Meet Mr. Nolan the German teacher who has taught for 50+ years

From the introduction of decimal to the withdrawal of free milk from schools by Margaret Thatcher, 1971 saw some memorable events.

But for John Nolan, it marked the start of a teaching career that would eventually span over half a century.

The 71-year-old is one of only three teachers in Scotland to teach continuously since then.

And with another school year behind him, the Dunfermline resident has no plans to retire yet.

St Colomba High School

Most of John’s career was spent at St Columba High School in Dunfermline, where he was the Principal German Teacher between 1972 and 2007.

It was here that John reinforced his passion for using theater as a tool to help students learn languages.

He said: “In 1977 I entered a group of students from St Columba in the German theater competition at the University of Edinburgh and we won.

“We then went back the following year and won again!

“It confirmed to me how effective theater can be in learning a foreign language; all of the students have become incredibly engaged.

John Nolan at home.

Such was his passion for the German language – and using theater to help students learn it, John started an annual German night for the school community.

It lasted for over a decade and saw students put on a show, often a German version of a classic fairy tale, also celebrating the country’s culture.

John said, “For 15 years we have hosted this annual party for relatives and friends and I was determined to make it as authentic as possible.

“I have taught German all over the UK, from Orkney to Essex.”

John nolan

“In the meantime, we had German food and coffee and we had the students design the tickets in German, just like the night programs.

“The idea was to persuade people that this was a real living language for communicating, not just a puzzle they had to learn.”

Perhaps it was his own experience of learning German, a language he started in third grade at St Andrew’s High School in Kirkcaldy, that shaped his own approach to teaching.

John added: “I had a teacher who got me excited and we were reading authentic German short stories at the end of fifth grade.

“I really enjoyed the ensemble, the reading and the speaking. I then went to college and enjoyed it even more!

International recognition

After leaving St Columba High School in 2007, John chose to become a freelance teacher; an opportunity that saw him teach across the UK.

He said: “The past 14 years have been an incredibly enriching experience.

“I have taught German all over the UK, from Orkney to Essex. I taught for about three years in England and taught German A Level and GCSE.

He eventually returned to Scotland and since 2013 has been teaching German and French part-time at Dundee High School, in addition to producing more German plays.

His work at the Dundee School has even been recognized by the Goethe-Institut, the cultural institute of the German government which promotes the study of German abroad.

John said: “The Goethe Institute in London took an interest in this and put a video of one of the performances on their website as an example of the effective use of theater in teaching German.

“I was pretty proud of it.”

SQA Research

In addition to his teaching, John also worked for the SQA for 35 years as an examiner and corrector for German exams.

And for the past three years, he has conducted academic research on SQA assessments in modern languages; something that led him to believe that current modern language assessments are “not fit for purpose.”

He said: “I looked at 60 years of SQA assessments in German for a historical comparison and made a comparison between today’s SQA assessments and the A level in English.

Jean Nolan.

“The basic problem now is that a lot of kids get the best grades but don’t have the skills that you assume they should have.

“So the SQA gives As, but the kids get off the plane in Berlin or Hamburg and in five minutes they realize the gap between the ability to speak English and German. “

Despite his concerns, however, John has no plans to retire and is already preparing for another year in class in August.

He added: “I have had a wonderful career and some great highlights.”

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