If there were ever any doubts as to why small, one- or two-teacher schools deserve to be retained and supported, they must surely have been dispelled by Ryan Tubridy’s radio interview with the principal of Templemary National School last week.
Chuck Dunford is the principal of Templemary, a school of 38 pupils located between Killala and Lacken. There, he and his colleague, Sinéad Holmes, manage the complex task of each teaching four classes simultaneously, akin, as Tubridy suggested, to keeping several plates spinning in the air, all at the same time.
The presenter’s initial fascination with the logistical challenge of running eight classes with two teachers – albeit with the help, as Mr Dunford said, of a number of dedicated ancillary staff – turned into a lengthy exploration of the principal’s own philosophy of life and adversity. That it made for pure-gold radio was confirmed by the shoal of plaudits from listeners everywhere, while also serving as a reminder of the immeasurable contribution of all teachers to the development of their young charges on so many different levels.
This was not the first time Templemary attracted national media attention. A decade ago, it was one of the schools featured in an RTÉ documentary about the work of two-teacher schools. As Chuck Dunford recalled, it had been a one-teacher school when he was appointed there nearly 30 years ago, so that the appointment of a second teacher, when it came, had been the cause of much jubilation. And, to be fair, he did make it sound easy; having third and fourth classes doing English in one half of the classroom, while fifth and sixth would be coping with maths in the other half.
What came across most strongly in the programme was the centrality of the local school to everything which happens in the community. It was clear that Templemary school is at the heart of the locality and enjoys the full support of parents and management, neighbours and past students, staff and voluntary helpers. And it was easy to see how the closure of the local small school could have such a devastating impact on the morale and the sense of self-worth of any rural community.
If anything, Mr Dunford was somewhat understated in his account of his school’s extracurricular achievements. Not many listeners would have been aware that the Templemary girls had won all-Ireland chess honours in consecutive years through the mid ’70s, a skill passed on by their enthusiastic chess-playing principal. And the school’s prowess in music and drama and choral singing is well recognised over a very wide area.
School principals are upbeat by nature, and Chuck Dunford is no exception. From explaining the origin of his name (when still a toddler, an elderly, hard-of-hearing neighbour mistook his name of ‘Jarlath’ for ‘Charlie’, which morphed into ‘Chuck’) to his recounting for his pupils of his travels in South America, his is a happy story.
But the sky is never always blue, and there was also the poignant story of the loss for Chuck and Mairéad of their eight-year-old son, Kevin, after a long and progressive illness. Even then, though, there was joy through the pain, and gratitude for the years of happiness which Kevin had brought into their lives. There was, in the telling, no self-pity, merely an acceptance that suffering is often the other side of life’s coin and that – like young Kevin did – we sometimes need to live in the moment.