Future School Leaders, Fiona McDermott

The energetic Fiona McDermott is a teacher at Safa British School and has been nominated as a WSA Future School Leader by her colleagues. Read on to find out why.
This article is part of an editorial series on Future School Leaders
Future School Leaders
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Future School Leaders
This article is part of an editorial series on Future School Leaders

For our Future School Leaders feature, we explore the careers of successful young teachers. In this interview, we speak to Fiona McDermott of Safa British School.

Fiona, why do you think you were nominated as a Future School Leader?

I guess it’s got a lot do to with my energy! I am really passionate about alternative ways of learning and often come up with new ideas and things to try.

We have a great team at Safa British School. Zara [Harrington], our Principal, is full of energy and ideas too. I think that sometimes our Head of Primary, Louise McGeever, gets a bit nervous when she sees the two of us come in together… We always want to try something different!

Is leading a school an ambition for you?

I have thought about it, of course. If you watch the leaders of Safa British School, or Safa Community School work…well, sometimes I am bewildered at how well they do it and how they manage it all. I started my Dubai teaching career at Safa Community School and learnt so much from Leanne Fridd, who is the Vice Principal there.  What she and Zara do is almost a super hero task! I don’t know what the future holds. I have had very inspirational leaders to work for, so I guess we will see.

Who or what inspired you to become a teacher?

I am from Connemara in the west of Ireland, a really rural part of the country. As a child, I attended Letterfrack National School, an unusual school that was seen as quite transformative for the 1990s. The Principal, Leo Hallissey, was well known in Irish education circles. In fact, when I went to university, all my lecturers knew about my Principal, and this was a school with only 60 children in it!

The school was massively different for Ireland at the time. There was lots of project-based learning, reading for pleasure and the arts was a massive part of our everyday life (we were all taught to sing and play traditional Irish instruments). We even had a mussel farm by the sea, for which we ended up winning Science awards from Board Iascaigh Mhara, the Irish Marine Biology board!  We had such amazing opportunities; I think that school really shaped my loved of learning.

Fiona having fun with her students

Can you tell us about your career to date?

I went to university at Trinity College Dublin. After qualifying as a teacher at the age of 20, I spent two years working in an inner-city school in Dublin, before move to Al Ain to work for ADEK. Although I love being in Dubai now, I am so grateful I had that experience first as it helped me to become really immersed in Emirati culture.

Before Safa British School, I was working at our sister school, Safa Community School. The minute I walked in, I just loved the feel of the school and I have been with Safa ever since. The owners are so involved and supportive, and the leadership of both schools is incredible. As a school, it’s a rare find! From September I will be Head of Foundation Stage and Assistant Head of Primary at Safa British School, and I cannot wait for that.

Why teach in the UAE?

I feel like have this conversation a lot! My sister is just about to start her PCGE and hopes to be teaching next year. She is also here in Dubai, and she will be working at Safa Community School as TA while she studies. I also have lots of people I know from home who are thinking of coming over. I always say to anyone who want to teach in the UAE that the professional development you will get over here is absolutely incredible. You are exposed to so many things and Dubai is such an innovative place. I think if teachers come here with an open mind, they will learn so much.

Active learning at Safa British School!

You work with younger children. Do you think Early Years education has evolved in the UAE?

In Irish we have a special word for love, ‘grá’. I always think it’s an even more powerful word than love. Well, I have a special grá for Early Years education! So it’s been great to watch it grow and evolve here over the past six years here in the UAE.

We have an incredible wood work room here at Safa British School. Our children use real tools and is it just so good to watch them explore and experiment. Our parents are sometimes nervous about the tools at first, but then they become excited to see what their children can do. I think Early Years education has come a long way!

How teaching is different for your generation?

Having been inspired to teach by someone so ahead of his time, I’m not sure I can tell you about too many differences. In fact, I think Leo and Zara would get on like a house on fire! Only as I became an adult did I realise how special and forward thinking my education had been.

What advice do you have for new teachers?

When I was training, one of my mentors said to me that “once you relate to the children, that’s when you can teach them”. Connecting to children and understanding their social and emotional needs is just as important as their academic needs, I truly believe that. Other than that I would say, don’t be afraid to make mistakes!

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