Staff Spotlight - Barbara Ennis
Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in our Staff Spotlight! This week, we spoke to College Principal Barbara Ennis about her teaching career and her experiences as principal here in Alex.
What interested you in teaching?
Well I know this sounds a bit like a cliché, but I absolutely never wanted to do anything else. From the age of 12 when I began to consider the future, it was always teaching. I think a big part of it was because I loved being able to stand up in front of people and talk. I was also absolutely smitten with Irish folktales and literature, as well as English literature, later on in secondary school. It was never a question of whether I would go into teaching, though at one point I looked into a career in law as a barrister. In the end though, I realised that I wouldn’t be able to keep my passions for literature properly alive if I did that. I also knew very clearly that I didn’t want to be a teacher of young students. So it was always going to be secondary school, and always going to be English and Irish.
What do you enjoy most about teaching English and Irish?
I really miss teaching. What I loved the most about teaching English and Irish, particularly English, was that I was able to explore the inner being of people. The students became so engrossed in the literature that it then became about themselves, an exploration of their own identity and where they fitted into the world. That was just really inspirational and I think it was transformative, both for me as a teacher and for the students because they began to look at themselves in different ways to how they had before. They also were able to experiment with different identities in a safe environment in both the classroom and in novels. Imagining, say, you were a character in Henry James’ Washington Square is exciting because while it was long ago, the themes and issues that come up are still the same. That was really interesting and it was a privilege to be able to engage on that level with students. It could be daunting as well, because I had to make sure I had it right and that it was nuanced and that I didn’t probe too deeply into their personal lives, so it was a delicate balance.
I also loved encouraging young people to experiment with their own writing. We used to do a lot of work with the old blackboard and chalk doing brainstorming sessions and experimenting with ideas. Nothing was ever out of bounds, you know, no topic was ever banned in my classroom and that led to great, exciting discussions. There were always a few interesting discussions that took place, but that was great.
With Irish I was really fascinated by, particularly when I studied at third level, the bardic poets. They composed poetry from the 13th century to the 17th and it took them seven years to study their craft and their technique. They had the most incredibly intricate rules for internal rhyme and end line rhyme, and I found it so satisfying to see how they got those poems to make sense within those really complicated rules. I loved another text called Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne, which is about Fionn mac Cumhaill who was the leader of the Fianna and how Diarmuid stole his wife Gráinne out from under his nose and they spent the rest of their lives being chased by Fionn and the Fianna, I just love that. There’s a lot of really interesting points about human nature to be found in that, for example, jealousy, and there was this most compelling concept, which translates approximately to be put ‘under an obligation’ . The person who is ‘fail gheasa’ must follow the instructions of another person, who obliges him/her to do their bidding. If the person ‘faoi gheasa’ fails to carry out the obligation , awful consequences ensue. I just love that whole notion of obligation and how in fulfilling it you might break yourself as a human being to harm others. It is very similar to Greek Tragedy. So I suppose the soul of it all is literature; when you peel it all back, that’s where it’s all at.
Why did you choose to join the Alex community?
I kind of didn’t choose to join it. It was back in the day where it was virtually impossible to get a job, and the librarian at my previous school said to me, “Oh look, here’s an interesting job in Alexandra College.” So I applied for it, and it was something like 6 hours a week teaching Irish, so I came for my interview, and I started in November of the year because it was a mid-year appointment. You didn’t have much choice back in the 80’s about where you worked. You just took a job wherever you got one. There were a lot of green field community schools being built in various parts of the city, and the one thing I did know was that I didn’t really want to work in one of those schools. I wanted to work in the type of school I was used to, the type of school I’d gone to myself, and I just never really looked back from that day.
There was never any question of leaving, particularly when I was teaching, because the ethos of the College is such that it gives you freedom to be whoever you want to be and that goes for every teacher, every student, and every person who works in this school. You can reach your highest potential if you wish. There was never one boring day in my life, and the odd time I would say to students, “I can’t believe I get paid for what I’m doing because I love it so much.” It was definitely because of the ethos of the school, the permission to experiment, push the boundaries and challenge the students that held me. The students were also amazing because they always wanted to hear new ideas, to discuss, and to bring thoughts they’d had at home into the classroom. It was creative, exciting, and why would you want to go anywhere else?
