The award-winning head who believes ‘less talk and more listening’ is the key to school leadership

The winner of the top prize in the Scottish Education Awards will retire this summer – leaving her Shetland school in the hands of one of her very first pupils.

Irene Smith (above right), who started at Bell’s Brae Primary School in 1976, will retire after a spell as acting headteacher, with Jennifer Wadley (above left), whom she taught as a P1, taking up the reins again.

Ms Smith, who won the Lifetime Achievement Award, had been due to retire at Easter after more than 20 years as deputy headteacher, but agreed to stay on a little longer as acting head after Ms Wadley – one of a number of ex-pupils who have gone on to become staff members – was seconded into another role.

“It’s lovely to see former pupils having the same commitment to teaching,” said Ms Smith. “There is a bond there – an understanding and familiarity. It’s so nice to think you’ve had some impact, that they’ve wanted to go into the same career as you.”

Ms Smith said that perhaps the most important attribute for a teacher was to be a good listener.

“Sometimes people are awful quick to talk and tell others what to do. I’ve found that listening to children is the way I can help them the best. I’ll introduce a topic and ask them what they know and what they want to learn – doing that will keep them motivated.”

As part of the nomination process, Ms Wadley wrote: “Everything Irene does in the school is driven first and foremost by the needs of the children.

“She will cover a class with an engaging lesson at a moment’s notice, supervise at breaktime, referee a football match, dry tears, sort out disputes, ensure a lost child gets home, organise a school trip, spend a sleepless night in the local outdoor centre, search for a missing jacket, be a DJ, take the role of a Victorian headmistress…the list is endless!”

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