The Shetlanders: the rural headteacher

North Roe Primary School isn’t your average primary school. Located in a crofting community in the remote north of Shetland's Mainland, close to where its northernmost road ends, there are just nine pupils.

Hannah Irvine isn’t your average headteacher, either, and not exactly what you’d expect of the headmistress here. At just 26, you could imagine her working at a big-city PR firm or hedge fund, such is her poise and general put-togetherness. But her looks are perhaps deceiving: Hannah grew up fishing with her father, and — like the pupils she teaches — enjoys spending her weekends off on the boat at the creels.

Having grown up in Shetland with two older sisters, she studied teaching in Edinburgh and did her probationary year at Skeld Primary, a small two-teacher school on the west side of Shetland. After a stint at a large primary school in West Lothian, Scotland, teaching a class of 30, she moved back to Shetland in summer 2015 to take the job at North Roe. “Though I’m not from North Roe, I feel like I’m a big part of a community,” she says. “That sense of community is so strong round here. When I’m at work, it’s like having another family.”

Hannah is a teaching headmistress in what is officially a one-teacher school—though another teacher, Mrs Claire Robertson, comes in for a day and a half every week so that Hannah gets time to do admin. On this Thursday afternoon, we sit in for an hour to watch how simultaneously teaching nine pupils ranging from Primary One to Five actually works.

On an an interactive whiteboard, the younger kids are filling in sections of a circle, learning about fractions. “You could pretend it’s a cake,” suggests Hannah. “Or will that make you too hungry?” When she leaves her little circle to help the older kids, the younger kids carry on, and vice versa. The vibe in the classroom is controlled, and peaceful, like the view out the window, looking out across the water to the island of Yell.

“You’re trying to give everyone the right amount of challenge and support,” says Hannah. “It’s a challenge to teach different year groups, but you can tailor the learning to each child’s specific needs. And the children in the class very quickly adapt to it. The older ones especially enjoy it because they see themselves as little teachers, too. They’re always on hands to help the younger children with their learning, and it reinforces it for them.”

The classroom itself reinforces learning, too, with just about every inch of wall-space in the room covered with educational tid-bits or pieces of the kids work. There are surprisingly advanced posters about similes, metaphors adverbs and conjunctions.

Everything feels very 2018—forward-thinking, tech-aware, inclusive, geared towards positive self-esteem.

“I very rarely hear these children talk about sitting at home on computer games,” says Hannah. “They’re either out helping on the croft with the sheep, or out out on the fishing boat, setting off creels, catching lobsters, fishing. The outdoors is very much the main play area, and they really to learn to play together, and be accepting.”

It should be noted that schools like North Roe Primary are far from the only types of school on offer in Shetland, the largest school, Lerwick’s Anderson High School, has up to 900 pupils and recently underwent a £58.75 million renovation, including new halls of residence for pupils from outer islands, and a state-of-the-art gym and leisure complex.

Hannah lives with her fiance Alexander in Voe, a pretty village half an hour’s drive south of the school (this is considered a lengthy commute in Shetland, even if Hannah rarely passes more than a few cars). Life involves hockey and, when the weather’s nice at the weekend, heading out on their boat to fish for mackerel or check their creels. Hannah’s father was a fishermen and now works on tugboats, hence the connection to the sea. She even once won an eela, a traditional Shetland rod-fishing competition, as a teenager.

Like her two older sisters, who went to the Scottish Mainland for university, Hannah always wanted to move home. And, despite a constant struggle for free time, she talks up the number of things to do in Shetland. “Whatever you’re into: whether you’re sporty, or musical, or an artist, or just like going going for walks, you’ve got everything you need up here,” she says. “Just seeing the sunrise on my way to work, and seeing the view from the school, I realise how lucky I am to live here.”