Teachers Inspire Ireland 20222023
TI Podcast Ep4

2022 Podcasts

Mental health and wellbeing of students' is fundamental to the life of a school.Episode 4, Dr. Shauna Sheridan

English teacher Una Smith, from Virginia College in county Cavan, was one of the four Teachers Inspire awardees last year. Shauna Sheridan decided to nominate her after watching our host Louise chatting about Teachers Inspire on Ireland:AM on Virgin Media television.

As well as preparing for her Leaving Certificate exam that year, Shauna's father took his own life and her mother was recovering from cancer. Una believed in Shauna’s academic ability, but also, Shauna said, “she was somebody that believed in me and wanted to see me do well as a person, and helped me get through the year.”

Louise is joined by Shauna as she tells her about what was happening in her life at the time and about the impact Una’s support had.

Louise is then joined by Dr Audrey Doyle, DCU Anti-Bullying Centre, who says that the mental health and wellbeing of students “is fundamental to the life of a school.”

Teachers Inspire 2022 is now open for nominations at https://www.teachersinspire.ie...



Louise:
Hello, and welcome to the Teachers Inspire podcast for 2022. Organised and run by Dublin City University, Teachers Inspire is an Ireland wide initiative that seeks to celebrate teachers and to recognise the transformative role they play in our lives, and in our communities.

My name is Louise O'Neill and I am delighted that I have been asked once again to curate and share with you the many uplifting stories about teachers who have made a difference in your life.

Check out these stories and more on the website, teachers inspire.ie.

One of the four inspiring teachers to receive a Desmond award in 2021 was Una Smith. Una is an English teacher and she has been teaching in Virginia College in county Cavan since 2004.

She was nominated by Shauna Sheridan, and when Teachers Inspired visited Una earlier this year to present her with her award, Una said that as a teacher, you hope that along the way, somewhere, you do inspire children to be the best of themselves, to be the best people that they can be, to be the happiest version of themselves, to be content with themselves. This is a clip of some of what Una said about this and about Teachers Inspire.

Audio of Una Smith:
To receive the Teacher Inspire award, it really is lovely. What it does is highlight I suppose the work that teachers do up and down the country day in, day out, and the wonderful people that they are showing kindness, you know, to students, teaching their subject, teaching the courses, getting students to the next level of their lives and that's important.

So certainly, you know, the word inspire is key there, isn't it? I suppose you hope that along the way somewhere, that you do inspire children, you know, to be the best of themselves, to be the best people that they can be to be, the happiest version of themselves, to be content with themselves because I think it's so important that children learn to be themselves, unique, individual, and to be as content as they can be in the world that they live in.

Louise:
So what was it like hearing Miss Smith's voice there? Oh, sorry. Do you call her Miss Smith? Or do you call her Una?!

Shauna:
Una now!

Louise:
Oh, you're a big girl now Shauna! So what was it like hearing her voice there again?

Shauna:
It was quite emotive hearing that and it's nice to hear her being so honest and true. And you really feel like she didn't know how good she was and what an impact she made. Just hearing that little bit.

Louise:
I suppose the big question is why did you decide to nominate Miss Smith for this award?

Shauna:
Well I was actually sitting, supposed to be working at the time, I was working from home and you were on Ireland AM and you were talking about awards and I just sat there and I thought, God, like Miss Smith (Una) made such an impact on my life and she'd really be deserving of that award. I just sat there on my lunch hour then writing up the whole piece about her and what an impact she had on me.

And I just thought she really does deserve this because I wouldn't be sitting here doing this job, that I was supposed to be doing, if it wasn't for her. Like I was there writing press releases and stuff. And I thought God, like she had such an impact on me to believe that I could actually write something that somebody else would want to read.

Louise:
And I mean, even reading your, you know, the piece that you submitted to Teachers Inspire, it was very clear that you're, you know, that you're a very natural writer, I found it, I found it really moving. I mean, it just sounded like you were having such a difficult time when..

Shauna:
Yeah, it was a tough year and the fact that she was there on like an academic perspective, like giving me that belief in what I could do as regards the Leaving Cert.

But on a personal level as well, she wasn't just a teacher, she had kind of become like, a school mammy. She was somebody I could go to and she was somebody that believed in me and wanted to see me do well as a person and helped me get through the year as much as what she could do. And she definitely did that.

Louise:
And I mean, obviously, I don't want you to talk about this if you don't feel comfortable, but do you want to tell the listeners a little bit about that year ?

