The route from the classroom to the principal’s office is a trip many students dread but in the case of one determined Dunfanaghy teacher, it has led her all the way to the top job at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola (PCC).
Former PCC pupil, Maeve Sweeney, has now gone full circle at the Falcarragh school having been a past pupil and staff teacher, and on January 9th this year took up the reins as the school’s new principal.
When Maeve (40) initially walked through the school doors as a first year pupil in 1984 she thought it unlikely she would come back to teach, never mind run the school. But now she is relishing the opportunity to take charge and cater for the educational needs of the next generation.
A daughter of the late Michael and Sadie Sweeney from Murroe, her formative years were spent in Murroe National School, along with her siblings Fred, Joe, Michael and Sheila.
Speaking to the Democrat she says it’s ironic that in the same year she begins her new role at PCC there is a changing of the guard at Murroe NS as well as long serving principal Maureen Doohan has retired and was recently replaced by Noreen O’Grady.
“It’s all change and it is unusual that the principals at both schools, the one that I left and the one that I came to, are changing at the same time. But there have been huge changes in education since then too,” she explains.
From Murroe she entered PCC. She continues, “I came here in 1984 and finished in 1989. Then I went to Maynooth where I did a BA in English and History, followed by a Masters in History, before going to Galway to do my Dip.”
It wasn’t long after she completed her formal education that Maeve returned to her home county in search of the practical experience required for her fledgling career. This brought her to a number of schools in the county and she says she gained valuable experience in every institute she worked in.
“The year after I completed my Dip. I ended up at three schools, subbing in Buncrana at Crana College, spending some time at Deele College in Raphoe, and finishing off the year in Milford Convent.”
An opportunity soon arose to get back to her old secondary school and the path was set that has led her to the prime post.
She explains, “I came here to replace Eilish Coakley, who was doing a career guidance course and I did a year here. Then I went to the Rosses Community School for a half-term, but soon came back to Falcarragh and I’ve been here ever since!”
She soon settled into her new role teaching English and History. “It was great but having gone to all those other schools, they gave me a little insight into the education system and I was able to take little bits from each schools’ system with me, which was important.”
Returning to Falcarragh at a relatively young age, many of her former teachers were still at the school and she credits them for mentoring her in her career as well as her days as a pupil.
“The majority of my teachers were still here when I began teaching. I remember the first day coming in and I wanted to call them ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’,” and they were laughing but I got over that in the first day or two and then I settled into it,” she recalls.
“It was great because they all had a wealth of experience and they were a great help to me in my teaching, particularly in the English and History teaching department.”
Once on the school’s books Maeve immersed herself in many facets of school life including extra-curricular activities that worked towards developing the students. It was during these activities that she began looking at the challenge school management presented and sought to gain more experience.
“At our school, we have always been involved in extra-curricular activities and I was involved in things like sport, drama, entering students into various competitions, and things they might enjoy. Some students may not, for example, excel on the football pitch, but there are other talents they may have if you can pin-point them and gear them towards things like competition, where they can do well or get recognition. It’s great. As a result of that we entered a prestigious ‘Mock Trail’ competition, in which the students had to re-enact court cases. We had to go to the High Court in Dublin and were against schools like Mount Anvil and Wesley College, that sort of league, and that first year we won the All-Ireland.
“From that experience I realised more about organising and managing. It was all done under the Transition Year and Noreen Fitzgerald was the co-ordinator, so that gave me the opportunity to develop in those areas as well. From there I began to take an interest in management and it went from there,” she explained.
She then went on to play a role in the “changing of the guard” at the school as she replaced vice-principal, Michael McGinley for a number of years before putting herself forward for the post of principal when long serving teacher Patsy McVicar retired at Christmas.
She says she is still regularly in contact with her experienced former colleagues and can draw on their extensive knowledge.
“I became a year head first then assistant principal three years ago and certainly enjoyed working more closely with the students, parents and staff. I enjoyed all of those experiences. Our former principal Patsy, along with Michael McGinley, certainly were great mentors and both have helped me in different ways, as well as getting advice from staff as well. I’m just very lucky and I went for the job.”
Away from work she says she still gets to enjoy her social life and is a committed sports fan, particularly enjoying the success of the school. She also supports her local club St Michaels, but has a keen interest in Cloughaneely GAA being a former player for the club’s ladies’ team. She is also a former Keadue Rover soccer player. It’s not surprising then that she will accompany a school group on a trip to Celtic Park this weekend to see Celtic take on Motherwell.
Looking to the future she says, “We are very lucky. We have a lot of past pupils teaching here at the school. It says a lot about our school that they want to come back and help develop it. It’s a young staff. They are very enthusiastic and it is exciting working with them. They are committed to education and try to get the best out of every pupil.”