TEACHING always appealed to primary school principal, Mary Magner, who is the new president of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO).
A native of Castletownroche in north Cork and living in nearby Killavullen, Mary has been the principal teacher at Scoil Chroí Íosa in Blarney since 2014. She is seconded to the INTO for a year with the deputy principal at her school standing in for her.
“When the Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, I’ll be spending quite an amount of time in Dublin at head office and also around the country,” says Mary. Her work will involve consultations in relation to curriculum redevelopment at DEIS schools and other ongoing INTO work.
Mary graduated from St Patrick’s College in 1982 and began her teaching career in inner city Dublin, at St Gabriel’s School in Aughrim Street, before returning to Cork where she taught in a number of urban and rural schools.
She has added to her teaching qualification with an M.Ed in Information Communications Technology at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick and she also has a post graduate diploma in Special Education Needs from UCC. She is a trained mentor and executive coach, mentoring newly appointed principals with the Centre for School Leadership.
Teaching “has always been in my psyche,” says Mary. Her father is a farmer and Mary reckons that if she hadn’t gone into teaching, she too would have been a farmer.
Her mother especially valued education.
“While there may not have been a lot of money from our farm, there was never a shortage of funding for anything educational such as Gaeltacht courses,” she said.
Mary describes herself as “one of those ’80s kids that graduated during a recession. When I came out of college, there was huge unemployment. That led me into the INTO. I was active as a student union rep at college. In the early ’80s, people were on the street, not only teachers, fighting for better conditions.
“I remember my first position at St Gabriel’s. I was hardly in the door starting out as a young teacher covering someone on maternity leave, when the INTO organised a three-day strike. Very nervously, I wondered what my principal would think of me going on strike. I was thrown in at the deep end. I suppose I have been an activist ever since.”
Teachers are generally appreciated in this country, says Mary. “There’s always criticism about the long holidays. And you’ll often hear people saying we have a short day. What most people don’t seem to realise is that after school hours, there are corrections to be done and planning.
“In our own school in Blarney, there are teachers coming in at 8.15am before school starts. Classes finish at 2.30pm. I’ve often worked until 6pm and I’ve often had to tell teachers working late to go home.”
Mary is full of praise for her staff who adapted well to “the changed landscape of teaching” because of Covid-19.
“Teachers have really worked tirelessly, so much so that the INTO advised them to take a break during the Easter holidays.”
She points out that at primary level, education revolves around interaction with the teacher.
“At sixth class level, teachers use google classroom and e-learning sites to engage pupils. But it’s more difficult for the junior and senior infants who rely so much on interacting with their teachers. So we’ve been doing the best we can.
“You have to be cognisant of the pressure that our families are undergoing at the moment. A lot of people are working from home. Then there are families where the parents have lost their job. And there are families who might be caring for someone with Covid-19. It’s about getting the balance right, giving the children work to do.
“We explain to the parents that the work we give the pupils is a list of suggestions and it’s not prescriptive. It can be used on a flexible basis. But what families are doing around the country is great, between baking and going out into nature and recording wildlife. There’s learning in all of that. With baking, children are learning about weight and capacity, for example.”
What are Mary’s priorities for her year-long tenure as INTO president?
“Safety comes first for the children in our care. We can’t ignore Covid-19. Before I took up the INTO presidency, I wasn’t thinking that our health is our true wealth.
It has been a wake-up call. I can see a lot of people re-evaluating how they live and reflecting on the kind of society we need to have in the future.”
There is an upside to the pandemic, in Mary’s opinion. She says that schoolchildren being stuck at home are learning to be self-reliant.
“They are building a resilience that we couldn’t teach. They’ve had to find inner-contentment and learn how to amuse themselves.
“Before school was out, parents were driving children to activities such as GAA training, taekwondo, ballet, and tin whistle. While all that is fantastic for kids, every minute of their day was planned. I do think that when the pupils come back to school, they will be more independent learners and will be more creative.” Mary doesn’t hold with some people’s prediction that the children will be psychologically scarred as a result of the strictures around Covid-19.
“There is no doubt that they’re missing their friends and small children will tell you they also miss their teachers. But I think they will be the opposite to psychologically damaged.”
Equality for everybody in the teaching profession is a goal that Mary wants to achieve.
“There is still a cohort of teachers that were new entrants from 2011-2014 who are not paid equally. The government made a commitment to equal pay.
“Also, there is an outstanding award due to principals of primary schools who are not paid on equal terms with our post-primary colleagues.”
As part of Mary’s wish for equality for all, she is adamant that class sizes need to be smaller.
“In our primary schools, we have the highest class sizes in Europe. The European average is 20:1 while we operate on a 26 pupils to one teacher basis. Sometimes, it can be more than that with over 30 pupils in a classroom...
“We know that reducing class sizes can’t happen overnight. What we have proposed to the government is a phased reduction of one pupil per class per year over five years. I think that’s a reasonable request. There’s no magic wand. It has to be done incrementally.
“While the development of the curriculum will be an exciting time going forward, the priority is to reduce class size.”
Religious patronage of the majority of primary schools in Ireland is something that is seen as discriminatory. “Our school is under Catholic patronage. But there is choice out there now for parents. And even if there was no choice, we welcome all religions and none.
“Because of the overloaded curriculum that we have to get through, we don’t have the staffing or the buildings to teach different subjects during religion classes. We provide activities for children who are not participating in the Catholic religion. The new admissions bill states that you can’t discriminate on the grounds of religion.”
Mary and her husband, John, have three grown up children; two sons who have studied agricultural science and a daughter who has been teaching in Dubai for the last five years.
In her down time, Mary likes to travel, a trait she inherited from her mother. But while Mary’s mother was confined to travelling around the country on day trips, factoring in milking the cows in the evening, Mary has been all over the world.
“I took a career break in 1988. I remember saving for the entire year for a round-the-world ticket which cost £1,300. I went on that trip with two teaching colleagues.”
Mary is also an avid cyclist and a keen photographer.
When I came out of college, there was huge unemployment. That led me into the INTO. I was active as a student rep at college