Shauna:
Yeah, that's fine. So my mother was recovering from breast cancer when I was going into my Leaving Cert year (as) she just finished her treatment. And then in October, my father took his own life. So not an easy few months, we were already kind of struggling, to kind of come to terms with mommy haven't been sick and starting to get better, but we knew she'd have to have another operation. And then the bombshell of daddy dying, and it was, it was tough going and you were there trying to do a Leaving Cert, which is one thing anyway. And then to have all this on top of it, it was a whirlwind.

Louise:
Yeah. I mean, I, I agree with you, I suppose there's so much pressure put on students in Leaving Cert anyway, you know. A lot of that, I think, is sort of manufactured by the media as well..I know students do feel that immense, amount of pressure, but to be going through something like this at home, as well, it's just an enormous weight to be carrying.

Shauna:
Oh definitely but I kind of found, as tough as it was, it made me realise all the things I could do. Having Miss Smith say to me earlier in the year, you know, some people in this class will get an A, I'd kind of gone in thinking, ‘okay, this has all happened, Daddy's gone.’

Louise:
Yeah,

Shauna:
‘this woman believes in me and I can do it. It was kind of like, a push in the right direction, as awful as it was, it kind of made me wake up and say, ‘okay, this is what I need to do.’ I need to put the head down, and Miss Smith believes me, I can get an A in English. And if I could get an A in an English exam, I can do okay and I can pass the Leaving Cert.

Louise:
and I find that like it quite extraordinary because, I'm sure that like, if you asked Una Smith, do you remember saying there are people in this class who are capable of getting an A?

Shauna:
Yeah.

Louise:
And to think that it had such an impact on you…

Shauna:
Yeah, for it to just be like in my head and just think of it one day and be like ‘you know what, she was right.’

Louise:
Yeah. And like, and I, you know, and I'd love to know, like, were there other people in the school environment who were aware of what was going on at home? Or was it like, did she stick out just because I suppose she made such an effort to really help or

Shauna:
I suppose she stuck out because she really liked sat down with me after classes and I felt like she was trying to get to know me as a person to help me through it.

She was just so genuine, all the time. There were other teachers who were so lovely and I’d chat away to them as well. But with Miss Smith, there was academic side and then there was the personal side, so there was the two.

Louise:
Yeah.

Shauna:
And I just felt really comfortable around her. Like she didn't have that, you know, she's a teacher kind of vibe to her. Like, I wouldn't crossed her.

Louise:
She wasn't a regular teacher, she was a cool teacher!

Shauna:
A cool teacher! Like, I just felt comfortable around her and that I could trust what I was saying.

Louise: Yeah. And you mentioned in the piece that you submitted (to Teachers Inspire) about, I think, it was a personal essay that you have to write for the English exam. And she had given you advice beforehand and I'd love to, I'd love to just to hear you talk about the advice she gave you.

Shauna: when we were preparing for the essays that we knew we'd have to write, she was saying, writing about personal experiences is the best thing to do, like don't be trying to make up a story in your head last minute. Talk about something that means something to you.

And I remember actually smiling when I opened the paper, and I'd seen it, like I can't remember it word for word, but it was about the kindness of people (to) write a personal essay on that. So, after the year I'd had and the kindness that I'd seen, it was so easy to write like, I just kept going and going. I don't think anyone else was probably smiling during a Leaving Cert exam but I was there like this is going to be good.

Louise:
The people next to you are like ‘Oh my God, what does Shauna know that I don’t know! Like really unnerving!

When you when you think back to that time, and I suppose the support that Una Smith gave you, like, how important do you think that is, or, how important was it to you?

Shauna:
It was so important, I don't think I actually would have gotten into school as much as what I did. Like if I felt I was going into school and I didn't have an English class and know that afterwards, if I didn't want to go to the next class straightaway, if I wanted to have a bit of a chat, that I could do that with her.

And if I didn't have that, I think I probably would have struggled an awful lot more than what I did. It was having that kind of safety blanket while I was in there. That's what it felt like for me. And just knowing I had a safe space. Or, if she had seen me in the corridor and thought there was something up, she would have been the first one over. Like I know she would have been.

Yeah, she was always kind of keeping an eye on me. That's how I felt, not in like an intrusive way or that she started to annoy me, or anything like that. It was just very much in the background, ‘I'm here. If you need me.’

Louise:
Yeah, that's a hard balance to get right particularly with a 16 year old girl where your, trying to have appropriate boundaries, but also let them know that you're that you're there to help.

Shauna:
Yeah.

Louise:
And you said as well that you had, you have dyslexia

Shauna:
Dyslexia and dyspraxia.

Louise:
I don't want to put words in your mouth but was school difficult, just on an academic perspective, at times because of that?

