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Principled educator – Mary Ryan retires

Mary Ryan

Principled educator Mary Ryan retires

Áine Ryan

POSITIVE, proactive, personable and private are all obvious attributes of the outgoing Principal of the Sacred Heart School, Westport. Mary Ryan also has uncompromising and categorical views about pedagogy and the primary place it should hold in modern society. 
When we met last week The Mayo News was not surprised that Mary Ryan wanted to be a teacher from the tender age of four. Neither was it a surprise to learn of her conviction and commitment to life-long learning.
The eldest of six, Mary Higgins was born on a small farm in Derrinkee, Liscarney.
She attended Carrakennedy and Lankill National Schools before being awarded a scholarship to the renowned Coláiste Muire in Tourmakeady where she further honed her proficiency in Irish while  proving to be a solid and dedicated student. 
“My parents both had Tourmakeady connections and we always spoke both Irish and English at home – about half and half. I did miss home at boarding school and even though it was just nine miles away we only got home at the end of each term,” says Mary.
While she loved university life at NUI Galway, where she studied Maths and Irish, this home-bird returned back over the county border frequently. .
“I used to come home most weekends as I always had a part-time job. I worked for many years in the Cake Kitchen which used to be on Shop Street and in Tom Gill’s B&B on Castlebar Street.”

AROUND this time Mary met and then, in 1980,  married her longtime boyfriend, Michael Ryan, a well-known GAA enthusiast from Kilmeena. By now she was commuting  daily to her teaching job in Dunmore, County Galway, as well as getting used to married life and beginning her family of four. 
Fortunately, after ten years driving up and down the byways of counties Mayo and Galway,  a suitable teaching  position became available at Rice College, Westport.
Sadly her parents, both only in their sixties,  died during the same year, 1990, within months of each other. While her mother had been battling cancer  or a time, her father died suddenly.
“I just loved Rice College and became very involved in the life of the school. I am a firm believer that extra-curricular activities are the making of a school. The kids are happy when they are actively involved and they embrace the learning more easily.”
Interestingly, she tells The Mayo News that: “The difference between teaching boys and girls is that generally you can use a more direct approach – the modh díreach – with boys while girls need more explanation.”
Always busy and motivated, Mary did an MEd through the Open University, in Educational Management in the early 90s.
“Back in those days there was no internet and it was mainly done by correspondence and the occasional tutorial, as well as a week long summer school in London. I must say I really enjoyed those trips.”
She is passionate in her belief in lifelong learning and argues it should be a priority for teachers.
“Lifelong learning helps with personal awareness and, in the case of management, helps one to be more objective and to stand back from situations.”

Becoming Principal
MÚINTEOIR Mary Ryan felt it was a privilege to be the first lay principal at the Sacred Heart Secondary School, once run by the Mercy Sisters. From the outset, her motto was to work hard and to help each student achieve their full potential in a caring environment. Secondary school has become like a business, she remarks, and for it to work efficiently it must be underpinned by a great team effort; as well as teachers, all the ancillary staff, the parents, pupils and the community at large are integral to this.
Now as she retires after a decade at the helm her sense of fulfillment and passion for education is palpable. But Mary Ryan has serious concerns and is finely tuned-in to contemporary and future pressures.
“Beside the economic pressures, this is a very difficult time for parents, particularly because of the revolutionary advances in digital media. Parents have to be very vigilant and monitor the use of mobile phones and such social networking sites as Facebook. Cyber bullying is a very real problem and, unfortunately, parents  can be at a disadvantage due to the advanced technical competence of young people.”
She says that while pupils are not allowed access to these media in school the impact of their availability and accessibility outside school hours can have a significant impact on school life.

Serious concerns
Of course, government policy and the much publicised present economic constraints and cutbacks are also of serious concern to this woman whose life in education was truly vocational in her vision. 
“Ireland’s international ranking regarding spending on education is relatively poor. There is a major anomaly in post-primary education that needs to be rectified in the interests of justice. The voluntary secondary schools – in relation to the community, comprehensive and vocational sectors – are already seriously disadvantaged in terms of annual grants. Traditionally, the actual capitation they get for each pupil is around €100 less  than their counterparts in the other sectors. This automatically means these schools have more fundraising pressures,” Mary Ryan argues.
She deplores the reductions in the Special Education Needs Allocation and the capping of the numbers of Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) .
“It will lead to severe pressure on school management to provide adequate and appropriate support for the pupils with the greatest needs. ”
Add in the proposed changes to the pupil-teacher ratio and, according to Mary, unacceptable retrograde steps are about to be implemented
“Only six of the 30 other OECD countries have a bigger pupil-teacher ratio than in  Ireland,” she warns ominously. “The consequences at second-level are not just an extra pupil in a class. It will also mean dropping minority subjects like Chemistry and Physics – the very subjects being flagged as pivotal to the future reinvigoration of the economy. This will also have an impact on such subjects as Music and Economics and will lead to the teaching of  Higher Level and Lower Level subjects in the same classroom.”
Mary Ryan is categorical: “The education of younger people should not be compromised at all.”
After all: “Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.”