Saturday, 24 December 2016

Chapter 20 Last years and retirement

Chapter 20

Last years and retirement

My last few years in teaching were marked by significant and far-reaching changes in the education system. I still enjoyed the company of my pupils and colleagues, but as the character and demands of the job evolved, I felt I no longer fitted the profile and that it was time to step aside and allow the next generation to take over.

It didn’t help when a new S1 pupil came up to me at the start of my final year and pronounced those words no teacher should hear: “You taught my Granny”. Worse still, I remembered the Granny well and it was like yesterday that I taught her! I knew then that it was time to give serious consideration to retirement.

I had jokingly referred to a countdown to retirement for years, inviting pupils to hurry a response in class because I was due to retire in ten, then seven, then three years etc., but in the last few months it became strangely real, yet unreal. After so many years doing something, you become inured and it’s difficult to conceive of a different way of life, even when you have a specific date from which you know your life will change. It was difficult to comprehend a series of “lasts” – the last time I attended a parents’ night, my last set of reports and my last staff meeting etc.

I put a brief announcement on Facebook to the effect that I was going to retire and I was stunned by the response. I received about 400 “likes” and some 100 messages which were invariably immensely kind and flattering, and I was deeply touched and humbled by the reaction of pupils present and past, and friends and family.

During my last days at the school I received many cards and gifts which were completely unexpected and I was deeply moved by everyone’s thoughtfulness and generosity. I received even more “likes” and messages on Facebook when I posted photos of my gifts and cards.

A cardinal element of teaching (and one which is mostly taken for granted or ignored) is the environment in which you work. My room was plastered with colourful posters, drawings, essays, photos and grammar notes. Even the ceiling had items hanging from it. I would like to think this contributed to a warm and welcoming atmosphere which in turn encouraged industry and collaboration. Of course, I had to clear the room for my departure and it is one of my greatest regrets that I didn’t photograph it before it was stripped as, without me realising it, that room had become an essential part of my teaching and my professional life, and it was rather sad to see it bare and to have that as my final image of the room.

I did, however, leave behind a single souvenir in the hope it would remain untouched – a figure of a frog on top of a snail which I used to place around the room and challenge classes to find. It would be nice to think it’s still there, but I rather doubt it.

Curiously, on my final day I was remarkably calm. I had expected to blub and make a fool of myself, but I remained composed as I said my farewells and received even more kind and generous gifts and cards. Once again, it seemed unreal. My final “class” was with a young lady, Zoe, who had done the Higher course with me and was about to embark on Advanced Higher. She showed me an email she and the rest of the Higher/National 5 class sent to Bruno Pelletier, inviting him to send a video message wishing me well for my retirement. Each member of the class sent the message three times in order to ensure he received it! They got no response, but I was tremendously touched that they had thought of doing that and had made such an effort.

I left the school at about 12.30 on the 1st of July 2016, laden with gifts and cards, and many happy memories.

The first of July is also the birthday of my younger son, Michael, and my daughter, Lauren, (who are twins), and so we were to have a family dinner to mark both their birthday and my retirement in a local hotel. My older son, Scott, and Lauren’s husband, Ryan, had also made the effort to be there.

The family had given me some lovely gifts the evening before (including a “leaver’s hoodie” which I wore to school for my last day), and there was some excitement in the air, though I was still dazed and trying to come to terms with the momentous events of the day.

When we arrived at the hotel I went straight to reception to confirm our booking and I was immediately escorted in the opposite direction from the dining room and ushered into a private function room instead. As I entered, I caught sight of a group of Lauren and Michael’s friends. I was a little confused, and then I turned and saw several of our friends (Alison’s and mine), including a number of people to whom I had said an emotional good-bye just seven hours before! It took a few seconds to dawn on me that this was, in fact, a surprise retirement party for me. Alison and Lauren had organised everything “on the fly”!

I made my way around the room and chatted to the guests, thanking them for coming and sharing some anecdotes from the dim and distant past, and a few minutes later Alison took to the floor and made a speech (her first ever). She delivered it with a confidence and poise which I envied, and summed up the events and emotions surrounding my retirement very articulately and touchingly. At the end of her speech, another surprise – everyone was invited to another room where Lauren was going to show a PowerPoint presentation she had prepared in my honour.

Somewhat warily, I made my way through to the TV room. I had no idea what was coming, but I was reasonably sure it would prove embarrassing.

I took pride of place on a sofa directly in front of the screen while all the other guests gathered behind and I steeled myself for whatever was to come.
Lauren had uncovered some old photos dating back 30 years or more, and had trawled YouTube to find footage of me dancing and singing. The guests were suitably amused and I was suitably embarrassed yet honoured she had made all this effort.

Toward the end of the presentation, we read about my obsession with Les Mis and how I had organised trips to London and Edinburgh, then up popped photos of me speaking to John Owen-Jones with a teasing text saying he’d sent a message (upon which I thought we were going to hear an extract from “What have I done?”, Valjean’s soliloquy), followed by a still of Mr Owen-Jones looking straight into a camera. Suddenly the still sprang to life and John Owen-Jones said “Hello Stuart”. He went on to say he was between acts of Les Mis on Broadway and wanted to wish me all the best for my retirement! I was utterly speechless and could feel the tears welling up, so pleased was I that he had taken the time to record a message for me, but also grateful to Lauren and Alison for organising this whole surprise.