Shauna:
Definitely and the fact I tried to hide it so much and was so resistant against it when I found out in primary school about this, - the dyslexia – I can't even say it. (laughs)I so annoyed about it, I really wanted to hide it.

I was like ‘nobody else has this’ I was like, let's just ignore that. Like I was told I could be exempt from Irish, but I refused to do it.

Looking at the Leaving Cert now, probably wish I would have been exempt. But I wasn't.

Louise:
You were just too determined!

Shauna:
Yeah. And I just.. I felt like I was never good enough. Until the Leaving Cert when I seen that A (and) I was like, okay, you know I am. Yeah, but it took getting that far to feel that way.

Louise:
Yeah. And I suppose just, you know, having I suppose someone, as you said, who really believed in you? And I think given that push, you know that it's not just, oh, this will be easy, it's like, No, you'll have to work hard, but that you are capable.

Shauna:
You'll get there. Yeah,

Louise:
yeah, that's gorgeous. Well, I know this is called Teachers Inspired, but Shauna you are also very inspiring. So, thank you so much for coming in and for being so honest, and for writing such a beautiful tribute to Una Smith.

Shauna:
It was the right thing to do. I'm very glad that I did it and that she got recognised.

Louise:
Yeah. Thank you so much Shauna.

Shauna:
It was lovely to meet you!

Louise:
Yeah, it was really nice to meet you as well!


*****

Louise:
Joining me now is Dr. Audrey Doyle. She's an Assistant Professor in the School of Policy and Practice in DCU’s Institute of Education. She was previously a teacher and principal of a post -primary School.

Audrey is also part of DCU’s Anti-Bullying Centre, which is a national university designated Research Centre located in the Institute of Education.

The centre is known globally for it’s research excellence in bullying and online safety. So, it goes without saying, that the wellbeing and mental health of all students is paramount for Dr. Doyle and her colleagues. And I'm delighted that she is here with us today.

Hi, Audrey.

Audrey:
Hello, Louise. It's absolutely lovely to be here today.

Louise:
Thank you so much for coming in. And I suppose my first question is, you know, how did you feel after you heard what Shauna said, particularly what she said about her teacher, Una Smith?

Audrey:
I suppose there are two things really, I thought about. I was, I suppose, in awe would be the thing about Shauna herself, in that here was a girl with amazing challenges in her life and yet, she was telling a story about somebody else.

And I suppose while that was unraveling, that story about Una, we heard the amazing story, and I mean, she's such a special person.

But the story about Una I think is so inspiring and as a teacher, I think, on the one hand she is amazing teacher in that she was she carried out the role she was supposed to carry out, which was to educate Shauna.

I know that sounds mad, but that's what you're supposed to do it but when she met Shauna in her classroom, she initially had a student that was failing. She had a student who basically had special needs, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and I think, for Shauna, Shauna really believed that she was not going to get her Leaving Cert.

Una noticed this. She could have easily looked at her and said, well, look, there's no hope. But she began to see possibilities for Shauna and imagine possibilities. So much so that Shauna then began to imagine them herself and was motivated.

Louise:
Oh it sends shivers. It’s incredible.

Audrey:
Oh, I know. That's what a teacher should be doing; it's inspiring. Where it goes beyond inspiration, I think, is that, that she had a sixth year class, Una had a six year class, a very busy class and yet her sensory observation was able to pick up on the gestures from Shauna, the sadness from Shauna, her tacit knowledge of Shauna, you know, realising there is something not right here.

And she gave Shauna, a safe space, you know, a safe space to narrate her story to her, to tell her about the tragedy, to tell her about her feelings, but also her sense of, I suppose, not her lack of capacity to get a Leaving Cert, and what the words of her story that really touched me, were about silence. In her life it had all become silent. And then Una stepped in to, I suppose, fill the silence with words, with chats, with how are you today, with a smile. It's the small gestures that had such a huge impact. You know, I suppose it was the synthesis of all that, that became really the inspiration then and impacted on Shauna.

Louise:
Yeah, it's such a gift. I mean, it's such a gift that a teacher could give a student. I suppose, when you, obviously when you have a student, like you know, who's going through something so tragic and so difficult, but presumably for teachers, they must see an entire spectrum of issues and complications.

I know that, you believe that, and I'm going to quote you here, that ‘mental health and wellbeing of students is fundamental to the life of a school.’ I suppose I'd love to hear you maybe talk a little bit more about that, and, and, what you see as a teacher's role in that?

Audrey:
Yeah, I really do believe that mental health and wellbeing is fundamental. I don't think that there can be education without wellbeing and flourishing of students. I mean, what is education about really? It comes to the very edge of the purposes of education.

