See you, Jimmy.
The man opposite looked up from my CV and said:
“Hmm. Celtic history, I see. So you’re a Celtic supporter?”
Twenty three years old and innocent, and being interviewed for my first teaching post, I replied bright eyed:
“No, no – it’s Keltic with a hard C. Actually, I’m a Hibs supporter!”
He put the paper down and looked at me.
“Really? I’m afraid I don’t have that pleasure….”
My heart sank – I really thought I’d blown my chances.
Luckily, Jimmy Barbour was much much bigger than that, he was winding me up, had I known it, I got the job, and when I heard of his death today, one day short of his 90th birthday, I thought how appropriate it was that a man so full of heart should die on Valentine’s Day.
For the first five years of my teaching career, Jimmy was my Headteacher. His influence on my career was enormous and yet he was a man of the most understated nature in his approach to school leadership.
It was he who identified me as a possible guidance teacher, encouraged me to apply for a post, and set me on my way to a successful and very happy career in that area of teaching. He saw qualities in me of which I was totally ignorant, gave me confidence I didn’t realise I had, and certainly recognised how to get the best out of me.
Headteachers bring a personality to a school. Some are brash and highly focused, and consistently at the centre of everything; you would never be in any doubt as to whose school it was. This can be a successful approach, if the heidie listens to his staff and takes them with him – the Iron Duke galloping along at the head of his troops. Of course, it can also be an ego trip of a disaster, causing resentment and anger, with pupils and staff left far behind as he (or she) trail their clouds of glory.
Jimmy was the complete opposite of such a model. Like many who have high skills, he operated almost invisibly. People would go in to his room upset about something, make the point forcefully, and emerge having agreed to do what had originally been upsetting them – and feeling as if they had won a victory.
I remember my first year probationer review – a big “state of the union” moment for any young teacher. He had moved his office from the entrance of the school to a nondescript room off one of the interior corridors. I thought it a weird decision at the time, though later, as a Depute, I could well understand the merits of being stationed in the midst of school life, rather than at a distance.
He bumped into me outside the door one day and asked me in for a chat. There was some banter about football and he commented on how well I had settled in, my work in the English classroom, what I was contributing to extra-curricular activities, and my enthusiasm. Strangely, he mentioned no date for my probation interview, but I left feeling confident it would go well.
A couple of days later, in my staffroom pigeonhole, was a fully signed and dated probationer Review – it had been painless and effective, a typically “Jimmy Barbour operation.” As I taught both his daughter and his son at various times, I was relieved that the message seemed to have gone home that I was “ok”!
At the beginning of my second year in teaching, after a Parents’ Night, the staff were in Bennets’s bar in Tollcross, a favourite watering hole near the school. I turned from the bar with a couple of drinks to find Jimmy standing there:
“Have you ever thought about being a guidance teacher?” he asked, taking a pint from me.
“Well, you should – there’s a post available.”
By the time I sat down I had agreed to apply. I was successful, was a Principal Teacher of Guidance by the age of 26 and ended up as a Depute leading a guidance team. It was a career I loved, focusing on an area for which I obviously had an aptitude – which Jimmy had seen and I had not. I had him to thank for guiding me with a gentle hand.
He operated with a sense of humour and a kindness which myself and my colleagues, as probationers, didn’t always spot. If there was a way of gaining benefits for the staff or pupils, he would make sure they were accessed, but he would seldom reveal that they had occurred through his intent. He had many managerial skills, but he deployed them subtly and positively. It was always about the school, not about Jimmy.
In the late seventies, there were a series of teacher strike actions – largely about conditions and resources rather than pay. It was a difficult time. Our school, St Thomas’s, was a caring and close community, we had good links with parents, and operated in a child centred fashion. Despite that, or more probably, because of that, we were a militant staff, committed to fighting for the best for pupils, and so we became one of the schools chosen for “unofficial strike action” on a rolling basis.
In terms of school management, this meant that each of us who were striking, because it was “unofficial”, had to see the Headteacher personally, and inform him that we would be taking action. He then had to inform the local authority, who would place a disciplinary letter in our files noting the fact.
Jimmy did this very professionally, and copies of our letters duly appeared in our pigeonholes.
On the Wednesday afternoon, we left school and gathered in the East End of Edinburgh for a teachers’ march along Princes St.
As we passed what was still then the GPO, one of my colleagues nudged me. There on the steps, his reactolite glasses dark in the sun, head held high, was Jimmy, proudly watching his staff march by – for all the world like a leader reviewing his troops.
It was a moment which had a huge impact on me, and on my colleagues. What a gesture of absolute support, executed with minimal fuss, never mentioned again, simply a headteacher sending a message of how much he valued his staff. When I became a Depute over a decade later, Jimmy on the steps of the GPO was one of the images I carried with me – I tried to remember always that I was a teacher first and a manager second, and that the wellbeing of pupils and staff should always be my priority.
Jimmy was a great man for the football – for years he signed on as an O Grade English night class student at Telford College, to ensure he and his mates could play indoor football in their gym each Thursday evening. Celtic FC remained a passion but he had a general interest in the game as well.
