Obituary: Rod Slater, inspirational Scottish teacher

Roderick Mackenzie Slater, teacher, mentor and educational leader. Born: 30 December 1947 in Nairn, Morayshire. Died: 7 August 2020 on the Île de Ré, France, aged 72.

Rod Slater

If helping other people is the measure of a life well lived, then Roderick (Roddie or Rod) Slater lived a very good life indeed.

A former Head of Modern Languages at George Watson’s College and former President of the Watsonian Club, Rod was often described as a force of nature because of his energy, intellect, kindness and wit.

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He was at Watson’s for 25 years, serving the school through generations of transition, always driven by the desire to help pupils thrive – in the classroom, on stage, in foreign countries or atop Munros. His family found it impossible to walk together down the street without former pupils telling Rod how much he had changed their lives. It was like being in the presence of a rock star.

Rod passed away following a heart attack, near his wife of 50 years and his elder son, after a final swim on the Île de Ré, France – an island he loved, in a country he had adopted.

Born in Nairn to Annie Johanna (nee Mackenzie) and Major George Slater of the Gordon Highlanders, Rod and his twin sister Isabella were brought up following the Regiment’s deployments to Germany, Nigeria, Edinburgh and Scone. To minimise disruption to his education, Rod was sent to Strathallan, an environment he sometimes found harsh, but excellent academically.

Following Strathallan, Rod spent time at a school in La Rochelle thanks to an award from Lord Balerno that was to change the course of his life because it was there he fell in love, both with the country, and his future wife, Sylvie. He went on to read French and German at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he also rowed in the 1st VIII and thrived in the small college environment. Originally intent on becoming a journalist, a temporary position as a language assistant in Germany made him realise that teaching was his true vocation. In his first post at St. Peter’s School, Huntingdon, he found other young teachers full of what he referred to as “left wing idealism” and he felt they were making a great difference in the lives of their pupils, some of whom were from a deprived background.

However, a year in the mountains of the Auvergne reminded him how much he missed Scotland, and he moved back to work at West Calder High School, where he loved his colleagues and the pupils drawn from all over West Lothian. An innovator, Rod pulled together a group of young language teachers from across the Edinburgh area under the unofficial banner of “Languages for Communication” and made some bold strides for teaching in the region. His talent was noticed. In 1983, Sir Roger Young – then the redoubtable Headmaster of George Watson’s College – offered him the post of Head of Modern Languages. Rod hesitated. “I felt I would be selling out on my principles to go and work in an independent school,” he later wrote. But Sir Roger was gently insistent; Rod accepted the job and never regretted it.

At Watson’s he brought an instinctive, but also sometimes unconventional, style of teaching, fostering an intellectual and cultural curiosity among pupils, not just the robotic passing of exams. It was a philosophy that Rod would later fight for at Watson’s. Never quite a rule-breaker, he was nonetheless comfortable rocking the boat of authority to make sure that pupils came first.

Rod’s sharp intellect made him a perfect teacher for top sets, but he actually preferred teaching those who needed more support, and had a gift for helping weaker pupils thrive. “I have faith that kids will turn out well,” he said, and he was endlessly generous with his time, acting as a formal and informal adviser to countless pupils and tutees.

His infectious love of languages prompted him to lead 23 foreign exchanges at Watson’s, taking pupils all over Europe. He recommended total immersion with foreign families, telling pupils “Bad French is better than no French!”

For several years he was invited by the Scottish Rugby Union to be the translator for French national rugby teams when they played Scotland. He translated for players and coaches during their visits, including post-match press conferences at Murrayfield – assignments he found both satisfying and stressful.

Rod also brought a passion for drama to Watson’s, producing works by Brecht, Gogol, Wilder, Steinbeck and directing Oh! What a Lovely War, poignantly noting that the cast was only a few years younger than many of the Watsonians who had died in World War One. He directed more than 20 plays presented at the French Institute, featuring pupils from primary school to S6.

Always devoted to the Scottish outdoors, he most loved Watson’s S3 “Projects” trips. He led groups into the mountains almost every year, being particularly fond of Torridon and the Hebrides, the birthplace of his mother.

His Watson’s colleagues considered him funny, brilliant and at times infuriating. As one wrote in a farewell article, “There was no sharper brain at dealing with any last-minute crisis, whether it was of his own or others’ making.” And it is true that his procrastination, as well as his brief but sharp-tempered moments, were legendary.

Rod retired from Watson’s in 2008, but could not stay away from teaching. Six months later he was back in the classroom at St George’s School for Girls. It was the perfect end to his career; one that brought him back to his energetic youth, working with a staff he lovingly noted ranged “from the meticulously neat to the chaotically creative”.

He found the girls to be “fun, chatty, spontaneous and hard-working” and they, in turn, named him an unofficial “old boy” of St George’s, making him feel welcome, in his own words, like a “kindly uncle or grandpa”.

But it was with Watson’s that Rod stayed so closely connected. He was President of the Watsonian Club from 2010-2011, relishing his task of cementing the Watsonian diaspora, and travelling all over the country to speak at dinners in his witty style. He also threw himself into memorialising the history of the school, starting and conducting an extensive series of video interviews with past pupils and teachers. Rod’s own interview, conducted by a former colleague, can be found here. In the final year before his passing Rod was to reflect on his career (and his life), and say that his greatest privilege had been to work with so many responsive pupils. He mused: “To think that maybe I have had a small role in shaping them.” Here his characteristic modesty was surely misplaced, as is evident from the outpouring of sympathy and reminiscences from all the pupils, colleagues and friends whose lives he touched.

Rod is survived by his wife Sylvie, his sons Andrew and Sandy and his grandson Leo, whose first birthday he celebrated a few weeks ago.

A bursary in his name has been established at Watson’s to help pupils experience the Scottish outdoors Rod loved so much. More information is available by contacting [email protected]

A full service of thanks will be held at Greyfriars Kirk when the situation allows.

SANDY SLATER

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