Isabella Lind

The headteacher of Aileymill Primary in Greenock and winner of the lifetime achievement prize at the 2013 Scottish Education Awards discusses the importance of leading by example, the place of the Scots language and her longstanding passion for the expressive arts and anti-sectarian work. Interview by Henry Hepburn. Photography by Chris James

What's the biggest change you've seen in teaching?

The technology - we've really got to tap into children's engagement with it. Also, giving children and parents a voice in the school.

Have all changes been for the better?

Many have, but I often think we throw the baby out with the bathwater. I've based my whole career on the idea that learning should be fun - but sometimes it just isn't. There are parts where you think "I hate this", but you work out how to cope with that. It sometimes worries me that we're giving children an unrealistic idea of learning.

Your school was formed three years ago after a merger. How was that?

It was the most difficult thing I've ever done in education.

What would you say to people going through a merger?

Keep going - you'll get there. And your most important commodities are your people. Everyone needs to feel valued, that there's an interest in them and what they're going through. When I was struggling to get to grips with my job, my colleagues in Greenock were there for me - I wouldn't have survived without them.

You're known for leading by example - isn't there a story about scaling a climbing wall in your skirt and high heels?

Not high heels, but people worried that my shoes weren't suitable. My response was: "Women climbed the Matterhorn in long dresses - I think I can climb this!" That was encouraging for children who were very frightened.

Why is it important to lead by example?

I wouldn't ask any of my staff to do anything I wouldn't do myself. And if I've walked in their shoes, I understand their difficulties. That's why it's important to get into classrooms - it's all very well having lots of exciting ideas in my office, but until you're in the classroom dealing with the nitty-gritty, you don't fully understand what teachers have to do.

Why do you champion the Scots language?

It gives children a pride in their own culture, in being Scottish - I don't want them to be apologetic. I want my children to use Scots and English; we have to be bilingual. It will die out if we don't use it. It worries me that the education awards don't have a category for Scots - I'll be on to them about that.

You have a deep love of expressive arts - what do they offer children?

Confidence, and something different that touches the emotions. The power of the expressive arts is second to none and has got to be central to daily life.

You pay for children to go on school trips if a family can't afford it ...

Sometimes, but you've got to be careful - you don't want to take away people's pride. The key thing is that the child must never know that Mammy or Daddy did not pay. Sometimes children arrive for trips with no clothes packed. God bless Primark, where we've had to rush to in the morning.

In the 1980s, you worked in Possilpark, Glasgow, and encountered sectarianism against a nearby Catholic school. What did you do?

It was terrible. "Aw hen, we've always stoned the 'Cafflicks'," one mother told me after her seven-year-old son had been throwing stones at the Catholic school. I said, "Well, the Catholics are my friends, and when I'm here you're not stoning them." The ecumenical work I undertook in Greenock with Catholic schools over 25 years is what I'm most proud of in my career. Children go on excursions together, share the same church, work together and see that we are friends. All that met a lot of resistance to begin with.

You travel abroad often and return with ideas for school. What did you bring back from a trip to China?

The importance of the expressive arts there, and that people revered education because it wasn't free. Also how we take for granted our freedom. That was the only thing I didn't like - children had to do the class cadre, when they were exploring communism, and toe the party line. You could see the fear in their eyes, and the teacher's eyes.

You invited Barack Obama to the school. What happened?

Burns is a great love of mine, but until last year I didn't realise that he had had such an influence on Abraham Lincoln. Then I discovered that Lincoln's wife had visited the Burns club in Greenock, the oldest one in the world. I thought that was absolutely incredible - and Obama is a fan of Lincoln. The Burns club is writing to invite Obama to Greenock, and when he's here he'll come to Aileymill. We're waiting to hear back.

What is the most important quality in a teacher?


You are nearing retirement. How are you approaching it?

I'm always looking for new things to develop. I would like the school grounds to be tip-top before I go. I've been away at the Chelsea Flower Show getting ideas, and we've had the Royal Horticultural Society helping. I'm not winding down to retirement, I'm building up to it.

What will you do after retirement?

Study Scots language at the University of Glasgow, I hope. I want to show the children that Mrs Lind will continue her learning.


Born: Greenock, 1949

Education: Ardgowan Primary, Greenock; Greenock High; Jordanhill College of Education; University of Glasgow (diploma of education)

Career: Teacher and assistant head, King's Glen Primary, Greenock (1970-1984); head, Saracen Primary, Glasgow (1984-86); head, Ravenscraig Primary, Greenock (1986-2010); head, Aileymill Primary, Greenock (2010-). Appointed OBE in 2006 for services to education. First female member of Greenock Rotary Club, and first female president.

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