When Scotland played Wales in the World Cup qualifier at Anfield in 1978, I managed to get two tickets. It would mean missing a couple of classes in the afternoon, but if we travelled home through the night after the game, we would be available for the next day. Jimmy weighed up the amount of extracurricular work myself and my pal put into the school and decided it was a just reward that we should be allowed to go: the type of kindness he showed in different ways to many staff at the school – it wasn’t strictly within the rules, but then like a lot of mavericks in those days, Jimmy could be comfortable bending the rules if he felt it was in the interests of school, pupils or staff.
I think he was quite calculating in presenting an image that undercut his skills and experience. Folk who underestimated him, especially in the local authority, often found he had bested them both expertly and invisibly. He had been a leading councillor down in Ayrshire and was justifiably proud of a civic sewage scheme which he had piloted and seen through to completion. However, he gave the appearance sometimes of being a little overwhelmed by his role, but it was a deception – he knew what he wanted to do and he generally got his way. The welcoming and caring atmosphere in the school, and the success in all areas of its pupils, was a testament to his leadership – as were the subsequent careers of his staff.
In later years, I never addressed a staff meeting without remembering Jimmy at his mystifying best. There was an unpopular change that had to be made – possibly to the timetable – and it fell to Jimmy to impose it. He stood up in front of a fairly fractious staff meeting and began:
“You have decided……well, we have decided….ahem……it has been decided that…….oh, alright, I have decided that…..”
By the time we stopped laughing, the change had been agreed.
The year I started teaching was the year that St Thomas’s became a co-educational school – previously it had been a girls’ school – originally run by nuns. It was a difficult transition – especially as it coincided with the Raising of the School Leaving Age, and was to be implemented year by year – that is with boys starting in the first year, so it would take six years for the school to become fully mixed.
I was unaware at the time that, with these changes in mind, Jimmy had started on a recruitment campaign to lower the age and mix the gender of the staff cohort – hence the reason why I was a favoured candidate as a 23 year old male. It was typical that Jimmy would plan ahead in that manner. The staff he put together were highly skilled, enthusiastic, energetic, caring, and talented young folk, and together we supported each other into the best start you could possibly wish to your career, friends as well as colleagues, committed to education, innovation and progress, and to our pupils. It was a time when anything seemed possible. Jimmy chose well.
So when he announced his early retirement – he was only in his mid-fifties – it came as a shock to the staff. In fact, at first, we were incredulous. However, he explained that the way education was going, he could see he would have less and less control as a headteacher, particularly in the area of choosing staff, and, as he felt that was his only major talent, he thought the time was right for him to go. It was a typically self deprecating exit, and time and events probably proved his fears were well founded.
I bumped into him regularly thereafter.
One time, as we left a funeral together, he complimented me on my promotion to Depute. Then he added:
“I always thought you’d be headteacher of St Thomas’s one day.”
I had never had an ambition to be a Head, but it was comforting to hear Jimmy, thirty five years or so after that chat in Bennet’s Bar, still finding a way of encouraging me to be the best I could be.
Later still, I discovered he had a talent and an enjoyment for writing cowboy novels. They were very good, and, somehow, typical of a hobby which Jimmy would pursue.
When I retired from teaching I wrote a book about my education experiences – from my first day at school to the end of my teaching career. Naturally, Jimmy’s influence on my teaching career featured, and I was glad to get the chance to acknowledge his effect on my career by sending him a copy of the book.
I arrived home some time later to a message on the answer phone from Jimmy, thanking me for the book and saying he had no idea of the impact he had had, and wishing me well. It was typically Jimmy: to the point, brief, and understated. It meant a lot to me.
He was a talented and complicated man, thoughtful and gentle in his approach, who made a huge difference to the lives of the staff and pupils for whom he worked – I could not have hoped for a better introduction to a a career in education.
Looking for a final representative image of Jimmy, I find myself back in my first year in teaching.
With the innocence and daring of youth, and having noticed a few of our staff bore a passing resemblance to the Broons of Glebe St, I wrote a staff Christmas pantomime based on the famous family.
Nearly everyone was in it, but we wanted a cameo role for Jimmy. Obviously, he would have to be the family patriarch, Grandpaw.
Fair enough – he sportingly agreed, and we wrote the play along the lines of the family being worried about Grandpaw, and whether he would make it for the Bells.
Right on cue, Jimmy appeared at the end.
The idea was that he would burst through the door to huge applause and then, as part of our curtain call, he would thank everyone for coming, and wish them a happy Christmas.
The big night arrived, Jimmy was primed, and his costume was perfect – bunnet, dark suit, waistcoat, and big beard (though for some reason he had made it yellow rather than white).
When he entered through the door, the audience, made up of pupils and parents, went wild. These were the early days of staff pantos; the reaction had steadily risen in excitement as each member of staff came on and was recognised. They had noted that the Heidie was one of the few staff still not on stage, and so when he arrived, they raised the rafters.
Jimmy moved to the front of the stage and, in the midst of the applause, pulled down his beard, and said: “It’s me!”
He was worried he might not have been recognised – a typically understated reaction.
Of course, his action provoked even more laughter and a brilliant finale to the show.
That was Jimmy Barbour, a great leader who made a huge impact with the smallest of gestures.
I owe him a lot.