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Meet the Principal: Marie Lindsay of St Mary’s College on the mental health of young people

Marie Lindsay, principal of St Mary’s College for 13 years, on the shared pain when a student dies, the challenges schools face without an Education Minister at the helm, and her joy at nurturing the diverse special gifts of individual pupils

Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

Marie Lindsay joined the teaching staff at St Mary's College in Londonderry 34 years ago and was appointed principal in 2006. The Donegal woman (61), who is married to Collie and has five children - Lee (36), Sarah (33), Kate (31), Denis (29) and Fionnuala (28) - is extremely proud of the school's 60-year history.

Q. What were your school days like?

A. I went to Ture National School in Donegal. There were only 28 pupils in the entire school. There were three pupils in my class and two teachers in the school. Then I went to Carndonagh Community School which at one time was the biggest post-primary school in Ireland.

Our Leaving Cert was the equivalent of A-levels. I studied maths, physics, chemistry and biology as well as English, Irish and French. I loved them all. Every subject was my favourite subject. I just loved school.

My fondest memories from my school days are travelling there by bus to Carndonagh. It was the best fun you could imagine. If there was ice on the road, the bus had to sit there until the ice melted. The journeys were a drama in themselves.

The only thing I struggled with at school was singing. There was a choir and I was in it, but I was soon asked to sit down.

Q. When did you know you wanted to teach?

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A. There was no moment and I definitely didn't want to teach. I had graduated with a degree in biochemistry. I had been applying for jobs with what was a good degree and I wasn't being called for interview.

What is now Letterkenny Institute of Technology called and asked me if I would be interested in teaching their first year pupils biochemistry. I worked there for a year and I absolutely loved it.

Only for that call I wouldn't have considered going into the classroom. The following year I went off and did my PGCE at St Mary's College in Belfast.

Q. Are there other teachers in the family?

A. I have a younger sister who is a teacher in London, and another sister who is a teacher in Syracuse in New York. My daughter Kate is also a teacher. So I think it might be in the DNA.

Q. What was teacher training like?

A. I was married at the time I went to do teacher training and I was expecting my first child, Lee. So it was quite a bit of juggling.

St Mary's was a great course and I was glad to be able to do it, but my memory is of the struggle getting to Belfast, getting back home. I stayed up two days a week and that was difficult as a newly married, expectant mother. But I enjoyed it and I got to know Belfast.

I graduated and I went to work in St Peter's in Creggan, was made redundant due to falling numbers and then got the job as a maths and science teacher in St Mary's.

I have been here ever since, for 34 years. I absolutely loved teaching and loved every minute that I was in the classroom.

Marie Lindsay with some students

Q. What has been your proudest moment as a teacher and also as a principal?

A. There are proud moments every day when you teach, but it's great when you see the spark in their eye, that they understand. That happens often and it is very, very special for a teacher to witness. It's a privilege.

As a principal I have really incredible moments every day. We can pick out the big moments but it's the little things that really make it stand out.

It's when you see a pupil achieve despite the challenges.

When you see the young people overcoming barriers, sometimes incredible barriers.

When you see the dignity and pride the young people conduct themselves with and how serious they are about their learning.

For me that is a source of great pride every day.

Q. You have had some challenging moments, some incredibly sad moments, such as the death of one of your pupils, Jodie-Lee Daniels, in the Buncrana pier tragedy. How do you help your pupils and teachers navigate those type of dark days?

A. Losing Jodie-Lee in the Buncrana tragedy was probably one of the saddest times in our school community. That class is now our Year 14.

There really are no words to describe the grief and the sense of loss for her family.

We have kept in touch with them and they have come to events in the school. The girls have organised fundraisers and there is a beautiful bench in her memory and we planted a tree.

But the loss of a beautiful, talented girl like that really rips the heart out of the school community. And in many ways it still does.

Those girls have not forgotten her. A lot of them still wear their Jodie-Lee ribbons.

It was a very, very difficult time, but we had great support from the critical incident team at the Board and also from the wider community, from the other schools in the area and from schools across Northern Ireland and beyond who sent cards and sympathy.

It was such a tragic incident but we were lifted by the support and the prayers of the whole community and we were carried through that time by very good people.

It was difficult to navigate because I myself was filled with sadness, but I think it's okay to let others in the school community know that you too are heartbroken.

We also lost a beautiful girl, Kerry Canning, to suicide recently. She was a Year 14 student.

