Gary Chambers reflects on the life of Des Johnston 1944-2020

“The true artist is not one who is inspired but one who inspires others” (Salvador Dali).


The languages teaching and learning community in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom more widely has lost one of its great champions. Des Johnston died after a short illness on 27th November. He leaves a huge gap but his enormous contribution, enthusiasm and positivity will not be forgotten.


Des was born in Drogheda in the Republic of Ireland but, whilst still very young, moved to Northern Ireland where he grew up and was educated. He attended Portadown College before moving to Queen’s University Belfast in 1961 to study German. He graduated with a First Class Honours Degree four years later, which included a year in Freiburg im Breisgau, a city where he made many life-long friends.


Des’ first teaching job was back at his alma mater, Portadown College, where he taught German and French between 1965 and 1969. Keen to satisfy his thirst for travel, widen his knowledge of other cultures and experience teaching in other countries, he moved to Uganda in 1969 where he taught French and German at the Aga Khan Secondary School, Kampala for two years.


Des then returned to County Armagh where he was appointed Head of Modern Languages, again at Portadown College. It was during this time that I had the good fortune and privilege to be one of Des’ pupils. Des was ahead of his time. He recognised the importance of integrating language and culture. In spite of the passage of 50 years, I remember very clearly the lesson where he set up the screen and projector, cutting edge technology in the 70s, and showed us slides of his tour on a scooter through France, Luxembourg and Germany. As a class of 15 year olds, we were transfixed. Des was an example of Dali’s “true artist”, as two years later Keith, George and I packed our rucksacks and followed Des’ tracks, not on a scooter but by train. Des’ inspiration did not stop there as I was to follow his path to a degree in languages at Queen’s, a PGCE and a career in teaching. I was certainly not the first or the last of Des’ pupils to do this. It is striking that Des’ son, Philip, also followed in his dad’s footsteps, working in Germany for three years, studying in the Czech Republic and qualifying as a German interpreter – without doubt a chip off the old block.


Des knew how to manage a class. He had presence; he got lessons off to a fun start; he always progressed from what we knew, gave us confidence and self-belief and made us curious to learn more. Lessons were fun. Time flew by. We felt that we were achieving. Motivation was not an issue. He got the very best from each of us. Des was a master of the art of teaching.


In 1974 Des’ itchy feet took him to Luxembourg where he spent two years working as a translator for the European Commission. During this time he also won two caps for the national rugby team of Grand Duchy.


Keen to pass on his pedagogical skills and knowledge and to champion modern languages teaching and learning, he joined Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, Department of Education, Northern Ireland in 1976. We all feel apprehensive about the visit of the inspector. Des was not to be feared, however. His focus was always on the supportive and the formative. His aim was always to help and guide and build the confidence of those he visited.


Des’ distinguished career did not end when he retired in 2004 but rather took a gentle turn. He continued to teach with the University of the Third Age and at Millburn Primary School where he taught English and English as a Foreign Language to Polish children, a role in which he found particular enjoyment and fulfilment.


Des was born to teach and so very many of us, across the world, have benefited from his skill, encouragement and warmth. Teaching was not his only passion, however. I have already mentioned his rugby caps for Luxembourg. He also excelled at the shot put in athletics and played badminton and table-tennis. He loved music, good food and reading. Des could talk convincingly and engagingly on a very wide range of subjects. He was knowledgeable, interested and interesting. He was a wonderfully entertaining raconteur, the perfect dinner guest.


I feel very honoured to have been able to stay in contact with Des from the time I left Portadown College until a month before he sadly died. He and I always thought it an amazing but lovely coincidence that, in the small world that is language teaching, the boy who was to become his future son-in-law was one of my pupils in the school in the north-east of England where I first taught.


I was not the only former pupil to enjoy his wisdom, guidance, mentoring, support and friendship for many years after leaving school. I was one of a large number across continents. Des was always generous in investing time in people. He cared. This is why he was so respected and much loved by so many.


Des is survived by his wife, Irene, and his children Tanya and Philip.