Why did you decide to become a Principal?
That was a deliberate decision - unlike coming to Alex, because I’d always had it in the back of my mind when I started teaching that I’d like to lead a school. I wanted to be able to influence at a higher level and also make sure that a school like this would continue to have the role that it always had in society. I was very conscious that being principal is very different to being a teacher because it’s about leadership, inspiration and ideas. Those are the high level aspects of the job. The aspects of the job such as managing people and difficult conversations and having to back a policy that I maybe didn’t personally agree with but had to in my role, did come as a bit of a shock and a challenge. It was also very important to me that I was a principal in a girls’ school. All of my experience has been in working with and empowering girls and young women, and I think education is the biggest opportunity that young girls can have to make a difference in the world and go on and do amazing things in their lives. I would not have been the same person if I had been principal in a mixed or boys school; it was really important to me to be a role model to girls and to encourage them to reach for the stars. I remember some students in my English classes used to struggle with analysing literature and I would say “Reach for the stars and you may touch the sky.” That was the way I looked at my own work and how I encouraged other people to look at it as well.
What are some of the things that being a Principal has taught you?
I’m still fully convinced that the most important part of the role is to be a good leader and to be inspirational in your words and your deeds. That's quite a hard thing to do because you have to invest a lot of yourself in that and you end up exposing a lot of yourself and that’s daunting. I think the other thing I’ve learned as well is that I have to put on my armour every morning, because being at the top of a pyramid, which is what a school is, inevitably means that you’re going to be the person who has to deal with the slings and arrows of life and not having a thick skin can be very damaging to you as an individual. Respect is highly important as well, and you must work to encourage an atmosphere of respect, where everybody is treated in a manner that does not undermine their self-esteem. It is also very important to have standards, ensure that everybody is encouraged to reach those standards, and anything less than that isn’t really good enough. Obviously people have lows, and they can’t always be at their best, but high standards have to be the bar and the aspiration for everyone who works in a school, and I think that’s true of every school.
What are some of your future plans for Alexandra College?
Well I’ve got lots of future plans for Alexandra College, and a big part of those plans are beginning to manifest themselves in the development of our new Boarding building and our Master Plan. Beyond that, where buildings are only there to serve the vision of the school, it’s very important to me that we are continually reviewing how we look after students and equip them for the world, but even more importantly how we equip them as people to be able to cope with the challenges of life. Ultimately as you leave school the things that you find challenging are relationships, bonding with people, being able to manage lifelong relationships and all the messiness that that involves, and I think that working on those areas within the school environment is very important. So relationships between students, between teachers and students, and between all who work in the school are very important. And it’s a difficult area to work in because there isn’t any textbook, so it involves a lot of modelling and making sure that teachers model the kinds of relationships that they would hope their students to engage in later on in life.
I think also that working on teacher developments is a big part of what I would like to do in the near future because it’s something that we haven't been able to spend very much money on since the recession and it’s something that really needs to be done for teachers to feel valued and know that they are the key to it all; without the teachers the school just wouldn’t exist. So showing them that they’re highly appreciated and listening to their ideas and concerns is fundamental.
I’m really very interested in what Avril Lamplugh, Head of the Junior School, is doing in the Junior School with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths). She’s put a huge amount of work in there and I would love to be in a position to continue that on when they come into the Senior School. We already have a very good reputation for STEM, but STEAM is something that’s not so easy to do in a curriculum that’s broken into different subjects, so that will require some planning and discussion with teachers concerned, but it’s also something we could look into doing in TY. At the Board of Management level we’re also looking at offering the International Baccalaureate, but that’s almost nearly like a separate school so that’ll be a big project to be looking at.
So there is no lack of planning and ideas and I am very enthusiastic about the future of this eminent institution.