Staff Spotlight - Mairead Crowley
Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in our Staff Spotlight! This week, we spoke to Drama teacher Mairead Crowley.
What interested you in teaching?
I came very late to teaching; I only started teaching in 2019, and before that, I was actually working in banking. I have a degree in Business and Financial Services, I’m a qualified financial advisor, and I worked in banking for 14 years. I was always interested in theatre and drama, though. I started out in Limerick Youth Theatre and completed their two-year programme, and then I came up to Dublin and went to the Gaiety School of Acting, but there were no teaching elements to this. I studied at the Gaiety at the same time as I had my career in finance, and then when I finished there I set up a production company with two fellow students - basically so that we could give ourselves work! It was an amazing experience as we had to do everything from sourcing our plays, producing, promoting and performing in our productions, including three International performances. We went abroad to Edinburgh and Berlin, and I loved every aspect of it - especially the production side, which I hadn’t expected, but it was the collaboration that made it really special. On the flip side, I was still working in banking and our careers were going well, we just couldn’t do both so we took a sabbatical from theatre. Then I had two children and after my son was born, I took a leave of absence for two years to be at home for those younger years.
When I was due to go back to work, to a full-time busy job, I felt I was at a crossroads. My children were coming home from primary school every day where they were doing the Aistear programme, and it had so many parallels with drama, with play-centred education and so I was fascinated by what they were doing in school every day and how much school had changed since I had been there. I was having coffee with a friend one morning and she asked me what I wanted to do, if that was going back to my career and giving it my all or do something else, and I said “You know, I’d love to teach drama. I’ve been involved in drama all my life, and I’d love to teach it.” So I applied to do a Higher Diploma in Drama and Education, and I loved every minute of it, and that’s how I came to teaching! It was a very roundabout way, but you’re never too old to learn.
What makes teaching drama exciting?
There are three things for me that make it really exciting. First of all, the physical nature of the class is different - when they walk into the classroom the chairs are pushed back, we sit in a circle, or in the Junior School we all sit on the floor, and that immediately breaks down barriers and allows this lovely rapport to form. Students have to collaborate and cooperate in Drama class, so there’s a real sense of community in the classroom because you will work with people that are not necessarily your friends, you’re building characters and going through the creative process together.
I also think that having an imaginative and creative approach to your class is what makes teaching drama exciting. In Junior School, I would give the children a scenario to perform and ask them to develop the story together. Children quickly realise that teamwork and collaboration are important skills to get the best out of their class. Their scenario comes to life in a really lovely way through the creative process. I love watching the creative process, especially with young children!
Why did you choose to teach at Alex?
I had just graduated from my teaching programme at the time, and was working on two government-run initiatives (The School Completion Programme and Creative Schools). Lynn Brehony reached out to me through the Leinster School of Music & Drama and asked me to come down for an interview for a position in Alex. When I came in, one of the first things that drew me to the school was that there was a Drama Department; in my teaching experience I had only ever taught in settings where you come in on your own, you do your workshops, and then you leave. Then I came here and it was immediately clear that Drama was valued, even though it’s not an academic subject in the Leaving Cert. There are even dedicated classrooms for drama. Teaching in a department appealed to me as well, especially because I was new to teaching and I know that I work best when I collaborate and have that support and sounding board. Lynn, Clodagh, Lorna and Gianna are all amazing generous teachers who have been such a brilliant support to me. I feel very lucky to be part of the Drama Department.
The other thing that drew me to Alex was that the position was open for the Junior School, and that it was a Froebel school. I had studied the Froebel ethos in college and thought it was just amazing; I love how children are active participants in learning, and the focus is on creative and critical thinking. So between the value placed on drama in the school, the department itself, and the Froebel ethos I was really drawn to the role here.
How have you adapted your teaching for Covid-19? Is there anything you’ll continue to do going forward?
The biggest change I made was taking my classes outside. Last September as we returned to the school we had a dilemma - typically we would bring Junior School students to the Senior School to use the Drama classrooms there, but guidelines at the time specified that the girls should stay in their pods and there shouldn’t be any mixing. The weather was lovely at the time and we had spent the whole summer outdoors, and I thought, “Let’s just try having class outside.” There’s a section of the Junior School yard that we call The Drama Pit, and that’s where we hold classes. I thought we’d only have the weather for it in September, maybe October if we were lucky, but we’re still there every day and it’s opened up a whole new way of teaching drama. There’s usually an awful lot of stimulus used in drama, be it with props, costumes, puppets, or anything like that. With Covid-19 we didn’t want the children sharing materials or props, so instead, we used nature as our stimulus. Honestly it’s been brilliant because it’s really good for children who have different learning styles, as there’s a sense of freedom. The Drama Pit creates a physical space that keeps them focused, but being outdoors gives us more space as well and it really works. Some days we can’t sit down because it’s wet, so the class has to adapt or maybe a crow or the wind might be a part of our stories that day, and it’s enhanced the classes brilliantly. Last year we were able to take every class outside, but it is weather dependent and it’s getting a bit cold so we’ll see how it goes for January and February (since we were on Zoom last year at that time).
What has been the highlight of your teaching career so far?
There have been two highlights for me, I think. I joined the College in November 2019, and Lynn asked me to lead the Prep Junior School Show. I was new to teaching at the time, and while I was used to putting on a show with adults I was thinking “How am I going to do this?” When I was working in my production company, I had to do everything, but this was totally different. The collaboration in the Junior School was really what stood out - Andrea Boyd, who currently teaches KG Upper, co-directed the show with me. We worked together on the script and rehearsals, and Mary Fitzgerald, the Music teacher, took care of the music; sometimes I’d be passing through the JS Concourse and would just stop in my tracks listening to the music, it was amazing. Deirdre Smith, the Art teacher, put together the artwork and the set pieces, and the TY Drama Reps came down and helped the girls get into costume, it was such a wonderful collaboration. I would wake up in the night and realize I’d forgotten something, but the class teacher would have already taken care of it. It was my first children’s production, and it was absolutely amazing. I learned so much because I was able to collaborate with so many talented people and learn from them.
Another highlight, that’s actually still on-going, has been working on the Social Outreach and Production module with the Transition Years. I began teaching this module last year, and we worked with the Junior School to make videos for the JS girls, to connect the girls across the schools. This year we wanted to try and bring the concept into the community, if we could do it safely. So we decided to work with a primary school in the city centre, and asked if there were any videos we could make for their 1st Class students. Their teacher said that the students had had a disjointed two years in Junior and Senior Infants, and we decided to try and get them excited about books and reading. So with the TY girls we came up with the idea of the Alex Imagination Library. The girls choose a book, we Zoom into the classroom, and then the girls bring the story to life. They act it out, use narrators, and talk to the children about the book or begin an activity with them. The kids are now drawing pictures on their breaks to show the TY girls and they’re talking about the books even two or three days later. I am blown away by how the girls have led the project, and obviously, it’s having a real impact in another school, it’s fantastic.