- The late former Governor-General, His Excellency the Most Hon. Sir Howard Felix Hanlan Cooke, held the highest office in Jamaica for 15 years, but it is his role as teacher, mentor and guide that distinguishes his career.
- For many, he is still fondly called ‘Teacher’, having dedicated 23 years of his life to the profession.
- Sir Howard’s teaching career spans the then Mico College and Practising School, Belle Castle All Age School, Port Antonio Upper School and Montego Bay Boys’ School (now Corinaldi Primary School).
The late former Governor-General, His Excellency the Most Hon. Sir Howard Felix Hanlan Cooke, held the highest office in Jamaica for 15 years, but it is his role as teacher, mentor and guide that distinguishes his career.
For many, he is still fondly called ‘Teacher’, having dedicated 23 years of his life to the profession.
Sir Howard’s teaching career spans the then Mico College and Practising School, Belle Castle All Age School, Port Antonio Upper School and Montego Bay Boys’ School (now Corinaldi Primary School).
It was destiny that the former Governor-General would end up in the classroom and transform the lives of both his students and the communities he served.
In the book, ‘They Call me Teacher’, written by Jackie Ranston, Sir Howard told of his love for reading from an early age and how his mother ensured he and his siblings had a good education.
“She insisted on us going to school and providing the books and making sure that we studied. But, there was always time for play which in itself was a learning experience, because I made my own gigs (tops), kites, everything,” he said.
Interestingly, the man called ‘Teacher’ was not always a good boy in school. Sir Howard told the story of often skipping school and once had to be brought to school one day by his mother who told a teacher: “This is a bad boy; he’s dodging school.” The teacher at the time told his mother – “that boy will never come to anything.”
That pronouncement led to a life-changing move for Sir Howard, as his mother sent him off to boarding school with a teacher of Jewish descent, Franklin Theophilus Sinclair, who was the head of an elementary school in Grange Hill, Westmoreland.
Sir Howard described Mr. Sinclair as a genius of a teacher. “It was Sinclair and my mother who decided on my future career – both agreed that I should become a teacher,” he said.
Mr. Sinclair was also the driving force behind several skills Sir Howard would acquire, including farming, playing the flute, violin and piano.
Sir Howard gained entry into Mico with excellent scores in the entrance examination and was rewarded with the opportunity to teach the first lesson that year in the practising school. That was an experience Sir Howard said he would never forget.
He was given the topic of books to tutor to the practising school, and recalled how well prepared he thought he was to deliver his first lesson, making every effort to look confident as he made his way to the front of the class.
Sir Howard taught his first lesson under the watchful eyes of both Masters at Mico College and the children. The results of that first lesson left an indelible mark on his career forever. “I began to teach or so I thought. Afterwards, I was told it was the worst lesson delivered in the college for a very long time. For the next week or two, all anyone could say to me was: ‘books, books!’ I felt so badly,” the former Governor-General recalled in the book.
This first experience taught him many lessons for life and opened doors to many teachings from others he admired and respected at Mico. One such person was his instructor, E.A. Moore, who Sir Howard credited for pushing him to continue at Mico, when he gave up on the idea of becoming a teacher.
Mr. Moore spent time with Sir Howard and took him through stages of preparing lessons as well as provided him with several books on specialized teaching. This, Sir Howard said, resulted in him gaining the highest score in the college by midsummer.
Sir Howard went on to teach at a school in a community in Portland called Belle Castle, where he was the headmaster.
This proved to be a most rewarding time of his life, but equally challenging. He was given the task to reorganize Belle Castle, as it was described as having ‘unruly pupils’ who the teachers could not manage.
Sir Howard married his then girlfriend, Ivy Tai, and they both taught at Belle Castle. He was not only a teacher, but a true community man.
In the book, ‘They Call Me Teacher’, Mrs. Ivy Scott, Justice of the Peace, and a retired civil servant, spoke of Sir Howard’s impact on her life and the people of Belle Castle.
“Teacher Cooke was part of the community. He not only taught, he preached in the church and was the choirmaster. He had a strap, which we called ‘Unlce Felix’ and he used it on anyone who misbehaved, but he was a good teacher who got the best out of you, whether it was academics, singing or planting vegetables,” she said.
“If Teacher Cooke did not come to Belle Castle, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” she said.
In 1950 Sir Howard went to the Institute of Education, a graduate college of the Federal University of London, to do postgraduate studies in Education, and despite challenges in London at the time, at the end of the course, he was awarded a distinction.
Sir Howard returned to Jamaica and was again given the opportunity to teach at the Mico Practising School, but refused the offer, due to his personal commitment to teach in the rural areas, where he felt there was greater need for his skills.
He went back to Portland, and spent about six months teaching at the Titchfield Upper School, before returning to his parish, St. James.
He applied for a job at the Montego Bay Boys’ School and was given the task without even an interview, much to the surprise of many who tried to discourage him in applying for the job.
While at the school, Sir Howard was by then well known in his profession. “I was one of the more aggressive teachers in the parish,” he recalled in the book.
The former Governor-General is credited with forging a working relationship with secondary and elementary teachers after meeting for the first time with the Jamaica Union of Teachers, becoming its President later on.
He also introduced Spanish, Algebra, Geometry and a few science subjects at the Montego Bay Boys’ School.
Sir Howard was later joined by his wife, who also completed post-graduate studies on scholarship at the Institute of Education, where she excelled in early childhood education.
Together they established remedial classes and engaged in training teachers to deal with children who were slow.
Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives and Member of Parliament for Central St. James, Lloyd B. Smith, who was a student of the Montego Bay Boys’ School (now Corinaldi Primary School), recalled how the headmaster, Sir Howard Cooke, approached his job with a watchful eye and love for every child at the school.
“I remember his taking time out of his busy schedule to write to my now dear departed mother, urging her to invest fully in my education as I had great potential. Thank you Teacher Cooke…today I can proudly say I am now somebody,” Mr. Smith tells JIS News.
Opposition Member of Parliament for St. James North Western, Dr. Horace Chang, noted the impact Sir Howard had on the community, as he paid tribute to him during a joint sitting of the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday, July 23. “He was committed to molding character and building men of character and dignity in the society,” Dr. Chang said.
Sir Howard would become Jamaica’s Minister of Education from 1974 to 1976. Those two years saw him creating several policies in the sector, while developing international relationships that were beneficial to Jamaica.
The former Governor-General died on July 11, at the age of 98. He will be given a State Funeral on August 8 at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kingston. He will be buried in National Heroes Park.