“This woman should write a book about her story” is the first thing that pops into your mind when you listen to Sarah Craig’s story.
As we film another episode in our series highlighting stories from the people on the ground in the education sector, Sarah Craig (or Miss Craig if you’re one of her students) talks in a calm and composed manner about the work she does. She describes helping children fighting cancer, some as young as three, and how she spends time with them to make sure they don’t fall behind in their schooling.
As we go through the story and the steps necessary for filming, she insists that she shouldn’t be the focus, but the children and the work done in hospital. She’s quick to point out that there are four other educators at Mater Dei, from teachers to Kindergarten Assistants who are offering support through the National School Support Services. This should not be about her.
The children she’s talking about are ordinary children in very unordinary situations. Cancer is already a difficult weight for any adult. A child with such a reality is unbearable to think, but here this is what it is. Their families work hard to help them live a normal childhood, but the initial months can be tough. Hope is the key.
The corridors of the children’s wards are painted in cartoon characters and help minimise the bland and imposing aesthetic usually associated with hospitals. Mater Dei has gone to great lengths to make sure it feels as welcoming as possible. Miss Craig’s classroom is different from the other rooms in the corridor. The bright magenta walls and shelf-loads of educational games is a welcome change from the hospital machines found next door. She knows a lot about the journey that these children are going through.
When Sarah was 9 she was diagnosed with cancer and spent a year in treatment, including a number of chemotherapy cycles and a life-saving operation in the UK. It was a different time back then, with no Facetime and no smartphones. The UK felt much further away from home in those days.
At a time where the child’s mental well-being was very much secondary to a child’s health, she explains how difficult it was to cope. Catching up after missing a whole year of schooling was not easy, but she persevered. She dreamt of becoming a teacher. It was a dream that became a reality just over ten years later, when she graduated as a Primary School Teacher from the University of Malta.
After seven rewarding years teaching in primary, she felt that her next step was to help teach children in hospital. She never looked back since.
“I feel like I can relate to them, because I was one of them. When I tell them I was in their place twenty years ago, and my hair has come back and I’ve never quit the fight and became a teacher as in my dreams, it helps a lot. They can picture themselves beyond the disease, to look further on in their lives and believe in the power of their dreams. It gives them hope.”
Educators in hospital have a completely different job than those working in schools. The health aspect of the child remains the utmost priority, but the role of the teacher is to help them motivate and continue their learning journey as well, as much as possible. Juggling all this is not easy. In school you might go hard on a student, but with a child in hospital you have to adapt to the needs of the child first. He or she comes before the work.
“There are dark days when they would be exhausted. There are others when they come to you. The important thing is to help them move forward in their journey and to look beyond their disease, and ultimately, have hope and be positive.”
Not all of these journeys end in a positive way.
“After four years we’ve sadly had to part with six strong warriors who heroically fought such great battles. Children who you build a relationship with over a period of months and years. After going through this, your life will change forever. Your heart holds all the precious memories of beautiful souls, too beautiful for words, who are gone too soon.”
At Mater Dei you will find many difficult situations. But the work being done by these educators shows that even in the most gruelling of circumstances, the humanity in all of us shines through.