Dr Katriona O’Sullivan and the teachers she has never forgottenEp 4, Katriona O’Sullivan.
Her memoir ‘Poor” has been a bestseller for months, it has won two awards in recent weeks and in this episode Dr Katriona O’Sullivan joins Louise to talk about the teachers at primary and second level that she has never forgotten.
Some showed her how to wash, another nurtured a love of reading and literature. But they also did much more: they made her feel empowered and cared for. In many ways they epitomise what Teachers Inspire is about.
Education, and access to it, remain very important to Katriona who is a psychologist and a senior lecturer in Maynooth University.
Hello, and welcome to the Teachers Inspire Podcast. I'm Louise O'Neill and I curate Teachers Inspire which is organised and run by Dublin City University.
We want to hear about the teacher who has made a difference in your life or in your child's life. So remember you can nominate them now for an award at teachersinspire.ie
On the podcast I talk to some of the amazing teachers and the people who nominated them. I also chat to other people who share their fascinating stories about teaching and teachers with me.
As the curator of Teachers Inspire, and as the host of this podcast, I have had the opportunity of speaking to so many inspiring people.
And my guest for this episode is someone that I have really been looking forward to since I first read her memoir and I'm just so delighted that she can join me today. Her book is called ‘Poor’ and her name is Dr. Katriona O'Sullivan.
And in ‘Poor’ she describes growing up in extreme poverty, the far-reaching impact of childhood poverty and how her home was shaped by her parents’ heroin addiction.
Education and access to it is a very important part of her journey to where she is now and Katrina is a psychologist and a senior lecturer in Maynooth University.
In so many ways there are parts of Poor that epitomise what we believe Teachers Inspire is all about - which is finding and celebrating the immensely positive role that teachers can play in our lives.
But there is so much more to ‘Poor’ too and honestly anyone who is listening today, I would highly recommend that you buy a copy because it is one of the best books that I've read this year.
But at the heart of ‘Poor’ is a woman who is herself incredibly inspiring and I can see her already, she's like, ‘Oh, God!’ but you are (inspiring) so welcome to the Teachers Inspire podcast Katriona.
Thanks, Louise, for having me. It's a privilege to be here. It's funny when you're described as being inspiring, you know, I just put a wash on!
[laughter from both]
(and) got the kids up for school…so yeah, it doesn't feel always like I'm inspiring but thank you!
I mean, and it's only two days after you won not one, but two awards at the Irish Book Awards for ‘Poor.’
Yeah, that was so surreal. Like, I wanted to win a book award. I mean, I’ve won other rewards for like my, my work and Irish Tatler award recently, but for the book, it means so much because you know yourself how much work goes into writing a book, and I think, whether it's fiction or memoir, you feel really connected to the work and so to have that recognised is just wonderful. It's really special.
I mean, when I first read ‘Poor’ there was so much in it, I think that really, I mean that I found, like, really shocking, but I think it also really, like shifted my perspective on so many things, you know, like, I suppose particularly around like addiction and class and poverty, and, and education actually, which I found really interesting and I think we'll come to that particularly with the Access programme.
But I suppose first of all, I'd love to talk to you a little bit about – like there are sections in the book that I found really moving, where you're talking about, like, you know, experiences that you had in primary school with two like, I mean, just incredibly kind teachers in particular - Miss Arkinson and Miss Hall - and I'd love to hear you speak a little bit about what they did for you at such a young age.
I think, Miss Arkinson - there was two things actually because I do talk about the story of (how) they, they taught me how to wash myself basically, which happened after a few months but Miss Arkinson was this....so the first thing that she did was actually she pronounced my name correctly which really meant a lot because everyone called me Cat-re-ana in England, and she, she was Irish too and she called me Katriona, which was lovely, but she actually always expected me to be able to achieve the same as everybody else.
And what I mean by that is (that) as a child, usually when you come from poverty and trauma, like I have, school is really difficult, being asked to sit down for six hours or an hour a day, is really hard.
Like you're full of anxiety and fear and all these sorts and, and so I would have been like a naughty kid, you know, I would have looked like I was the kid that didn't want to do as they were told, but basically I already had a lot of trouble.
But Miss Arkinson, she actually didn't treat me any differently and that manifested in that she always asked me to do jobs. She always used to, she used to pick me to do the messages. She’d say, oh Katriona would you take this down the hall to whoever, Miss Whoever.
And I would like run out of school as soon as I got the chance to leave the classroom, I'd run out into the playground because we had a big climbing frame and she’d come and find me and bring me back in, real nicely, but she never stopped asking me.
She always she always believed that I could be as good as everybody else in the class and expected that of me and I think when you have that consistently, sometimes we can have the tendency to kind of dumb things down or to change our methods for kids that don't necessarily present the same as everybody else, but she never did that.
And when you have someone who consistently thinks that you can do and be something, it seeps in. And so that was the first thing - so she was consistent in her care for me, but also her expectation.
But then also she, she, she taught me to wash. So unfortunately, school wasn't a nice place for me because I was smelly and I didn't wash and I’d wet my bed and I had nits and so the kids didn't want to play with me either.
