Dr Morag Clark MBE, 1929 – 2019
Morag Clark, who died on April 9th aged 90, was not just a Teacher of the Deaf – over more than 60 years, she probably improved the life chances of more deaf children and supported more families all over the world than anyone else in the field of deaf education.
Morag was born in Glasgow and, despite living for over sixty years in England, she never lost her lovely soft Scottish accent nor her fondness for the country of her birth. She was the daughter of a Baptist Minister and was brought up in Dunfermline and Motherwell but spent her school holidays staying with friends and family or on cycling holidays in various parts of the Scottish islands and mainland. She trained as a teacher at Jordanhill Training College and, after a few years’ teaching experience, went to Manchester University to train as a Teacher of the Deaf (which is where she met her lifelong friend Anne Chapman).
In 1956, Morag moved to Southport, north of Liverpool, to become the Deputy Principal of Birkdale School for Hearing Impaired Children (as it later became named). She and the Principal, John Furness, worked for the next twenty years as an exceptionally strong team not only taking the achievements of deaf children in the school to new heights, but also establishing the school’s reputation as a world leader in the development of oral language and educational achievements. In 1976 she became Principal and continued to develop the school in new directions – one project was hardly finished before she had planned the next! She would be in school from early in the morning, working in her office or walking around the school greeting staff and pupils. Her seemingly boundless energy would continue throughout the day and well into the night. She would often be leaving her office when the children were asleep and most of the resident staff had retired for the night, having looked in on some of the recreational activities the children were engaged in and chatted to the care staff. Her policy was an “open door” one – unless she was engaged in a private conversation, her office door was literally open so that staff and pupils could speak to her if they wished. She would often leave the pile of paperwork in front of her to sit down and talk with a pupil who might have a problem or take a lengthy phone call from an anxious parent.
Morag was a passionate advocate of Natural Auralism and believed that almost all deaf children, including the most profoundly deaf, could develop spoken language in a natural way with appropriate amplification and support for families. She worked all her professional life to ensure that families of deaf children and the professionals who worked with them had a true understanding of natural auralism so that decisions about language development could be made from a position of real knowledge, not hearsay. Few Teachers of the Deaf would have trained in the 1960s, 70s and 80s without having heard Morag speak or visiting Birkdale. Visitors, families and professionals, were often amazed at the trouble she took to engage with them in discussion and answer their questions. She was never afraid of discussion even with those who had the most strongly opposite views.
It is not surprising that Morag was one of a group of Teachers of the Deaf who founded the National Aural Group in 1980 to promote natural auralism – this was later renamed DELTA – Deaf Education Through Listening and Talking. She continued to support the group well into her eighties mainly by speaking at DELTA Summer Schools and became one of the Charity’s Patrons.
However, she realised that passionate belief based on experience was not enough but had to be backed by rigorous academic research into the language development of deaf children and the audiological possibilities. She welcomed many research teams including those of Professor Ian Howarth and Dr David Wood from Nottingham University and Professor Adrian Fourcin and Dr Evelyn Abberton from University College London. Morag wrote many articles herself for various journals but also considered how she could make information on natural auralism more easily available to a wider audience, including families. While still in her demanding role as Principal of Birkdale, she undertook a huge project to have professional quality video made of children, classes and families, with explanatory booklets, to illustrate the approach in the most practical way possible – often working into the early hours of the morning to edit hundreds of hours of tape. The resulting teaching packs including Laying the Foundations, Building on the Foundations and Sounds All Around, had a wide impact not only in the UK but all over the world. She later wrote two books which were also designed to contain academic rigour but illustrated by extremely accessible, practical examples – Language Through Living (1989) and A Practical Guide to Quality Interaction With Children Who Have a Hearing Loss (2007).
Morag was very sought after as a speaker at conferences and at parents’ events all around the world and in the school holidays carried out many tours including to Canada, Australia, India and Turkey. She retired from Birkdale in 1986 and began a retirement which gave a whole new meaning to the word! She went to live in Eskisehir, Turkey for two years to continue work with a project for deaf children at I.C.E.M. in Anadolu University which entailed training and planning in a school for deaf and hearing children and later the development of an accredited Teacher of the Deaf training programme. By that time word had spread around the world of the success of this work and Morag was being asked to carry out similar work in many countries.
For more than twenty years, Morag travelled almost constantly doing voluntary advisory work in at least 13 different countries – Turkey, Japan, Singapore, Ecuador, Germany, Mauritius-Rodrigues, Hungary, Canada, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda and South Africa, where she was proud to have met Nelson Mandela at the official opening of the school where she was a visiting advisor. There were some years in which she only spent a total of six weeks in her own flat in Hereford! In addition, for many years she continued to contribute to courses training Teachers of the Deaf in the UK.
Morag was justifiably honoured in several ways for her work. In 1989 she was awarded the MBE for international services to the hearing impaired. She also received three awards from AG Bell – Honours of the Association, International Meritorious Service Award and Global Ambassador. Anadolu University recognised her work with the award of an Honorary Doctorate. For Morag, however, her greatest rewards were always the pleasures of chatting with young deaf people whose families she had helped and who were making their way independently in the world and leading fulfilling lives.
Those of us who had the pleasure of knowing Morag and working with her are still awed by all that she achieved but above all we will remember what a wonderful friend and colleague she was. Despite a reputation for taking no nonsense from anyone, (just the warning “Miss Clark coming” in Birkdale was enough to quieten any class and make them sit up straight!) she had a wonderful sense of humour and a great capacity for empathy. There are countless examples of her taking the time and trouble to carry out acts of kindness despite her own hectic timetables. Even in her eighties, she would join in with the fun at any event she attended and continued to enjoy exploring the world as long as she was able to. She knew many parts of Turkey extremely well and many of us benefitted from a “Clark’s Tour” as long as we were able to keep up with her pace!
The field of education of the deaf will be immeasurably poorer without her as will the lives of those of us who were privileged to have her friendship.
Elizabeth Rothwell (Former Deputy Principal, Birkdale School)