Her feelings are understandable given her impressive 41 years of service there, as a teacher, with the last nine years as principal. In that time she has seen the school — in the parish of Inniscarra — grow and prosper.
Emma’s first day of duty was on September 1, 1980, also the first day as principal for her predecessor Padraig O’Conaill, who has been a great friend and mentor over the years. There were nine staff at the school then, which has now risen to 45, including 14 SNAs plus a caretaker and secretary.
Emma is happy to have fulfilled her ambitions while living virtually all her life in the Inniscarra area.
“Some teachers feel they’d prefer to teach in an area they’re not living in but I’m the exact opposite,” she said. “I love teaching in the area that I live in because I see the children in my own community, I see them grow up and I feel that I am giving to my own community,” she explains.
Now living in Vicarstown, also part of the Inniscarra parish, Emma’s story begins as an only child, attending Dripsey National School, before receiving her secondary education at St. Aloysius in Cork. She went to UCC to study Irish and History, followed by teacher training at St Pat’s in Dublin.
Was she always single-minded about teaching?
“There had been a history of teaching — not in my immediate family with my father and mother — but back along, which was encouraged then by my mum as well,” she says.
Emma graduated in 1978, a bleak time for employment in Ireland, but she had an optimistic spirit. “I was out two years before I got full employment but that was fantastic too because I got an opportunity to do substitute teaching in a number of city and rural schools, and even in a special school, and that gave me a very good grounding for when I got my permanent job here in Cloghroe.”
Despite being stationed in the same school for 41 years, she didn’t become complacent.
“I always knew I’d do some element of further education. To that end, at the age of 40 — when most people would have more sense — I took on a masters in education in UCC and after that I went on to do teacher training with the PDST as it was called at the time — Professional Development Support for Teachers. So I was out of the school for two to three years with that and it was a great learning experience because I got to facilitate some of the training for the department in the new curriculum. It was a very different experience as you could be in Connemara in the Gaeltacht facilitating through English and Irish and you could be in an urban school in Dublin facilitating a large group. You got to meet different teachers in different settings and you learned a lot about how different schools were operating.”
Education has evolved through the years and Emma has been at the coalface of two curriculum changes and was particularly instrumental in one:
“I sat on the NCCA (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment) for about seven years in the ’90s on the PE curriculum because physical education is a great love of mine. I was involved in the formation of that curriculum and it was great to see it implemented then in schools; that one gives me particular joy. And the whole curriculum has changed to become so much more child-friendly.”
Another high point for Emma was her presidency of the INTO in 2015/2016. She had been actively involved in the organisation since the 1980s, initially at branch level in Coachford, where she was staff representative for her school and later as chairperson of the branch and District 12 (South Cork) representative on the Education Committee.
Just as she has been a great leader of teachers, Emma has had an excellent rapport with the children who have passed through the gates. “I taught sixth class for many years and what I loved about them was watching them grow at that age around 12, helping them navigate that path between primary and post primary. If you were involved with them in an aspect of school life outside the classroom, as I always was with sport — I did a good bit of coaching — that gave you a different avenue to talk to them in and as a result you kept those friendships up. A lot of my past pupils now, I meet them on the hurling pitch or in the local shop and they’ll always come up and chat. If they feel you gave them a good shot, if they feel that you exhibited a sense of fairness in the classroom, I think they appreciate that.”
What is she most proud of in terms of what she brought to the school? Here, Emma could list the addition of Curam, the school’s special class; the introduction of table tennis, which suits those who prefer non-contact sports; or the building of a new school hall and astroturf facilities. But it speaks volumes that instead she places importance on how people feel.
“I like to think I’ve brought a happy workplace for the staff. We always had it; as a teacher I experienced it and as a principal I wanted to continue it. I think when you have a happy workplace, when your staff get on well together, all the other little bits of the jigsaw fall into place.”
Along with colleagues, Emma trained camogie, hurling and football after school, while coaching quiz teams was also a passion of hers.
“It’s much easier to ask your colleagues to do extra things for the school and the children if they see you’re going to do them as well. You are only the principal teacher, you’re not the administrator divorced from the staff. Once you keep that in mind and keep a small bit of humility under your arm you’ll do fine.
“When the administration or management gets separated from the general staff, you won’t go along the path together for the good of the school. If I was giving talks to principals and deputy principals I’d say, ‘you need to work together’. “
Another piece of advice she has for prospective principals is not to take on the role too early in their career.
“Many principals are being appointed at a very young age. I do think (a) they don’t have enough life experience, and (b) it’s a long time to be a principal if you get it between 30 and 35, and some are under 30. I was lucky I got it later in life as I had a broader perspective.
“I would definitely say I was a better principal because I was older, as I had a lot more experience and a bit more maturity.
“You’re trying to juggle young families, mortgages and all of that at a younger age. The ideal set-up is if you can get it in your 40s or 50s as children have gone beyond the initial caring stage. It was ideal for me anyway.”
While her qualifications and leadership skills make her a great female role model for young girls, Emma has her own opinions on gender quotas in the workplace.
“I feel myself that if I work hard and show I deserve the job, I should get the job. I wouldn’t like 60% of places to be kept for women because there wasn’t enough women in the job. That’s not the issue. The issue is about capability but also about making the job amenable to the person. That has improved considerably with things like maternity leave, for example. I think I got three weeks; now they can have six months.
“It has also improved with job sharing. Hopefully it will improve again in the future for women who feel their primary role is childcare at a certain time of their life. I would like to think they wouldn’t suffer when they do go back into the workplace.
“I do think women should be allowed that choice and not be maligned for it. There are more women principals now than there were, and that’s a good thing. But I’d also like to see more men teaching. I don’t want our profession to become a feminized one; that would be bad for our children. We learn different things from men and women; they complement each other.
“So what’s stopping men getting into teaching? Lack of promotion. There’s no opportunity to do anything except become a principal. It takes 25 years to get to the top of the scale and then they’re probably going to be at a scale that friends from college in the private sector reached after three years.”
While these will be issues to be examined by future education leaders, it’s time for Emma to focus on retirement. The pandemic has put a halt to her immediate desire to travel but she is looking forward to spending time with her partner Con and her three grown-up children, Edel, Joanne and Tim — two of whom have followed mum’s footsteps into teaching — and her six grandchildren, with another due any day now.
Emma concludes that there’s not too much that she would do differently if she had her time over again.
"Over their eight years in Cloghroe, I — as part of a team — feel I’ve contributed to a good start for them.
"I’ve always been a person who said there’s a time to go when you feel you’ve achieved a certain amount because the next person will bring their own flavour to it as well. My predecessor put in huge work here, I feel I’ve put in a lot of work and added a lot to it and I know the next person will too. All I’d be hoping is the next person will have the love for the job and the love for Cloghroe school that I’ve had.”
In a statement, Donal Healy, Chairman of the school’s Board of Management, thanked Emma “for her dedication, inspiration, and promoting leadership skills in educationi. We wish her a long and healthy retirement.”