When Brian McLaughlin retires as principal of Rossmar School in Limavady, it will be with mixed emotions.
The 62-year-old said the decision was his own, but he admits it didn’t come overnight.
“Of course, I will be sad to leave, but it’s time. When I looked around at the staff and the leadership team we have, and the challenges they present to me, which to me is what leadership is all about, I decided it’s time we had someone fresher, someone better, someone with new and more innovative ideas than me, and who can take them forward. I knew it was time.”
The father-of-three grew up in a family of seven, attending St Columb’s College before training as a teacher in Manchester.
“My older brother and sister were teachers so, I suppose, that was an influence and I liked the idea of being a teacher,” he said.
In the 1970s there was a shortage of teachers, and a 21-year-old Brian was lucky to secure his first job teaching P4 and P5 in 1976 at Steelstown P.S.
Saying goodbye to the staff and students will be the hardest speech I’ll ever makeBrian McLaughlin
“The kids were good. and the staff in Steelstown were great to work with. I’ve very fond memories of the kids and staff. The head teacher was Jim Quinn, who has since died, and he was a tremendous mentor for young teachers,” said Brian. “I stayed there for four years, and it was a great introduction to teaching where you learned the skills of the trade and you learned how to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the kids, how to work with other staff, with parents all the basic skills of the teaching trade.”
When Brian was made redundant he was fortunate to get another post at the newly-opened Trench Road P.S.
“It was a much smaller school but, again, they were good kids, and I had tremendous colleagues. After three years there was a blip in the population in the Waterside and I was looking at redundancy again, so my wife and I decied that while we were young and able we would do something for someone else, other than ourselves and we went to Africa to teach.”
The couple lived and worked in Zimbabwe during turbulent times under the Mugabe regime. Brian taught in an all-girls school, which had a stark social make-up.
“You had the two extreme from girls driving into school in their own sports car to girls walking eight to nine miles with their shoes under their arms so as not to wear them out, and putting them on at the school gate. It was a totally different culture. We stayed there for a year and a half and we enjoyed it,” said Brian.
When the young couple - both teachers - came back home in the early 1980s, they subbed in schools throughout the Derry area.
“That was a great experience and something, if I had my way, have every teacher do for a year because you experience so many different management systems, and people,” he said.
Brian then got a job at Belmont House School in Derry. It would be the first time he would teach statement children in a post 16 unit; one of the first set up in a special school, he said.
“I developed a far deeper understanding of kids who have special needs. In other schools, you could take a certain level of ability almost for granted, so you were always pushing ahead on the academic front whereas, when you moved into special education you realised there were things far more important to these kids than their academic progress and, sometimes, in order for them to make academic progress you had to address their social and emotional difficulties and get them to some state of equilibrium before they could actually benefit from the learning you wanted to offer them. You become teacher, social worker, counsellor all rolled into one.”
After close to eight years at Belmont House, and a spell as an advisory teacher with the now defunct Western Education and Library Board, Brian was appointed vice principal of Glasvey School in Ballykelly, from 1991 until 2008.
“This was a school for kids with severe learning difficulties, so it was a whole new learning curve. I enjoyed it and learned new ways to engage with the kids and help them progress,” he said.
When Glasvey and Limegrove School in Limavady amalgamated in 2008, Brian was appointed principal.
Almost 10 years later, Brian said it’s “time to hang up my hat.” Although sad to leave, he’s content staff and students are getting a new-build school, scheduled to open in 2019.
“I wanted to ensure the new school we had been promised would materialise before I would go so when I saw the work start I knew that was the beginning of something that would not stop. To see that first digger there on the morning of March 13 when I arrived, I thought ‘job done’. He stresses, however, it is the staff who make a school and not a building.
“It’s the interactions and relationships between staff and children and the parents - that’s what matters and what’s needed to further children’s education - not the school.”
Brian is looking forward to spending time with his family and his horses.
“My wife Mary retired five years ago and she keeps telling me I will love it,” he said, smiling. “To me, the timing was right on all fronts. The new school was started, and over the line, and I was feeling more and more challenged by the youth and the vigour of the team and I thought ‘it’s time’.
Saying goodbye to the staff and students will be the hardest speech I’ll ever make,” he said. When asked how he’d like to be remembered as an educator, he said: “As someone who did a little good.”