She’s known as Mrs B to her pupils and as she celebrates 30 years teaching Sandra explains why she just loves her job
For Derry woman Sandra Biddle every day is a drama - speech and drama that is.
For 30 years Sandra, known affectionately by her pupils as Mrs B, has been teaching in her own unique Biddle way, 25 of these at her Foyle School of Speech and Drama.
“How many pupils have you got?” I ask Sandra.
“One,” she answers. “When I close that door and class begins I have only one. Each and every one of them is individual and unique.
“Each week I hear every one of them presenting something. On the weeks I don’t I’ll wake at four in the morning remembering ‘I didn’t hear Billy doing his poem.’ But that happens very seldom.”
From an early age Sandra, then Barrett, formed a love with the written word and performance attending Irish dance classes with her Aunt Marie, singing with Mrs McCafferty and elocution lessons with Miss Watson.
“There’s something magical about the written word,” said Sandra. “It’s magical getting a piece of prose or a poem and it meaning something to you and something different to the person sitting beside you.
“I hate it when people say - gosh no, that poem is about something else and demolishing the picture in the child’s head about what the poem meant to them.”
Sandra first began teaching in the Tech with a group of men: Eamon Deane, Terry McCloskey, Terry Doherty and John Donaghey.
“They instilled in me this notion of the whole person,” said Sandra. “When you are teaching, you are teaching the whole person.”
Sandra went onto Magee where she worked as a communication lecturer.
But she says her biggest training ground was as a mum to her three daughters.
“Being a mammy is the greatest qualification you can ever have,” said Sandra.
“My eldest daughter Mairosia and I had such great fun, reading and doing wee action songs. I was a professional woman, and women have so much to give, but I wanted to cultivate it with being a mammy and being at home. I always knew that I wanted to collect my children at the playground every day.
“I said at the nursery one day, that I was handing in my notice. At that stage I was pregnant with Blathnaid so baby number two was on the way and it all went from there.”
Sandra’s classes began in the dungeons of St Columb’s Hall with four pupils one Monday night - Domhnall McDermott wrote the first ever article and helped her come up with the name - the Foyle School of Speech and Drama.
The following week those four friends brought a friend, the next week those friends brought friends and the seeds of the Foyle School were sown.
“I brought in all my training - from Aunt Marie and all those classes, and more importantly my communication degree and background,” she says.
“And I weaved all together what I learned as a mammy. It never was to be anything other than a place where kids could come, have written information like a poem or prose and just have fun exploring it and exploring how they can interpret it.
“Children need consistency and security and they need to know they are coming to a safe place with someone who loves and appreciates that they are working towards a goal.
“When you have that the children respond to it. There is very little need for anything other than positive and constructive comments.”
And the rules of speech and drama? Sandra says there are only two.
“No mobile phones are allowed in my class,” said Sandra, “My teenagers nearly have withdrawal symptoms when I tell them. There is no speaking when someone else is doing their poem or when Mrs Biddle is speaking.
“They are stars, they are all special, and that always lends itself to a nice happy positive atmosphere.”
There are many aspects to the year at the Foyle School but for Sandra the year’s highlight is always the Christmas show.
“We have it over two nights in the Forum and we don’t advertise it because it is for family and friends,” she said. “The show we rehearse and the show that is performed are two completely different things at times,” said Sandra.
“But I take great pride in seeing our young people stand up on that stage in the Millennium Forum. That is what our Forum was built for. It is our platform.
“And there is a great team backstage that do so much for you. When I think of the days when I stood in the Foyle Arts centre with a tape recorder pressing stop and start, and I think of how far we have come.
“I look at old pictures and the sheep we made from cotton wool. And I remember the year the chicken exploded on the stage. It was the 1990s, we were doing ‘A Christmas Carol’ and we had nowhere to buy a rubber chicken. So we decided to make our own from paper mache.
“But of course the balloon wouldn’t go down so we just had to keep it inside. On stage the chicken exploded. Well the Cratchetts fell into fits of laughter, the audience were in convulsions and of course I was going crazy backstage doing a Spielberg thinking it had all been a disaster.
“The biggest learning curve for me that night was that it didn’t matter. The most important thing on the night is that every child has a line, they are all are important, if they don’t say their line the whole show stops, they are that important.
“Everyone is part of it. One year we even had a Mary before Jesus was born and a Mary after the baby was born because we were short on parts.”
As the pupils get older Sandra allows the older kids to act as peer mentors for the younger ones, a responsibility they all take seriously.
“So many of them ask me to read their personal statements for university and they put down that they have been a peer mentor,” said Sandra.
“The majority of them help out and are now peer mentors giving something back to the school.”
A number of Sandra’s students have come back to adjudicate at class feises.
And Sandra has enjoyed huge success with pupils such as Andrew Simpson securing a role with Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal, Maria Laird in Shadow Dancer and her own daughter Aoibheann Biddle in Five Minutes From Heaven.
But the majority of Sandra’s pupils take the skills they have learned in speech and drama and apply them to their own lives and careers.
“It could be on the road to being a star, presenting information in front of a team or in a court of law,” said Sandra.
“One of my past pupils wrote to me, said he had presentation to do in Wall Street and before he went in he had tutorials and training about what he might be asked. But he said he had a wee snigger before he went in because he kept thinking: “Mrs Biddle roll out your fingers, roll them up, press your thumbs down, put all your nerves into your thumbs.
“Those things stayed with them.”
She’s known as Mrs B - but Sandra said her teaching in an extension of her being a mammy.
“It is just part and parcel of what I am and I pray every day for God to give me the strength to keep going,” said Sandra.
“I love it up - right up to the sky and down and round about.”