belfast Inst and he was also the man who introduced me to hockey - a sport I still play. I was toying with the idea of playing rugby but Simon told me, 'I think you have it as a hockey player'. He was also the sort of teacher that you wanted to do the best for, for him as well as yourself. I wasn't great at biology, but I enjoyed it because he taught it."

'Five of us went on to the media or stage'

Dan Gordon (49) is an actor and playwright and lives in Belfast with his wife Kathy and their daughters Sarah (26), Hannah (23), Martha (17). He says:

I went to Strand Primary School in east Belfast - I think it's now called Victoria Primary School. My P6 teacher was a lady called Miss Johnston and she was quite new, still finding her own feet. She was great to us and I always remember being in her class. We built lollipop stick cowboy and Indian forts. She was very creative and did choral speaking with us too.

My P7 teacher was called David Kennedy, who was much more mature. Each Friday afternoon he would put his feet on my desk and read us Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. It was the highlight of my week. He was a firm, but fair teacher and great with kids.

In secondary school it was a teacher called Michael Tregenna, who only retired a couple of years ago. That was in Sullivan Upper in Holywood. He opened my eyes to the world of literature and plays. When we read the plays that were on the curriculum, he would hand out the parts and make us act them out so we really understood them. It really brought literature to life and plays came off the page. Again, he was another who understood children and could communicate with them.

I had him for a couple of years in junior school and then was handed over to Charlie Grime for the senior school. Each year he produced a Shakespeare play and that was my introduction to the Bard. In fourth year I played The Host of the Garter Inn in the Merry Wives of Windsor, but Falstaff was played by Dermot Murnaghan, who now reads the news on ITN, and Master Brook was played by John Northover, who went on to direct the television show Have I Got News For You.

There were other fellows in it, too, including Wallace McDowell, who is now a professor of drama at Warwick University, but used to be a production manager at the Lyric Theatre, and Tommy Beatie, who ran the Scottish Ballet.

There were at least five of us in that group alone who went into the worlds of media or the stage. Those years are what formed us and helped point us in the right direction. It takes some people longer to decide what direction they want to go, but those teachers really helped to shape me.

I loved school and I still love institutions now. I work with prisoners and the Orange Order, and even my most recent Christmas play - Mistletoe & Crime - was about the police. You can certainly say they rubbed off on me.

I got very lucky, I really enjoyed school and those four teachers certainly put me on the path I'm on."

Five best on-screen teachers

Louanne Johnson, Dangerous Minds - Michelle Pfeiffer's character started out of her depth when teaching English in a gang-infested inner-city US school. She soon begins to whip her band of misfits into shape

Mr Keating, Dead Poets Society - the English teacher played by Robin Williams who taught buttoned-up schoolboys to think outside of the box. He tried his best but couldn't beat the establishment - if you don't well up at the 'Oh Captain, my Captain' scene, then you're made of steel

Bill Rago, Renaissance Man - down on his luck Danny DeVito finds himself teaching English to a group of low-achieving US Army recruits. Both class and teacher go on a journey of self-discovery while learning the highs and lows of Shakespeare's Henry V

Mark Thackery, To Sir, With Love - Sidney Poitier caused waves as a black American teacher in London's East End in this now iconic classroom drama

Mr Chipping, Goodbye, Mr Chips - the world's best-loved Latin teacher was played by both Robert Donat and Peter O'Toole in the 1939 and 1969 films respectively

Belfast Telegraph

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