Her classmates, the people who knew her, her teachers, all needed support and a lot of care.

The critical incident team again were very supportive.

But really it is the one-to-one support you can give to individual teachers and just looking out for each other, so that the teachers are well enough to ensure that the pupils are well looked after.

Q. What is your favourite thing that a pupil has ever said to you?

A. They are always thanking me and always sending me in gifts when they are making things in home economics.

The one thing I remember a student saying to me is that I always treat all the girls in St Mary's equally and help each one individually.

It was unexpected and it was lovely. I hope it's true.

Q. What is the best piece of advice anyone has given you?

A. Former St Mary's principal Sister Aloysius gave me some great advice. I went to see her when she wasn't very well in the hospice.

I suppose I always worried that I wouldn't be able to live up to the high standards of the Sisters of Mercy, who founded the school. And, of course, I was following in the very large footsteps of Dame Geraldine Keegan. And I remember Sister Aloysius saying to me, "your best will be good enough, Marie".

There was great freedom in those words. I felt that I didn't have to try to be them, that my best would be good enough.

Q. What do you think is the best quality a teacher needs to have?

A. It's definitely empathy and the ability to listen. It's so busy and there is so much happening but you also need to try to empathise with pupils about what their life is like. I would like to be better at it.

Our ethos across the school is to "be kind, you never know what people are going through".

The mental health of young people is impacting hugely on teaching in recent years and needs a joined up multi-agency approach and specific training for teachers.

Marie Lindsay

Q. The current political climate presents unique challenges to schools, how do you deal with those?

A. The obvious challenge for us is funding and no-one to make a decision. And if you have a difficulty, who do you actually go to? There are people in the Education Authority and the Department of Education and the Inspectorate, but really without direction.

I think it has been going on so long, there is industrial action that has been going on forever, that everyone thinks it's the norm.

There is no leadership in terms of making decisions and dealing with issues that arise. The funding issue is one that is impacting on all our schools and in particular children with additional learning needs and those who have quite complex barriers to learning and can't really access the curriculum and what they need to progress without additional support.

How you as a principal navigate your way through that is quite challenging.

We keep on going, we have amazing staff - both teaching and support staff. We get on with it and we do our best. It's not ideal and it could be better, but we turn up every day and we do our best for these children, with the resources we have.

We will never close the gates and we will never say no to these children. That is true of every school in Northern Ireland.

Q. What is your definition of success?

A. For me success is when students get a sense of 'I can do anything I want to do'. It's that sense of self-belief.

Obviously, yes, they need the academic results, yes, they need the skills and all kinds of attributes. When it is within you to know that if you want to do something you have that ability to do it, that is very special, and that is what success really looks like.

And also success is understanding your contribution to society. When you arrive at an understanding of your own worth, and knowing that your worth is of worth to your community.

Our GCSE and A-level results are very impressive. And that has come about because we are looking at our pupils and we try to create pathways they can succeed on - the gifted and talented and those more suited to a more vocational pathway. So it's about mapping out those pathways so that they can be successful.

Q. How would you describe your school?

A. I think it's a very happy place. We are like a great big family and we are all focused on the children. They are at the heart of everything we do, just like it would be like in a family.

The teaching and support staff work together to do the very best we can for the pupils. And we don't do this in isolation. The support we have from our parents, our community, past pupils and staff is incredible. It is high energy and a bit relentless, but we are just a big family, and it is an exciting environment.

Our school ethos is based on the belief that every child can achieve. We expect the very best from every child and we try to enable them to be the best that they can be.

This year we had the top A-level student in Northern Ireland. She is a very gifted artist, but bringing that talent to fruition is something that reflects what our whole ethos is about. It's about bringing all of their special talents out to shine.

Our ethos is about finding the giftedness in each child and helping that giftedness come to light.

School factfile

Name: St Mary's College

Founded: 1959. Moved to new site 2010

Pupils: 906

Teachers: 58

Notable recent success: We have Maeve Stillman, the UK Young Scientist of the Year. We are a Digital Schoolhouse and we have a long-standing partnership with Microsoft. Our Under-16 Gaelic team won the Ulster title and the Under-14s were runners up in their title.

We have a great partnership with Lisneal and St Cecilia's College through Shared Education, this really promotes inclusion and diversity.

St Mary's is a very popular school and we are very oversubscribed in terms of Year 8 applications.

Examination results: 5+ GCSEs grades A*-C, over 97% last two years, 3+ Grades A*-C, over 80% last two years.

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