But really, when you think about, what can a teacher do even, what is their role there?

A teacher coming into a school in the 21st century sees everything. You know, when you look at ..you have a student, particularly in post primary school, particularly from the age of 12 to 19, they're navigating an adolescence, growth on every level, particularly building an identity.

And when you look at their identity, their physical identity, their social integration, emotional chaos sometimes that's going on, as well as then having to, I suppose, negotiate, high stakes exams and learning very, very difficult.

Add to that, then poverty, homelessness. I mean, so many teachers are now encountering students who are living in hotels, but also then you have quite a lot of immigrant students coming into our schools, and they are carrying geopolitical upheaval and religious upheaval. And I mean, the trauma that they are carrying…

So all of that then adds into responses to that particular, what I would call ill-being and students may bring that into the classroom with their misbehavior, because that's how they're responding to it with their anger, absenteeism, you know. you think about all the different ways and ill health will become huge, where students actually cannot learn. They cannot do their homework, they cannot even engage within the classroom. And a teacher's response to that is to not just see the student as a learning machine. I think they have to see the holistic student and respond accordingly.

Louise:
Which must be difficult, because I'm sure for so many teachers, you know, you've only got so many hours in the day, and you have to cover the curriculum, and you have exams coming up, you know, particularly, let’s say in a post primary situation. And then, you know, and then all of a sudden, it's like, you're not expected, but I suppose there's a part of you that would hope that you would be able to offer, as you said, that safe space, yeah, but you know, you're not a therapist, and you know, it must be a very difficult thing to navigate for teachers.

Audrey:
I have to say it is because a teacher’s life is absolutely manic. I mean, you go from class to class, you could have nine classes a day of 40 minutes, (you are) moving, moving, moving. Hundreds of students you're going through. At the same time, I think particularly, and I'd say in Ireland, we have an ethic of care about our students. The relationship is the most important thing to teachers.

Louise:
It's funny, you know, with whenever you mentioned, like teachers, there's always this, oh, you know, these kind of comments about ‘teachers and their hours’ and ‘teachers and school holidays.’ But you know, I'm listening to you, and I'm just thinking, this is an incredibly complex job, because there are layers upon layers, you know, of, I suppose, and the responsibility of that, that not only do you have to educate this child and sort of, you know, get them to a certain academic standard.

But also, as you said, like, you know, making sure that behaviors aren't tolerated in the classroom, almost having like, eyes in the back of your head to sort of analyze all of their, their actions and from like, one eye roll, what you can sort of pertain about the class. As a whole, it's, it's quite, it's quite complex, really, it's, it's amazing, really, to hear you lay it out like that.

Audrey:
It's, I think it's the most amazing job, because it's a human encounter with, you know, adolescents who are amazing and dynamic and so lovable, you know, I mean, that's the other side of it. And, you know, what you're being asked to do is unbelievable, and that's why you get tired. And I think it's the intensity, it's the constant, and I talk about sensory observation, you're watching all the time.

You know, you've thirty in your class, and you have to make visible, the invisible. And that is (that) every student has to be visible in your eyes. They can't be invisible.

So you have to name them, you have to call on them, you have to look at them, you have to hear them. So that they can respond to you, and that you then can open that space, whereby they are seen as real human beings and not just objects in a system and they're all batched you know, and you know, we're just all we want them all just to get an A.

Yes, we do want them to get an A, but we want them to become the person that they are. And drawing that out of them, you know, trying to give them that space to become that they can utter who they are and voice that who they are. is hard for teachers. Yeah. Hence, we talk about the holidays. But by the time you get to.. a teachers are now exhausted.

Louise:
Yeah. My sister is a primary school teacher. Yeah, it is, it is tiring.

Audrey:
And, you know, it's not just then they have a weekend off. They're planning, planning, planning. It's an ongoing all the time. But it's it is a wonderful job.

Louise:
And I suppose that's why we want you know, I suppose the best of the best to be choosing education, you know, as their as their career so that they can continue to I suppose, as you said, I don't know, create an environment where children can become the people that they were intended to be. And I just think, yeah, I just think that's incredibly inspiring.

And it was, that's why we're here with this podcast, and just really giving teachers their, their dues and, and just acknowledging how important and inspiring their work is.

So thank you so much, Audrey for coming in and talking to me today.

Audrey:
It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.

Louise:
Thank you.

I'm Louise O'Neill. And thank you for joining me for this episode of the teachers inspire Ireland podcast for 2022. You can hear all of the episodes wherever you get your podcasts, and you can find out more and maybe tell us about a teacher that made a difference in your life at teachers inspire.ie Until the next time.

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