The best teacher I ever knew


Teacher's handAlbert was 12 when he went to the juniorate, a boarding school where the boys were encouraged to think about becoming religious brothers. He was a good mixer, good at games and at his studies. After his Leaving Cert, he duly went to the novitiate where they put a robe on him and gave him a different name and he took a vow of obedience.

His teacher training was an intensive four-month period where he learned the skills that fitted him much better than the university courses of today. He was sent to different schools where he taught a full day and took cricket and football teams and did units for his degree whenever he could.

Teaching brothers don't have trade unions to fight their corner and in his final posting he was given dormitory duty in a boys home in addition to his high school classes, sport, class preparation, marking and various religious duties.

He lasted two years before he woke up one morning and couldn't remember where he was or what he was supposed to be doing. He was put in the St John of God hospital where, he told me, many of his fellow patients were nuns.

This was the 1960s. When his progress was slow they gave him ECT treatment; several hits, full strength, right out of Cuckoo's Nest.

Somehow he survived and his Provincial suggested he take a year away from schools and from the disciplines of the Order. They helped him get various jobs — storeman, taxi driver, others he couldn't remember — and eventually he left the brothers.

He met and married Nola and after some years, felt he was strong enough to go back to teaching. One of Sydney's most prestigious schools offered him a position which he turned down when he learned it would involve taking scripture in chapel. It was not a sectarian decision, but one based on a disability that would remain with him for the rest of his life.

He was about to take up an offer of a job in another private school when he was contacted by the Order he had left. He jumped at the chance and was back in an environment he knew well, but now without a vow of obedience.

He taught mathematics and completed his degree and was year master and maths master and assistant principal and spent his January composing the timetable on a large white board with different coloured shapes.

Computers passed him by and he had little patience for the new vocabularies — mission statements,  objectives, outcomes, benchmarks, goals and paradigms. He just wanted to be in the classroom.

When you teach in the next room, you get to know how your colleague is doing. Albert was the best teacher I ever knew. Top classes or remedial ones, nerds or footballers, were all the same to him — he was first a teacher of boys and then a teacher of maths. They loved him for his ease with them and the banter that was always respectful on both sides.

And every year of his teaching career, he took an RE class.

I mentioned a disability. Albert had a pathological fear of addressing a group of adults. He enrolled in a Masters and did all the units until the final one which required that he write and present a paper. The audience would be the dozen or so in the class and some members of faculty, people he knew, friends; he found some excuse to pull out and never finished the course.

He was once asked to speak on classroom management to new teachers or those like me who just wanted to know how he did it. He sat us in a classroom, serried rows, and convinced himself we were a year ten class. He gave a full lesson with variety and interaction and even homework.

I was there once when he taught an entire year group an introductory lesson on trigonometry. Not lectured or harangued, but taught: a proper class with questions, quiet work, interaction, exposition on a mobile whiteboard, a full 50 minutes. He could handle 220 year nines but not a dozen adults.

There is no punchline to this story. Albert retired just over ten years ago only to develop one serious illness after another. Who said life is fair? He played golf when he could but saw his once single-figure handicap balloon. In his many hospital stays, his former pupils were his most faithful visitors.

Albert died this year. His eulogist, a former colleague, punctuated his words with the sentence, 'He made a difference.' 


Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a Canberra writer. 

Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, religious, Church, education, unions



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Existing comments

A good teacher never knows where his or her influence ends. Sometimes it doesn't.

Gillian | 07 December 2011  

Frank, ECT is always full strength, like pregnancy; and though the patient's response looks terrible (or used to before they started doing it under general anaesthetic) it is totally painless in that the patient has absolutely no memory of it.

It has a bad press these days, especially since Cockoo's Nest, but sometimes it is the only means of saving a depressed person's life.

Michael Grounds | 07 December 2011  

Thanks, Frank.

I suspect I may be one of Albert's students from the '60s. If not, the Br Albert I had up to 1968 in a Western Sydney school had a remarkably similar ability. The fact that I went on to become a Maths teacher myself is partly due to his influence.

I loved my Maths classes and was quite upset when we were told mid-term 1 that he would not be back. "A nervous breakdown" was the word amongst the boys. We missed him terribly and. although we had very good teachers afterwards, it was never the same.

I never heard what happened to him. Vale, Albert, and thank you.

ErikH | 07 December 2011  

A beautiful story of Albert’s joys and sorrows telling what so many of us experienced in the 1950s and 60s to maintain a Catholic education tradition. Poorly prepared for the task and sustained by God’s grace and little else, we did our best ‘to make a difference’. Now as old men and women looking back on the great changes in our Catholics schools since , we can only hope and pray that our best then was good enough.

Brian | 07 December 2011  

Thank you Frank.

