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News > Teacher Perspective > Mrs Sheilah Fenner-Leitão

Mrs Sheilah Fenner-Leitão

Originally from Australia, Mrs Sheilah Fenner-Leitão studied at a teachers' college in Brisbane before embarking on a world tour that eventually led her to Portugal.
Mrs Sheilah Fenner-Leitão
Mrs Sheilah Fenner-Leitão

Originally from Australia, Mrs Sheilah Fenner-Leitão studied at a teachers’ college in Brisbane before embarking on a world tour that eventually led her to Portugal. Known for her rigorous and assertive teaching style, Mrs Fenner-Leitão commanded the respect of her students. Over a span of 40 years, from 1968 to 2008, she was deeply involved in school life and left a lasting impact on many students and staff.

Can you tell us about your journey to Portugal and St Julian’s?

I had resigned from my teaching post in Australia and was doing a world tour with a friend who was also a teacher. We were doing bits and pieces in England. We didn’t want to teach as the state schools had a bad reputation then. It was so cold we decided to go somewhere a little bit warmer. In 1962, we discovered that the Institute Berlitz in Portugal was looking for English teachers for foreigners. We travelled to Portugal to receive training and start working. During this time, my friend and I married Portuguese men we had met on the same occasion.

One day I was at the camping park in Monsanto and ran into Mrs Audrey Costa Gomes, who was the Head of the Primary at St. Julian’s, and she told me that the school was looking for a qualified English teacher. I also applied to the American School then, but the SJS Headmaster, Mr Pitt, gave me a better offer, and I took the job at SJS. The starting salary was 6000 escudos a month!

Is there a memory you hold dear from your time at SJS?

There are so many memories. It was a fantastic place, and I loved my work. Sometimes when I was ill, my husband used to say to stay home in bed. I would say no, and would always go to school. I loved the kids. I was strict with them and made them behave, but I got results. I am still in contact with many of the students today.

I always ran in the Cross-country race with other teachers. We gave up many Saturdays organising Sports days. I also used to organise the leaving party for the O-level students. For Valentine’s Day, I would always buy carnations and circulate them around St. Julian’s. It was great fun.

What made St Julian’s special?

When I started in 1968, some teachers were still residing in school. And we also had students boarding, but only a few of them. This all finished in 1969. The headmasters were fantastic, and the staff got on very well together.

What was the most rewarding part of being a teacher?

To have kids coming back to you and thank you for the results they achieved.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a teacher, and how did you overcome them?

Teachers have a lot of preparation to do. I had three sons. I used to leave school come home, and look after the children, and after they were gone to bed, I would sit down and prepare for the next day. I would walk into the class prepared. The students would ask, what will we do today, ma’am? I’d say work! That’s what your parents expect of you. I wanted class participation and didn’t let anyone sleep. I always told students that they could ask as many questions as they wished to, providing they were not repeating someone else’s question. The results spoke for themselves. I remember a very competitive literature class I had that, according to the O-level board at the time,  was the best in the whole of Europe.

In all those years, is there a funny moment that stands out?

I remember when Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the school. The whole school went to the grass field and lined up. The Duke of Edinburgh approached me and asked me, what do you teach? I said I teach English. He then said, do they understand you? (making fun of my Australian accent). I looked at him and answered, funny!
I also recall that teachers went home at Christmas time loaded with presents from the parents. I know some teachers even got televisions!

What would you share if you could pass on any wisdom from your career?

Teaching is a vocation. For a vocation, you have to love doing it. When you enjoy what you do, you do it well.


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