Loving the quieter life

Living

PERSONAL TOUCH Kate McGonagle is enjoying the smaller classes at Drummin NS, which allow her more one-to-one time with the school’s children. She is pictured here with one of her pupils, Adrian Garrivan. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Kate McGonagle left urban teaching to become principal of a small rural school

Interview
Anton McNulty

With Croagh Patrick to one side and the majestic Sheeffry Hills to the other, Drummin National School must be located in one of the most spectacular settings in Mayo. It is little wonder its new principal, Kate McGonagle, says the most striking part of her new role is tranquility.
“One of the biggest advantages here is the sense of calm. The sense of peace and quiet out here is lovely. I love the calm and even the drive here in the morning. It is the most beautiful setting,” she told The Mayo News.

From 400 to eight
But this sense of calm is not just down to the rural surroundings. Just eight pupils are enrolled in the school. This makes a big change for the 34-year-old native of Westport’s Quay Road, who had previously taught in a school with over 400 pupils in Navan, Co Meath.  
“I loved it, the school itself was fantastic,” she explained. “There were so many opportunities and children from different backgrounds. Like everything there are positives and negatives but the positives were fantastic. The staff were amazing and the two principals who were there with me were fantastic, they taught me a lot and I learned a lot.”
Apart from a stint in an International school in Denmark – the home country of her husband Thomas – the school in Navan was the only school in which she had taught after graduating from Mary Immaculate College in the University of Limerick. She was happy there, but the lure of a return to Westport was too strong to ignore.
“Although I loved it [Navan] and felt so comfortable there, there came a time, especially with two young children, that we thought we needed a little more family support.
“I was pregnant with my second child, and before he was born we went down home to Westport to see if we liked it. We decided we did like it and stayed put.”

Small is better
The plaque on the outside of Drummin NS declares that there has been a school in the village since 1849, and the new building dates back to 1936. Up until around a decade ago it was a two-teacher school, but it fell victim to changes in the pupil-teacher ratio brought in during the recession, and its teaching staff was reduced to one.
Teresa McGuire was the principal for close to 20 years. She retired last year, and Kate is now her successor.
For many the thought of going from a large urban school to one threatened with closure would be a step backwards, but Kate sees nothing but positives, describing it as a dream.
“There are only eight children here but the opportunities for teaching and learning are phenomenal. That is the dream really, even though it poses its own challenges… The difference to teaching in a bigger school is huge.
“I feel I have gotten to know the children more in the last three weeks than I would have in half the academic year in my previous school. I know them, I know what they are capable of, I know their interests which you don’t always get to do in a bigger setting. You don’t get to know the child on a personal level as much as you would like to. For me that has been fantastic.
“My friends who are teachers know what it’s like to be in a room with 30-odd kids and you are rushing around trying to get to each of them and you don’t always do it by the end of the day. In a small setting like this you have those opportunities.”
While the school is officially a one-teacher school, Kate is not alone with the children. She is supported by Fiona McDonnell, the special education teacher; supply teacher James Fallon; and school secretary Breda Morahan.
One thing that pleasantly surprised Kate on her arrival was the size of the classrooms and the resources available for the pupils in the school.
“It is a fantastic school and is amazingly well resourced. Tereasa [McGuire] left this school in very good shape. We didn’t have half the resources in my old school. There are extra resources for English, for maths and arts… the PE shed is full of amazing equipment,” she said.

Fight to survive
Like many one-teacher schools in Mayo, Drummin is fighting hard to survive. This summer the Department of Education launched a pilot project involving schools in Galway, Donegal, Kerry, Wicklow and Waterford aimed at supporting small rural schools.
Although she has only been in Drummin a matter of weeks, Kate has already seen the importance of keeping the school open for the community.
“The community wants to hold onto their school, and we are trying to be more proactive and do things to keep things going. We are in the process of developing a new website to keep people updated and a new Facebook page to let people know what is happening. We want to remind people that we are here and [the school] is accessible and not a million miles away.
“Closing schools is not the answer. It is for the children and those children deserve a school and education just as much as those living in the town. Hopefully the pilot scheme will be a success and make it more feasible to keep smaller schools open.”

School family
Getting used to the small class sizes was the main challenge for Kate when she started, but on the plus side, there is no need to put behaviour strategies in place or deal with discipline.
She describes her eight pupils as a family and does not believe they are losing out socially or academically by the lack of numbers.
“I have spoken to a few parents, and they ask if there is anything they are missing out on. I don’t feel they are missing out on a whole lot. They are all in the same room, and you forget the age gap between them when they are all there playing together. It works, and to be honest they do get what they need from each other.
“Extracurricular activities are there outside school for them, and that is important, but personally I don’t feel they are lacking anything from what I am witnessing.
“They are good hard workers, and it is amazing to see how appreciative they are of their surroundings and nature, which I have not witnessed before in a town school. I know a lot have farming backgrounds, and that is new to me too. I am learning from them because I don’t have a clue what they are on about half the time,” she laughs. “I’m showing interest in their lives and I think they appreciate that too.”
While the future of small schools like Drummin is uncertain, Kate has no regrets about taking up her new role.
“No regrets so far. Quite the opposite, actually. I am very lucky and blessed to be given this fantastic opportunity as a teacher. It has been amazing, and I’m delighted at a personal level to be back home.”