For 36 years Briege Lewis has been climbing the steep hill of Blighs Lane into the school that has become her second home.
She’s been a teacher, vice principal and trusted colleague at St. Cecilia’s College.
But to the thousands of young girls dressed in the trademark bottle green uniform she’s taught over the past four decades - she’s known simply as ‘Miss.’
Ill health has forced Briege to retire early giving up a job and vocation that has meant so much to her.
St. Cecilia’s will not forget her though, Mrs Lewis has left her legacy.
Staff at the school recently nominated Mrs. Lewis for the Inspirational Educator award at the Derry Journal People of the Year Awards.
Words like “exceptional” and “inspirational” have used to described the Derry teacher.
But one of her former students probably summed her up best when she said: “Her door was always open to students when they needed help or advice solving many things with a cup of tea.”
Not bad for a young Miss Donaghy who joined the staff at the school at the end of the 1970s with the intention of only staying a year before she went travelling overseas.
“It was my mum Phyllis who got me the application form for St Cecilia’s,” explained Briege. “It was a difficult time and there were very few jobs for teachers.
“I had no intention of going to St Cecilia’s, I was going to Canada with my friend. My mum told me to go for it and if I got the job to try it for a year. So I did. My friend went to Canada and stayed there and I did the same in St Cecilia’s.”
Her parents Benny and Phyllis Donaghy instilled a strong work ethic in her, said Briege.
“It was a difficult time for girls and education, it was thought that girls would go into factory. My mammy brought the three of us girls into the factory and taught us our trade. Mine was to make pockets.
“She said we could go into the factory and work or stay at school.
“I knew how hard factory work was. Those girls earned every penny of their money. So we all stayed on and got a good education.
“When I started teaching the focus of education wasn’t always on girls but come the 1980s there was a shift when it moved from CSEs to GCSEs. The focus was on GCSEs for everyone.
“The girls started to flourish and secondary schools began to lose that title. We became St Cecilia’s College.”
It was Briege’s obsession with Geography that inspired her teaching.
“I can talk Geography anywhere, anytime and any place,” she said. “I loved doing field work and getting kids out of the classroom, for me the classroom had to be a little bit quirky.
“Even when we were teaching something like direction I would have gone outside to the playing fields, the girls all knew to expect the unexpected.
“If someone saw me out teaching in the field they would have probably have mistaken me for a P.E. teacher.
“There was always learning going on.
“At St Cecilia’s the geography classroom always had a great view and we made great use of it. We live in the most beautiful city in Ireland and anything you are discussing you could find a reason to point something out as a focal point.”
But the legendary field trips to Magilligan - or the ‘Costa De La Magilligan’ are probably one of the things Mrs Lewis will be most remembered for.
“The geography department all lived and breathed geography,” she said.
“We all met outside of school, we still keep meeting.
“At the beginning going to Magilligan was less about being a field trip and more of a social event,
“A lot of children in Creggan wouldn’t have ever been on sleepover or even on a train. A night in Magilligan was a big trip for them. Magilligan was a safe environment, they did a bit of field work and had a bit of craic and fun.”
For Briege it is the people who work in St Cecilia’s that make it so special.
“I love that the school belongs in the heart of the community,” she said.
“It is a Long Tower parish school, I love that the children can go to a first class school with first class teachers where people are committed to our young people.
“Our new building is great but it is only the fabric of the school, it is the children and the people and what goes on inside that make it so special.
“A school has to be about the people, everyone who works there. There’s a spirit and feeling in St Cecilia’s, you cannot feel or touch it, but you can take it away with you.”
It’s been an emotional time for Briege - leaving the school because of ill health.
“I knew I had to leave, it was the right time and right decision.
“To teach children you have to be up for the job, in my opinion. You have to give it all or forget about it.
“I enjoyed it, I loved it, and wish I could still do it but my health would not have allowed me to continue doing the job I was doing.
“ You only get one go at school and it wouldn’t be fair to the pupils for me to continue.
“You need a lot of stamina to allow you to do a job well and I get tired very easily. My faith has helped me through this and I know that this is what God has chosen for me.
“But I look on the bright side, the school has an inspection coming up maybe I got out at the right time!
“I’ll miss the thousands of girls who called me Miss, and the very few who accidentally called me Mammy.
“The support of everyone in St Cecilia’s has been amazing. The support from my family and my husband Jude.”
Martin Mulhern principal of St Cecilia’s College said Briege is an inspirational educator because “in her classroom children are not afraid to take risks and are not afraid to speak, because they trust her.
“For them she was the adult, perhaps the only one in their lives, who they knew would never give up on them. “She was the adult who insisted they become the best they possibly could be.
“She had high expectations and insisted students took responsibility for their actions and encouraged them to pay the piper and take their oil.
“She loves the girls in St Cecilia’s and they know that.
“She believed in their possibilities unconditionally and could only ever see what they could become. She is an amazing person and fabulous teacher! We miss her.”