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Council / Former pupil returns after 45 years to become Sandness principal teacher

Sandness Primary School principal teacher Sorley Johnston Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

A TEACHER who spent his early school years at primary schools in Dunrossness, Sandness and Lunnasting has gone the full circle to become the new principal teacher at Sandness Primary School.

But before he started in his new job at the Westside school following the Easter break, Sorley Johnston had also worked as the school’s cleaner, dinner ‘lady’ and playground supervisor.

After the first week of being in charge of the 19-pupil school the 52-year-old, who used to work as a travelling languages teacher in rural Aberdeenshire, said he had enjoyed a great introduction into his new role.

“I am exhausted but those kids went home happy. I think they learned a few things this week, so I feel very vindicated in my decision,” he says.

“I know it will be slow steps, but it is doable and there is a chance to create something special here –great kids, support from parents and the community, and a very supporting head teacher Elizabeth Garriock [the joint head teacher for Happyhansel and Sandness primary schools].

Johnston said he had been thinking of returning to Shetland for many years but the time was never right to make a proper decision. It needed the Covid pandemic to help him to make that decision and take him to the place he wanted to be.

Just days before the first lockdown at the end of March 2020, and with his father on his own in Shetland and the prospect of him being stuck in Aberdeenshire, he took the plunge and headed north.

“I am going on the boat up to Shetland, and if can I am staying, I said – so that’s what I did. And then everything went online, and my line manager said ‘just stay where you are’, and I did the teaching online for that term,” he said.

“I had the plan to build a house here and move up, and there was nothing particularly stopping me, so I said ‘yes, this is the time’.

“It all fell into place. Often when you can’t make a decision, something else comes along and decides for you, and that was the Covid situation.”

It is the community of Sandness, and its tiny primary school in particular, that were so important and formative in his early years. When the job as the school’s cleaner came up earlier last year, he went for it. This was followed by a few extra hours during lunch, as well as playground supervisor. And then the job as principal teacher came up.

A well read copy of Like a Mantle the Sea, published 50 years ago.

He pays tribute to former headteacher Stella Shepherd (author of the 1971 Shetland classic Like a Mantle the Sea) who he says was an inspiration who opened up the world to him when he attended the Sandness school for a couple of years in the 1970s.

“I had experienced fairly ‘traditional’ teaching, and she was such a sea change,” he remembers.

“I was ready for the freedom that she could give me, letting your imagination unhook and give you responsibility for your own learning. At the time that was quite unusual, it was in the early 70s.”

But his family was on the move again. His father Laughton, a primary teacher and later the Nature Conservancy’s representative for Shetland and Orkney, briefly became the headteacher at Lunnasting before taking his family to Scotland for a series of jobs in nature conservation.

The family moved to Rum in 1981, where his father had been appointed chief warden of the island’s nature reserve. Sorley, at secondary school age now, spent most of that time at the hostel in Portree, unable to get home over the weekends.

Apart from being homesick for long periods, his upbringing instilled in him a deep understanding and appreciation for the natural world, and it is this – besides teaching languages – that he hopes he will bring to the curriculum at Sandness.

“I feel re-energised. I can do my languages and I can be part of the community,” he says. “It is slightly daunting because it is a lot to take on, there are a lot of new things to learn, but got to Friday and I had a great week.

“We have a great resource out here,” he continues, explaining that some time last week was spent exploring the local beach and gathering seaweed for a new Planticrub the school managed to have built in July last year.

“Outdoors and environmental education is high on the education agenda,” he says, adding that he sees this as “a great opportunity to create that curiosity [in the pupils] that I think I got from Mrs Shepherd at that time.”