Samoa to farewell outstanding educator

This weekend, hundreds of former pupils, grateful parents and friends including Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi will farewell Pat Buckley, a man also known in his early days as Brother Fintan. 

The former Marist Brother died last week after a two-year struggle with cancer.

An English graduate from the University of Auckland, Pat proved to be an innovative and committed teacher, better known in the field of Science.

And behind those thick glasses he customarily wore, was an astute judge of character, a person who enjoyed the fun and finer things of life and an inspiring teacher.     

His career saw him teaching primary, secondary and tertiary students in New Zealand and Samoa. 

In his earlier days he moved around from St. Joseph’s, Samoa, Auckland’s St. Pauls College and on to Avondale College. 

He left the Brothers in 1970 and after a further 14 years at Birkdale College on Auckland’s North Shore and a short stint at Epsom Girls Grammar School, he returned to Samoa in 1989. 

Following that, he spent most of more than 20 years at the National University of Samoa apart from a few years at Samoa College, Samoa Primary School, Robert Louis Stevenson Primary School and Fa’atuatua Christian College. 

In an interview as a nominee for ‘Person of the Decade’ in 2011 Pat said: “I’ve taught thousands; too numerous to mention, some might be offended if I leave them out. Yes I did teach the (present) Prime Minister that may or may not be a good thing,” he said with a straight face.

“He was an outstanding student. I have taught children of my former students but as far as I know, I haven’t taught their grandchildren.”

As for his achievements, in the words of an Associate Professor and award winning teacher, Mary A Armstrong, great teaching is made up of many things.

“It’s a form of magic. It’s a result of practice. It’s a natural talent. It’s a learned skill. There is nothing more baffling than the art (or science) of teaching.”

And while there are as many definitions as there are teaching styles, students colleagues and parents agreed that Pat Buckley had all of those attributes.

And it is the fact that he consistently kept to his own high standards over a period of not one, but five decades – some 57 years in schools, that made him even more remarkable.

And while that long career is a great achievement, the fact is, he continued to love his profession to his dying day.

“Yes every job has its good and bad aspects, but yes, I loved it,” he admitted. 

It showed.

And while other teachers moved into other careers or took up administrative roles in education, apart from a brief stint as a principal, Pat continued doing what he did best – teach. 

He was also consistently voted the best lecturer at N.U.S. by those who knew best – students.

Typically, he was pretty modest about what made him the teacher he was.

“You’ve got to be interested in making sure students are well educated and you need to be dedicated. It’s as simple as that. I don’t want to get too carried away about it all,” he was quoted saying.

“He actually inspires his students because he wants them to succeed,” noted a colleague. “Every aspect of his teaching is coloured by that aim. He loves Chemistry and he wants others to love it too.”

In 2011, National University of Samoa Foundation student, Raven Meredith agreed. 

“Chemistry was my worst subject when I came into his class,” said Raven. “Mr Buckley knows what he’s talking about and now I love Chemistry; it’s one of my best subjects.”

Fellow student, Chris Fruean emphasized the belief that actions as a teacher are likely to be reflected back in the actions of students and that the focus should always be on the student: their learning, their growth, their achievement.

“It was all about his attitude, experience and teaching methods,” said Chris. 

“He was one of the most fun teachers. He’s had a lot of experience and he knows how to approach students. His age doesn’t matter; he’s in tune with the students and cares about each and every one of them.”

Starting a lecture by playing a piece of classical music was just one of the strategies Pat employed to ensure he had the immediate attention of students and that they were listening. 

Not for him just the boringly passé talk and chalk.

He was also pretty good at listening himself and made a point of following up students’ absenteeism or lack of focus and finding out if there were any problems he could help with.

Another story told about Pat and his teaching, concerned an outstanding N.U.S. student who scored 99 in Chemistry in her Foundation Year, gaining a scholarship to Otago. 

Apparently New Zealander academics were a little skeptical about Samoan standards in general and this high score in particular, but had to eat their words when she repeated that score in her first year at a New Zealand university. 

Further back in his early teaching days at St Joseph’s in the 1960’s, one of his former pupils said he had the knack of explaining the ‘mysteries’ of Chemistry and Physics.

“He explained things in such a way, you could understand.” 

This ability continued on right through his teaching career.

“The fact that many of his friends were outside of teaching and he had other interests, gave him a wider perspective, a balance to the demands of teaching,” noted a colleague.

But it was not all work and no play for the former Marist Brother.

He was also a pretty handy rugby coach and sports administrator in New Zealand and Samoa coaching 1st 15s and representative sides and always enjoying watching the game on television. 

“He really believed in fitness,” said a former rugby player he had coached.

Other interests included dancing.

“I used to love dancing– rock and roll, but I ruined my leg at the N.U.S. Jubilee Ball,” he laughed.

This zest for life made up the person he was.

In the past year and a half when he was bedridden, listening to music, reading books, watching films and sport took up a lot of his time. 

But his mind was as active as always and he continued to have a keen interest in local and world news.

He also enjoyed the company of visitors, often reminiscing about days past and always asking about their lives.

His love of Samoa and a refusal to give up or give in, may well have been the reason he outlived his doctors’ predictions in early 2015 when he returned home to Samoa following medical treatment in Middlemore Hospital. 

When he was questioned about the feasibility of returning to Samoa after hospitalization, there was no doubt in his mind about where he wanted to be. 

“I can live here (Samoa) equally as well as I could in Auckland. I love the hot weather and the friendly people, especially the women,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

Rest in peace Pat. 

An outstanding teacher, whose contribution to society is a lesson to us all.

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