And this one particular day, Miss Hall, the teacher, the teacher assistant, and Miss Arkinson, I remember them looking at each other and Miss Hall kind of took me into the little bathroom.
And she pulled out a fresh pair of underwear and she said, look we're going to have this for you every day. I'm going to show you how to wash yourself and she took out a big towel and a flannel.
And while I was ashamed because I knew then my family was a bad family. Like there wasn't, you know, we weren't living like everybody else, I also felt this care from this human being. That really meant something to me.
So like, while the shame was there, I also know that this person just really cared and that made so much difference to me that I was seen, and that it was kind and so every day then when I went school, I used to pop in and get a little bag and wash myself and it was really empowering.
Yeah and actually, I think what I found striking about ‘Poor’ was, you know, you also mentioned teachers who hadn't been as kind to you and I think it just really brought home when I was reading it, like, the difference that a teacher can make in a child's life because like it really impacted you, I suppose that contrast between a teacher who is really looking out for you and who was centering your wellbeing and who was taking care of you and then another teacher, I suppose, who acted in like, I suppose, a less than kind way and, and I know that there was also a teacher in I think it was secondary school – it was Mr. Pickering - who I think sounded like he was quite instrumental as well in like encouraging you in literature and books, if I'm if I'm remembering correctly?
Yeah, so I mean, I do a lot of talks now, for teachers, particularly in DEIS schools. But you're talking about the teacher that wasn't so nice. And one of the hard things that I found was that inconsistency across classrooms around the understanding of poverty. That can happen in teaching and so this particular teacher was very, she didn't…she was very mean. To be fair, like she wasn't very kind and it felt like she picked on me.
Now, whether that was the case, sometimes when you’re a child it can feel like that, and it might not be true, but there were definitely days where she would berate me for not having like a bag, or a pencil, or a jumper. And, and I remember like thinking, I didn't eat, like, how could I have a bag or a jumper?
And sometimes I think like, you know, we have rules, we have expectations and they're all wonderful but there are times when a child just needs to be considered, their whole life needs to be considered. And she didn't and so what was given to me in one room was actually taken away in another room.
And what I say to teachers, particularly in DEIS schools is we cannot afford to have teachers like that (unkind teacher) who work with vulnerable children. It really, we really need to have those who are the most understanding, and the most, the most aware of the needs of children who are more diverse in schools where we know that's concentrated.
But like in my case, and lots of kids like me, there's no supplement in that year in school or that subject, a lot of the time it can completely break a child if they've got somebody who's not good, who doesn't care.
And so, I think it's really important that we support teachers to be able to act in the way that's caring and it's …this is not, like some teachers, I think, worry that I have a negative view of teachers, I actually don't. Like, without the two teachers, a few teachers in my life - they changed my life forever.
And I've met the most wonderful teachers, but I definitely think we need to consider that more.
Yeah, of course.
Mr. Pickering was this…you know, when you're a teenager…. it's different in primary and secondary, as teachers know… I think everybody loved primary cos you play a lot, like even the teachers play when they're training, like in Froebel!
I didn't realise you literally go through school again, why would you want to go to Froebel like!
You just play and they make paintings so…. but in secondary, when you've been a kid like me, like, it's really hard to be good.
Like, I used to wake up in the morning and go, I am not going to tell that teacher to piss off today. I'm going to be good today. I'm going to be good.
But there are other things inside of you that drive your behaviour. And Mr. Pickering was this teacher, I think, who saw past the delinquent girl that I was, and actually, I read avidly and I kind of loved books always.
And he saw that and he found a way to reach me and he just gave me this unwavering belief in myself in terms of my capacity in English so he was, he was really a pivotal in changing my life, I suppose.
Can you remember any book in particular that he gave you?
Yeah. ‘Of Mice and Men,’ so ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ I think anything that had a bit of injustice in it or had themes of diversity.
I remember like it… I love Shakespeare, who really… I remember actually, clearly getting it, like, you know because (of) the oldy worldy language…I was like, why? It was really hard, like, intellectually to know what the hell they were saying.
But I just remember this experience when we were doing Othello, I was awakened to something and it was amazing. Like, I love that feeling, you know, of learning and growing… Yeah, Othello was a really pivotal one as well and then the Merchant of Venice. Yeah. So there was loads of great books.
Louise: Yeah. And do you think I mean, I know that in the book, you talk about, like the Trinity Access Programme and, actually, there's a part where it, which I think is really striking that you met someone from your community who was going there, and that it had never even, it hadn't even crossed your mind that this could be sort of a possibility for you. And this was when you started at Trinity, do you think that any of those memories of the teachers… like do you think that kind of, I don't know, do you think that influenced your decision to, to go to third level or to continue on?
Katriona: You know what, there's a really important story around that. So, Mr. Pickering did all this wonderful stuff to invest in me.
I had a baby at 16, I was homeless and I got a council flat and he actually turned up at my door and he'd arranged for me to go back to school to do my English and Maths.
And I went back just a couple of mornings a week, like he really went out of his way. But like, I still failed. So, I didn't pass my maths. So, I didn't get up for the exam and then I went off on my merry crazy way for a few years.
