I come from a family of teachers A reflection by Louise O'Neill
Jan 26, 2022
We are a people with a great tradition of storytelling – we understand the value of a story, how it can help us make sense of the world. As this year’s curator of Teachers Inspire, I wanted the project to focus on the real stories of the incredible people working in classrooms all over this country.
When my debut novel was published, I was asked if there were writers in my family. Any poets, singers, storytellers? Was art running through my blood, a gift passed down from one generation to the next? No, I said. I don’t come from a family of artists, I come from a family of teachers. And I believe that nothing could have prepared me more for my current career than growing up in a household full of books, with a mother and father who placed such value on education. My parents believed that knowledge was power, and they wanted their daughters to be as empowered as possible. I went to two very good schools in my hometown of Clonakilty – St Joseph’s National School and Sacred Heart Secondary School – and while I had some difficulties on a personal level, the classroom always felt like a haven. I had teachers who pushed me, who challenged me to create the best work I was capable of, and who told me that my writing showed promise, words I held close to my heart. One such teacher was Ms Keane. It was she who handed me a copy of Margaret Atwood’s seminal classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, when I was 15, saying she thought I might enjoy it. I went home and read it in one sitting and when I looked up from the pages, the way in which I viewed the world had shifted on its axis. I have said this many times in the years since, but that book changed me. It made me a feminist. It gave me a language which with to articulate myself. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t encountered that story at such a formative age. When I met Ms Keane again, many years after leaving school, I recounted how, on that spring afternoon in our school library, she had made me feel seen. The funny thing was, she didn’t even remember the day in question. What had been an off-hand gesture to her – nothing terribly out of the ordinary, just a part of her mission to get students reading – had altered the trajectory of my entire life. That’s the thing about teachers, I suppose. Even the smallest of stones they throw into our ponds cause ripples.
I thought of Ms Keane when DCU approached me, asking if I would consider curating this year’s Teachers Inspire initiative. Teachers can get a bad rap, teased about their short hours and long holidays. The insinuation that it is an ‘easy’ job is a laughable one – it is, in fact, a vocation. Not everyone can teach. It is an extraordinary skill to be able to motivate young people in this way and yet, so often we take it for granted. Almost everyone I know has a story of a teacher they remember with great affection and yet it is only with hindsight they can acknowledge the impact that teacher had on their lives. The idea of a campaign which would allow people to retroactively celebrate those teachers appealed to me, particularly during Covid, when educators all over the country have been working so hard to ensure that no student falls through the cracks on their watch. I thought of my own sister, a primary school teacher, sending postcards to every boy in her class during lockdown, just to let them know she was thinking of them. I knew there had to be countless similar tales throughout Ireland. We are a people with a great tradition of storytelling – we understand the value of a story, how it can help us make sense of the world. As this year’s curator of Teachers Inspire, I wanted the project to focus on the real stories of the incredible people working in classrooms all over this country. Like Bríd Fox, a teacher at Sacred Heart Secondary School in Louth. One of her pupils, Elaine Murray, was only seventeen when her life-long dreams of playing professional football in America were shattered. Elaine was devastated but a letter from Ms Fox encouraged her to come back to school and reapply to Irish universities in the coming year. Elaine said Ms Fox taught her that “life doesn’t always work out the way you plan, and it’s not always easy and sometimes you need to pick yourself up and make new things happen.” Her teacher showed her that, “going the extra mile for someone can really have a positive impact.”
Claire Duffy from Skerries Community College was nominated by Rob O’ Hanrahan, who said Ms. Duffy “was one of the teachers who truly helped shape who and what type of adult I would eventually become.” Detailing how dedicated she was, Rob explained how Ms Duffy brought them to see plays in a nearby theatre, as well coaching students in public speaking and debating. “This was done on her own time,” he says, “never blinking at what she must have been giving up in order to help us that little bit further.” Rob went on to study English and History, becoming a teacher himself, and says that Ms. Duffy instilled in him the important of “treating people with decency, encouraging their passions, and asking someone a second time if they’re actually okay.” He believes that because of this teacher, he understands the importance of paying it forward. “At so many times in our lives, teachers do remarkable things for us. It’s important that we do the same for others and hopefully these seemingly isolated gestures become the norm.”
Donna Fitzgerald of St Joseph’s Secondary School in Tulla is known for her motto that, “not all who wander are lost,” and her contribution to the school has been remarkable. From bringing the school’s camogie team to All-Ireland success to starting a mental health awareness programme and supporting Cycle Against Suicide, this teacher has created a “top-class academic experience,” nominator Conor Fitzgerald says, teaching her students “by her words and actions… to live life to your potential, to take on challenges, and to be happy in what you are doing.”
