Sinead Crossan is deliriously happy in her work. She describes the seven pupils in her class at Foyleview School as “out of this world” and says she has learned more in two years of teaching in a special school than any amount of time at university could ever teach her.
She brims with enthusiasm when she talks about her teaching work - but it could all have been so different. Because Sinead, who has been singing, dancing and acting all her life originally had no plans at all to become a teacher.
“If people were to have asked me what I wanted to be, I would have said I wanted to be a performer,” she said. “I loved it and have always loved it.
“When I was wee you would have always seen me pulling a chair into the middle of the living room when people came into the house - and just standing up and performing songs for people. There was no escape from it!”
A Feis winner from the age of three, Sinead pursued her singing, acting and dancing throughout her years in primary school and on to secondary school at St. Cecilia’s where she says then principal, Grainne McCafferty pushed her to give her all to the arts.
Indeed even after completing her Theatre Studies degree at the University of Ulster, Sinead had no real intentions of teaching and she admits she signed up to do a PGCE with a completely different plan in mind.
“I thought I was going to go to Chester and star in Hollyoaks. My plan was to go and get lots of auditions and to support me while I did that I signed up for a PGCE. It was at a time when the government were offering £6000 to do the course.
“I figured I would do that, but never have to go into teaching. I’d get my role in Hollyoaks and be famous by the end of it,” she laughed.
But her first foray into the classroom - with a class she had been warned were “really challenging” turned her life around. “I loved it. I had been warned about a particular class - that I would have to watch myself, not to leave the room things like that. I decided to work with a few scenes from ‘Blood Brothers’ and run them through some team building games and we just clicked. I left thinking ‘I really like this’.”
Securing the first job she applied for in Liverpool after graduation Sinead said she felt teaching came naturally to her - but it’s not the teaching many of us would remember from our childhoods.
“Children are very different now from when I was in school. It’s not sitting down and learning out of a book any more, now children will misbehave and they will let you know that was boring. I think the reason I enjoy teaching is the challenge of wondering how I can take an idea and make it different.”
It was then a dramatic life event led Sinead to reconsider where she was now living. Having married she and husband Mark were delighted to discover they were expecting twins. The couple however were devastated when they told at their 20 weeks scan to “expect the worst” and that the identical twin girls were suffering from a rare complication of pregnancy - twin to twin syndrome.
“When they were born we felt it was such a miracle to have them after all we had been through that we sat down and discussed what was best for us as a family.”
Deciding to give up her much loved job as Head of Drama in her school, Sinead and Mark decided to make the move home to Derry with the girls, Roma and Farragh, to be closer to their families.
Having secured a job as Education Officer with the Millennium Forum, Sinead soon found herself visiting Foyleview to promote a youth arts programme.
“The principal gave me a tour of the school. “I was really confident and I said to him ‘I have a really strange feeling about this school - I think I’m going to work here’ - which was quite a cheeky thing to say. He just kind of laughed at me - but I decided then to take the risk of leaving my full time job and taking the risk at subbing and eventually I got subbing at Foyleview and then went on to get a permanent position there.
“I don’t know what made me think ‘special school’ - there was just something. The challenge appealed to me - I got that excitement that it would be something I would be interested in and keep me working towards my own personal development as a teacher and oh my God, I just love it.”
Not content with raising twin girls and teaching full time while husband Mark travels for work, Sinead then decided to take her passion for the arts and education to a whole new level.
Almost two years ago she, with the help of school friends Margaret Carlin and Emma Lindsay, set up Fresh Academy of Performing Arts.
Sinead said she believes Fresh offers something a little different to the other drama schools in Derry. “I wanted to do something which sees us get together, play and see what we can create. It’s about giving children self belief.
“It works for whatever the parent and child wants. If a parent comes to me and says my child is really struggling with their confidence, Fresh will work for them or if a parent comes to say I want my child to achieve Grade 8 in Musical Theatre we can arrange that too.”
As an offshoot of Fresh, Sinead has recently set up Fresh Education Ltd - which she hopes will further showcase just how the arts can help young people, of all abilities learn and develop.
“The idea is to provide inclusive education through the likes of after school clubs, to tender for projects within schools etc to provide arts facilitators and ideas involving the arts to assist learning.”
Sinead has no doubts drama can have a transformative effect on a young person’s life: “Sometimes a child with attitude, or a child who comes across as quite cocky - sometimes when you peel that away you find a child who is very very isolated within themselves and there are self esteem problems.
Drama and music and dance are subjects which allow children to lose their inhibitions and let themselves go. It’s amazing to watch that transformation.”