And he would have, you know, he could have thought that he failed me but like, I think teachers, the really important message is what you do for a child lives on for them in their for their whole life.
And so, when I was in the interview for the Trinity access programme, I was reeling in the interview, I was really nervous because you're in front of these, for me, I used to call them Poshies, like, you know, middle-class people, like they don't dress like me, speak like me.
I was really nervous, and I didn't think I was doing that well in the interview but then they asked me about books, and all of a sudden, everything - and I feel emotional saying this - but everything he did for me, came alive.
I knew I was good at books, and I knew I knew this from him. So like that thing that he did for me at 15, at 23 changed my life.
So like, I was able to talk about Of Mice and Men, the Merchant of Venice, Shylock, all these wonderful things that he'd instilled in me back when I was 15.
So like, he was definitely pivotal in the transformation of my, of my life. That knowledge, that belief in myself, he went to bat for me, them things lasted forever.
Yeah, I'm feeling a bit emotional now, that is really moving. And I suppose, like, obviously, now you have like, you know, a senior role in education and you spoke, you know, about, you know, going in and talking to teachers and particularly in DEIS school. So I suppose, like, do you think, what, what have you brought from your early life and your experience to that, and also, I'd love to hear you maybe talk a little bit about like, what changes you think need to happen in Ireland so that like young people from backgrounds similar to yours that they can, they can get the opportunities that they deserve?
So yeah, so, you know, I teach now as well. So, I really have had the other side of it where it's hard.
Being a teacher is hard, like being creative, you know, and trying to capture the imagination of a class and a room full of diverse people is difficult.
So there's a couple of things that I would change, I think I talked about this in the book, I think, we have a very charitable way of looking at poverty and disadvantage.
So like, I think we need to reframe that, as in like, there's a lot of hidden gems. There's a lot of, you know, unearthed talent and skills that exist within communities like mine and where I come from that are just not given the opportunity to demonstrate them skills.
And I think I'm a I'm a good, I'm a good example of like… like, I'm a leader now in Maynooth (University), I've got a massive grant, I run a nationwide programme, I needed, I needed extra to get here.
And I think that we need to remember that this is not charity, it's about empowerment and human rights and skills and that they're not broken people that need fixing, they're actually talented people that need the opportunity to shine.
And that's like a mindset change I think that we need, you know. Sometimes, like, even now I get people go Oh God, ‘Poor,’ you know, it’s so sad for them…
When the reality is like I would prefer people to be angry for them and be angry about the inequalities that exist rather than having a sad view.
And in terms of like just practical things, like this is not, you know, I'm not slagging off anyone who's in the system right now, just to say that I work with amazing teachers across all areas in education. And I could name hundreds of them at this point.
But I think that teacher education doesn't adequately prepare teachers for working with disadvantage. So, there is no actual - so it's optional…everyone has to do a DEIS placement, generally, especially in primary, but like an actual course that's mandated that covers topics that are really focused on education disadvantage, I think needs to be included.
Like Louise, if you grew up in a privileged… I mean I’ll never forget I met a teacher recently in the school and she said I went to a school where we used to stand up and say our prayers, and everybody stood up and said their prayers. Nobody ever defied the teacher. She said, nobody, right and that was my experience.
And so then I went on placement to a school in Ballymun like, and she like, the shock to her was, was tangible and like, I think when that happens to a teacher, if you haven't been adequately educated about why that's there, you can go down one route, which is these are really bad kids or their families are bad rather than having it contextualised.
So, you know, I definitely think we need to be more stronger and have a consistent training around inequality and how that manifests. I know, some courses do, but it's optional and it's not, it's not across the board.
The other thing is, now this is controversial, is I would actually, like it might not be controversial, I'd returned to interviewing teachers for teaching. I would, I worry, what the motivation is, I worry that, like the responsibility of educating somebody, and what that can do to somebody's whole life, is not always evident to people who go into teaching.
And that's not to say they're not doing it for good reasons. But like, actually, you know, knowing that people know the responsibility… like my kids spend more time/ spent more time with their teacher than me when I was working full-time, at times.
So like, I want to make sure that them teachers understand that responsibility and how, you know, and care and that responsibility is the reason that they're doing this.
I will say, I think that any teacher who gets into it for the wrong reasons is probably going to have a rude awakening within a year of starting because it's definitely not a job for the faint hearted because as you said, it is that like, the, the huge amount of responsibility that comes with it.
Well, Katriona, thank you so much for talking to me today and I just want to say again, congratulations on your two Irish Book Awards which was just so incredibly well deserved. And just to reiterate, anyone listening who has not got a copy of ‘Poor’ which I think is number one again, this week is it?
Yes, yeah. 26 weeks,
I mean, listen, 26 weeks in the top ten and like that, you know, just, I'm telling you now go out and buy it, you will not regret it!
So congratulations, Katriona, and thank you so much for speaking with us today on the podcast.
Thank you, Louise. Thank you.
Now remember, you can find out more of a teacher's inspired. You can nominate a teacher for the award, and you can find links to other episodes of the podcast at teachersinspire.ie Or you can listen wherever you get your podcasts.
Until next time.