However, the presentation was not yet over and there appeared some text saying Bruno Pelletier was another of my idols, but that I had never met him so there were no photos. It crossed my mind that Lauren had come across the signed photo sent to me by Bruno and she was going to show that. Next, there appeared a picture of Bruno Pelletier in a baseball cap, accompanied by text which said that if I couldn’t speak to Bruno Pelletier, he would speak to me, and once again the still photo sprang into life!

“Hello everybody. Hello Mr Stuart Fernie”, he said, and went on to wish me well for my retirement (four times) and to thank me for my efforts to teach French, adding that it was an honour for him to take part in our party.

To say I was stunned, deeply moved and delighted just doesn’t cover it.

How honoured was I that these two video guests should have made their appearances, that Alison and Lauren should have gone to all this trouble for me (and kept it a secret!), and that my family, friends and colleagues should have made the effort to attend my surprise party.

Needless to say, I was delighted to share these video messages on Facebook, especially with my former Higher class who had requested such a video message, and who, it transpired, had been informed that the video was in hand and they said not one word to me!

Exactly one week before my retirement, a retiral dinner was organised by the school for the six of us who were leaving at the end of the school year. As well as the present staff, invitations were sent out to many former colleagues who had shared at least some time with us in Invergordon Academy. It was a delight to see so many “kent faces”, and to chat with them about the old times as we embarked on a new and different future.

Pivotal events such as retirement invite reflection and as I prepared my second speech of the year (my daughter had got married in January), my head was filled with memories and contemplation. Not everything was wonderful in the course of these 35 years. I have experienced joy, happiness and satisfaction, but I have also known frustration, anger and exasperation. Three constants helped me get through difficult professional times – my family, my colleagues and my pupils, and I thanks them all from the bottom of my heart for the contribution they have all made to my life, and I dedicate this volume of memoirs to them all.

I leave you with the speech I made at the retirement dinner.

Many thanks for taking the time to read these pages. I hope you found them of some value.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is difficult to sum up in a few words the thoughts, feelings and experiences of some 35 years. The obvious thing is to discuss the changes I’ve seen in the education system in that time, but don’t worry – I’ll spare you that rant. However, I will tell you about my first observation.

Bear in mind what is involved in an observation today – a double-sided sheet incorporating at least 20 if not 30 elements. At the end of my observed lesson the Assistant Head Russell Preston (who was responsible for probationers) approached and gave me his purely verbal feedback – “That was fine, Stuart, but you might want to move the tables away from the wall”. How things have changed ….

When starting out in teaching, it is essential to find your own style – you have to work out what works for you and your pupils, and you have to learn from your mistakes.

I would like to think I did learn from my mistakes, but I should point out that I am a life-long learner.

For example, I learned that it is best to prepare in advance and not have to leave a class to collect some photocopying you’ve forgotten, giving the class time to set up a waste-paper bin filled with water above the classroom door which has been left ajar. This is particularly true if the depute rector decides to pop in to your room just ahead of you.


It’s best not to assume that parents will be able (or willing) to exercise control over their offspring. One parents’ evening, a pupil and his father sat in front of me and the pupil held a polystyrene cup filled with tea. While I was speaking to this pupil, he bit a chunk out of the lip of the cup and proceeded to eat it. A little taken aback, I pointed out to the pupil “You’re eating the cup”, whereupon he took another bite. I looked at the father and said “He’s eating the cup”, at which he looked at me and smiled, making a bizarre sound which indicated agreement, amusement and a complete inability to influence events.


It’s probably best not to physically remove a pen from a pupil’s mouth – even if he has arrived late, is under the influence of magic mushrooms and refuses to remove his pen when speaking to you. Physically removing the pen is particularly ill-advised if you consequently discover it is ridged and causes a distinct rattle of teeth while being removed.


It’s probably best not to suddenly roar out of the blue at pupils who are inattentive and chattering, even if it has the desired effect of correcting their behaviour. At least not if you have a pupil with a heart condition right in front of you who has had such a fright when you bellowed that he starts gasping for air and goes very red.

There are many, many happy memories from the classroom, charity concerts, school trips and the staffroom, car sharing to get to work, even meetings – far too many to be able to share with you here tonight, but memories which I will cherish and may well go on to write about in my memoirs.

Although there are many happy memories, I have to say it hasn’t always been great.

There have been difficult and frustrating times both professionally and personally, and I think in teaching it is often difficult to separate the two, and it is during the more difficult times that I learned to appreciate and value the wisdom and camaraderie of my colleagues. At the risk of sounding like the theme song to “Neighbours”, it’s at those times you discover that good colleagues become good friends. Clearly, I worked most closely with Margaret and Arthur over the years, but I would like to thank you ALL for your camaraderie, friendship and support.

I have frequently said that I have no luck – I rarely win anything, have no luck in cards (ask Jim Bryce about that), and the only time I put a bet on the Grand National, my horse actually ran away before the start of the race.

However, I have come to rethink my position concerning luck. I met Alison (aside to Alison - that is what you wrote, isn’t it?), and I was lucky enough to find a job at Invergordon Academy and have some of the best colleagues and pupils I could hope for, and I am now lucky enough to have been made redundant!

It has frequently been said there is something special about Invergordon, and actually I don’t think it’s hard to define – it’s just not that common.

It’s about caring. Putting pupils first and wanting what’s best for them, but extending that attitude to colleagues. It’s about professionalism with humanity and I know that I have benefited greatly from that environment, and I thank you most sincerely, past and present colleagues.

I wish you all the best for the future, but whatever that holds, please remember you are already getting it right.

Fin – so far!

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