Belfast Telegraph

Belfast principal crowned UK head teacher of year insists 'she's still learning'

by claire mcneilly

Resilience and an ability to overcome failure are key tools required by young people to deal with the growing challenges of modern life.

That's according to Malone College's Marie Thompson, who was crowned Headteacher of the Year in a Secondary School at the 2017 Pearson Teaching Awards in London earlier this week.

But the award-winning principal, who is thrilled with the prestigious accolade, added that she's "still learning" herself and modestly claimed she remains far from the finished article.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph after securing the teaching 'Oscar', Mrs Thompson said it was good for the north Belfast integrated school to get recognition.

"I'm delighted, not just for me, but for the whole school community, because we've been on a sharp journey of improvement in all sorts of ways," she said.

"Some time ago the college's results were not where they should have been in terms of our performance outcomes in GCSEs and A levels but we've come a long way in four years.

"We've had an improvement of almost 30% in GSCE results (in terms of five subjects including maths and English) and a 35% increase in performance outcomes at A levels."

She added: "I'm delighted with the academic outcomes but for us it's about so much more than that."

The 44-year-old, who secured the gold award for her work supporting gay and pregnant pupils, was one of just 11 teachers from across the UK to win a 'Gold Plato' at the awards.

A former physical education teacher with 21 years' experience in the industry, the Hannahstown native was nominated for the gong by pupils, parents and colleagues from the school, which has been transformed recently.

Since taking up the reins, Mrs Thompson has created an establishment with high expectations that encourages ambition, and she has also instilled a renewed sense of optimism and enthusiasm among staff and students.

"There's a great mutual respect between teachers and pupils," she explained.

"They're all absolutely delighted with the award because it reflects very positively on all of us. "We've very good relationships in the college."

Mrs Thompson is credited with operating an open-door policy, and pupils throughout the college told of her remarkable accessibility and knowledge of their lives and their families.

And, far from being a strict disciplinarian at home, she revealed that her son Harry (16) and daughter Gabrielle (12) think she is laid back but still chide her if she uses her "teacher voice" with them. "They aren't brought up in a massively pressurised environment; it's quite the opposite," she said.

"I want them to be happy. I would probably be more pushy about them being involved in sporting activities than focusing on the academic side."

They also don't attend Malone College, thanks to their mother's desire to let them be their own people.

She added: "I was very conscious that their mummy was a school principal and I wanted them to have their own separate identities away from me."

The trailblazing headmistress brought in the Rainbow Project charity to help provide support for gay pupils, and she strives to help any other students who are experiencing difficulties beyond the usual challenges of teenage life.

"When a male sixth form student decided to come out, we provided an environment that supported him and adapted our policies and procedures accordingly," she explained.

"We also set up an LGBT group in school."

Mrs Thompson also told how she encouraged a female pupil to return to education after having a baby.

"I visited her when she was at home; she's studying beauty now," she said.

The St Louise's past pupil, who is married to social worker Kieran (46), said there is a strong ethos in the school where people are taught not to be defined by their circumstances.

"We don't believe your circumstances define you or your potential to do well in life," she said.

"All of us will experience some hardship or adversity in life and we can use that as a learning opportunity.

"In here we all have a real sense of 'can do'. And if there are barriers to learning which present themselves, we will do our best to remove them.

"We don't believe in letting obstacles get in the way and stop people from achieving."

In preparing for the future, the mother-of-two said resilience in the classroom is essential these days, as is learning to fail.

"A mistake is a learning opportunity; it's not necessarily a failure, it's how you view it," she said.

"Despite this award I don't think that I know it all. I'm still on a learning journey. I'm learning every day and I've still a lot to learn in the job to make me better."

She added: "When you win something like this people think you know everything but I'm certainly not the finished package!"

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