There were stories of teachers who set up book clubs, nurturing the children’s passion for reading, as well as an account of a teacher who spotted a pupil’s learning difficulty and stepped in to ensure they would receive the support they needed. Teachers who inspired such a love of languages in their pupils that they moved to Spain and Argentina, or, like Joanne O’Donnell, who ended up working as a legal advisor with the UN in Geneva, something she credits to Orla Finucane, her French teacher at Salesian College, Limerick. Other teachers, like Margaret Liddy of Holy Faith Secondary School, refused to allow her students to believe they were ‘stupid’, and Ann Irwin still remembers being one of only two girls in the class to receive 100% in her Geography exam and the impact it had on how she viewed herself. Claire Grogan speaks fondly of her teacher, Moya McDonell at St Patrick’s National school, Stamullen, who sent her a card after Claire lent her a book, saying, “my mind was blown that a fully grown adult could take the time out to send a thank you card to a 7-year-old. It really instilled in me the value of being thankful.” Evelyn Walsh was nervous about going into sixth class in 1973 because she had missed a great deal of school the year before when she was a patient in the then Clonskeagh Fever Hospital. But her teacher, Miss Kirby, (later Mrs Coffey), “took me by the hand and led me gently into the class. I loved her instantly.” Evelyn says Miss Kirby taught her that, “no matter how frightening the world is, we have to live in it. Knowledge is power and emotional intelligence is paramount.”
Mandy Gabriel nominated Elaine Murphy at Dripsey National School, Co Cork, saying that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, Ms Murphy did everything she could to help Mandy’s daughter, Issy, when she started Junior Infants. Mandy says, “I will always be grateful to Ms Murphy for caring for my child, for holding her hand when I couldn’t be there and making sure she never lost out or fell behind.” Gerard Kelly, who attended Grennan College in Thomastown at the start of the noughties, is grateful to his teacher, Liz Kett, for providing a safe space for him when he was coming out as a gay teenager. “Her room was always open,” he says. “Liz would take you underneath her wing…and give you space to grow and be yourself.” Despite being diagnosed with a learning disability, Gerard says that Ms Kett, “never labelled you. She said you could be what you wanted to be…that the only person who limited you was you. Liz would inspire you to be the person you were supposed to be.”
Una Smith of Virginia College in Cavan was nominated by Shauna Sheridan, who failed her mock exams in her Leaving Cert year. Shauna, who had dyslexia and dyspraxia, was struggling with her mental health after her father died by suicide and her mother was recovering from cancer. Ms Smith was her English teacher and Shauna says, “she would ask me how I was and genuinely wanted to know the answer. If I was having a bad day, she would always make time to catch up with me after class or for a minute in the corridor.” In her English Leaving Cert essay, Shauna wrote about her father’s death, Ms Smith, and the kindness of people. “I wrote about how if Daddy had been able to see how kind people could be, maybe I wouldn’t be writing this essay.” Shauna achieved her A in English and says, “without Ms Smith’s belief in my abilities, I would never have believed in myself… She gave me the confidence to go into college feeling as though I was just as capable and competent as the people around me.”
We received hundreds of entries for the Teachers Inspire initiative and if there was any recurring theme, that was it. The power of teachers to encourage their students to believe in themselves, and how those young people carried that message throughout their entire lives. The impact that belief had on them, how it shaped the adults they became, is something I found genuinely moving. I cried more often that I would care to admit when reading these stories, not just at the teachers who stepped in when things were tough for students at home, or the teachers who gave up so much of their own time for drama and chess clubs and basketball practice, but at the smaller, quieter moments too. I wondered if, like Ms Keane, the teachers in question would even remember those days, the gentle words spoken, the nod of encouragement, the half-smiles. How ordinary it must have seemed to them, just another part of everyday school life. And yet it has taken on such importance to the child at the receiving end of that kindness, often creating in them a determination to pass that kindness onto others. What a legacy to have! The example we show children at this age can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – and for so many children across Ireland, what is being modelled to them, day after day, is generosity of spirit, patience, compassion, and empathy. Adam Grant says that “good teachers introduce new thoughts. Great teachers introduce new ways of thinking. Good teachers care about their subjects. Great teachers care about their students. Good teachers teach us what they know. Great teachers teach us how to learn.”
Ireland is full of great teachers. Now is the time to celebrate them.← Back to News