Virginia teacher earns Inspire Award
Una Smith accepted the award earlier this month.
Virginia College teacher Una Smith is one of four teachers nationally to be recognised with a coveted Teachers Inspire Award for 2021.
Organised and run by Dublin City University, Teachers Inspire is an Ireland-wide initiative that seeks to celebrate teachers and to recognise the transformative role they play in our lives and in our communities.
The initiative is curated by acclaimed author Louise O’Neill, who has also hosted the Teachers Inspire podcast, sharing stories of teachers who have made a difference, and it has prompted hundreds of nominations since it began in 2019.
Una, an English teacher, was nominated by former student Shauna Sheridan who described how she had failed her mocks and had no idea what she was going to do after she sat the Leaving Cert.
Shauna was also struggling with her mental health.
In her heartfelt nomination, Shauna told the Teachers Inspire Award panel of judges that her “mother was recovering from cancer and my father took his own life two weeks before my 18th Birthday.”
Shauna says Una would have her stay behind after class to “have a chat. She would ask me how I was and genuinely wanted to hear the answer. Not only did she become someone in school I felt comfortable confiding in, but she helped me believe in myself enough to get to where I am today.”
After graduating from Virginia College, Shauna went to IT Sligo to study Sales and Marketing, applying through the 'Breaking the Mould' access programme.
Accepting her award earlier this month in Virginia College, Una said she was overwhelmed and as a teacher stated: “you hope that along the way, somewhere, that you inspire children to be the best of themselves, to be the best people that they can be, to be the happiest version of themselves. I think it's so important that the children learn to be themselves, unique (and) individual, and to be as content as they can be in the world that they live in.”
An Ireland-wide initiative, Teachers Inspire is organised and run by Dublin City University. It is generously supported by a philanthropic donation by Dermot Desmond who also supports The Desmond Chair in Early Childhood Education at DCU's Institute of Education.
Teachers Inspire first ran in 2019. It was postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Curator Louise O’Neill said: “We received hundreds of entries for the Teachers Inspire initiative and if there was any recurring theme, it was the power of teachers to encourage their students to believe in themselves, and how those young people carried that message throughout their entire lives.”
Read Shauna’s full nomination:
Shauna Sheridan had lost her father to suicide, her mother had been seriously ill and she had failed all of her mock exams but Shauna was inspired by her teacher Una Smith, Virginia College, County Cavan to get the A in English she needed for her college course.
Shauna was in 6th year and said, “I was never very academic in school. I have dyslexia and dyspraxia and never really felt like I was clever enough to even think about going to college. I failed every single mock Leaving Cert exam.”
She had “no idea what I was going to do after I sat the Leaving Cert.”
At the time she said she was struggling with her mental health, “my mother was recovering from cancer and my father took his own life two weeks before my 18th Birthday.”
Una Smith was her English teacher and she would “let me stay behind after class to have a chat. She would ask me how I was and genuinely wanted to hear the answer. If I was having a bad day she would pick up on it and would always make time to catch up with me either after class or for a minute in the corridor.”
“Not only did she become someone in school I felt comfortable confiding in but she helped me believe in myself enough to get to where I am today.”
The mock exams were about one month after her father had died. Shauna said, “I couldn't bare the silence, I couldn't concentrate and I certainly hadn't studied for any of them. After the mock results came out and I found out for sure I had failed them all I remembered Ms Smith saying at the start of the year before my whole life blew up ‘some of the people in this class are capable of getting an A in English’.”
“It's such a simple comment but once I remembered it weirdly enough it sparked some kind of determination in me to turn things around, make sure she was right and make sure I made something of myself. I was dead set on getting that A.”
She decided she wanted to go to IT Sligo to study Sales and Marketing and she applied through the Breaking the Mould access programme.
“I had to write a personal essay about how I was a suitable candidate and Ms Smith read over it and gave me some pointers. I got accepted I just had to make sure I got the points then.”
In her English Leaving Certificate essay she recalled something Ms Smith had said. “The crux of it was how the best creative writing and personal essays are related to your own real life experiences.”
“I began to write about the kindness of people, I wrote about Ms Smith and others and how kind people had been to me after Daddy passed, I wrote about how if Daddy had been able to see how kind people could be maybe I wouldn't be writing this personal essay.”
Shauna achieved her A in English and said, “I got the A because for the first time in my school career I had felt like I was good at something and like I was capable. Without Ms Smiths belief in my abilities I never would have believed in myself.”
“When I got to college it turned out writing and presenting where some of my strong points so much so it helped me do well enough to get a 1:1. I have just started a job in Public Relations where I have to write stuff, never in a million years would I be doing what I'm doing now if it hadn't of been for Ms Smith.”
“She taught me to believe in myself. I know that's a total cliché but it's the truth. She gave me the confidence to go into college feeling as though I was just as capable and competent as the people around me.”