In my view, everyone in the world should sit down and write one thousand words on the best teacher I ever knew. And really the best teacher, no cheating with favourites, or just what you should say. We all owe others, most especially the best teacher I evere knew. Grown adults should be made to repeat this exercise every twenty years or so. It keeps you honest. Now in my fifties, I think of many of the teachers of my teens with wonder, even love, for all the things they did to make me see a broader vision of the world. And what thanks did they get at the time?

PHILIP HARVEY | 07 December 2011  

A beautiful piece, thanks Frank.

Andrew Chinn | 07 December 2011  

Thank you Frank for reminding us of a number of such 'Alberts' of the 1950-1960s who taught all day, tried to do their university studies after school and at weekends,and eventually suffered a complete breakdown in health & had to leave their religious congregation. Sadly, some of them could never teach again but they are remembered.

Gerard Rummery | 08 December 2011  

Thank you, Frank, for a magnificent tribute to those who carry the gift of teaching within them. Having just finished presenting a 5-day intensive unit on 'An introduction to Catholic education' with about 60 undergraduates at a public university in WA, I'm hoping I can share this story with another class the next time I teach this unit. What a tribute to those who live out that innate sense for what kids need - especially teenage boys - in the often thankless role of a teacher in secondary schools!

Alan | 09 December 2011  

Thanks Frank. God bless all those extraordinary nuns, brothers and priests who made a life's work of education, sometimes far from their own homeland.

Anne Slingo | 09 December 2011  

Gerard Rummery's comment strikes a heart-rending chord. As a mere pupil of the Brothers in the 60s I would never have had the remotest inkling of the pressures and difficulties they faced: they were simply authority figures with unusual names who taught and coached us. But there wasn't one whom I have ever forgotten, not even the training Scholastics who did practice lessons in the afternoons. They made a lasting impression on me and though it was only later that I appreciated they were people and not simply in a role for my benefit, I remember them with affection and respect. They represent, and were among, the more positive face of my youthful religion. Yours is a moving valedictory, Frank.

Stephen Kellett | 10 December 2011  

Many of the nuns who taught me in the 1950's were much better teachers than my University lecturers and tutors later on.

Marjorie, Brisbane | 10 December 2011  

This story was read to the staff of Padua College, Mornington Peninsula at our end of year Mass and struck a chord with all present

Paul | 17 December 2011  

I've been a teacher all my adult life and my inspiration has come from my family, my public school teachers, some from secondary school - during my university studies and from that point from colleagues and seniors - and historical personages. And I can name them all and the aspects of my own teacher life that they influenced. Gladys McLEAN was head teacher of the Infants section of West Tamworth PS and not even my classroom teacher - but she had to deal with my unruly behaviour in the next-door classroom on a daily basis. Which was to sit me down on the side of her classroom with a book till the next break for "play-lunch" or lunch or going home time. She understood that my own long-suffering young teacher had not yet developed the capacity to cope with my thirst for engagement. In 3rd class and in 5th class I had Joe SHANAHAN - firstly to encourage my active mind, latterly to thrill me/us with his passion for Australian literature (latter 1950s) and in 6th class Rich TORRENS who was the best of story-tellers and who understood the power of predicting positive futures - bursaries and university were in his vision for me - and I escaped neither! And for some kind of further balance to these things in secondary school at Tamworth High - a marvellous English teacher Brian NEILL who did special things for us - and fostered engagement in debating - and our junior Science teacher Helen GILLARD who cared for us whether we were good at her subject or not - and I was not, no matter how I tried - but her love (as we would read it nowadays) was unconditional!

I spent many years teaching in Japanese schools and universities in the west of the country where I came across an extraordinary historical figure - YOSHIDA Shoin (1830-1859) who said one should be proud of one's home-town/region - be diligent and focussed and sincere, associating with good friends, always reading/studying - looking to the world/learning best in one-to-one situations or else in co-operative endeavour - no distinction between classes - of equality - advocating education for girls and sticking up for those suffering discrimination - the untouchables and the Ainu. He didn't believe that testing promoted learning - and wrote private letters of encouragement to his students. He was executed in the Ansei Purges (of many bright young men - threats to the final dying embers of the Edo Era Tokugawa régime) - but his students/disciples (?) went on to flee the country to study at London University - and to become prime ministers, foreign minister, diplomats and bureaucrats - the movers and shakers of the modernisation of Japan - father of the Mint, of Japan Rail - of Technical Education!

Robert Louis STEVENSON wrote a sketch on him first published in The Cornhill Magazine in 1980 "Yoshida Torajiro"! We are fortunate to have teachers to inspire us - even more privileged to become teachers - always understanding the great tradition of "kindness and praise" (with which -so said Roger ASCHAM - teacher to the two Tudor princesses - one should teach) that it is our responsibility to pass on to succeeding generations.

jim KABLE | 19 February 2012  


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