An interview with Rosemary Walsh isn’t just an interview with Rosemary Walsh. The plan at first was to interview the principal of the local primary school celebrating its 30th year in operation - that would be Rosemary. But the Donegal-born Derry woman says it’s not about one person, that it’s not just about her. And in the course of our chat I meet the school secretary, the Child Protection Officer and the the caretaker too.
That’s how you know that Rosemary means what she says. For her, it’s not just a matter of paying lip service to the team around her while staying in the limelight herself. It is about giving credit where credit is due. The woman who’s spent 28 years teaching knows better than anyone that it takes more than one pair of hands to run a school.
Rosemary’s own inspiration for teaching comes from the days she spent as a pupil at Thornhill, and the great teachers who inspired her there. She was one of the first draft of teachers who started at St Therese’s after spending a period of time working for the civil service and then subbing. She’s spent all of her teaching career in Galliagh.
“Galliagh is a great community,” says Rosemary, who was born in Pettigo in Donegal before moving to Derry with her parents as a four year-old.
“People in this area are very welcoming of people from other areas and I’ve never felt like an outsider. They take you as you are. What I would say is that parents here have high expectations, they want an excellent school for their children - and why shouldn’t they. That means that we have high expectations of our staff. A school that wants success for all is one where the pupils and staff are happy.
“Here at St Therese, I’m building on the legacy that was left for us. We’ll look at what works well and tweak the bits we could do better.”
When Rosemary started in her career, there were no iPads, no IT suites, no interactive white boards. She’s embraced the technological changes and says her staff are doing the same.
“We’re upskilling all the time, that’s what we have to do. When it comes to the technology, we learn from the children. They have no fear at all when it comes to using iPads or anything else. Education has seen so many changes. The world out there has changed a lot, but it’s important to remember that people have stayed the same and that we should be treating each other in the same way.
“Regardless of anything else, we still have a child-centred school and that’s the most important thing of all.”
As technology in the classroom has brought challenges and opportunities, the world in which the school operates has moved on too. Rosemary maintains the school’s Catholic ethos is as important as ever, while conceding that the attitude to the church is very different to when she first stepped into the classroom.
“It’s absolutely a challenge to stay close to that Catholic ethos but that’s where I believe our teachers act as role models and that’s a great strength to our school. It’s the way we treat each other that really matters, and that’s what we try to drive home to our pupils. I firmly believe that we have to live our faith. There’s no room for mixed messages with children. They follow the examples of the adults they see around them and that’s what we try to do at all times, give them positive examples.”
In striving for the best outcome for the children who pass through the doors at St Therese, Rosemary says the staff around her are vital.
“From the moment you come in our doors and meet Maura, the secretary, to every other member of staff here, everybody plays a key role in helping the school run as it does. We have an excellent board of governers here too, and the people who’ve led the school previously have left us with a big legacy to carry forward. We have a really good senior management team. Without them, I couldn’t do my job. No one person is bigger than the school. Without it, none of us would be here at all.”
When it comes to her personal highlight from her time at the school, unsurprisingly, Rosemary cites finding out that she’d been appointed principal.
“I got a standing ovation from the other staff and that really meant something to me. I’ll never forget that moment, it meant such a lot to have the staff support me like that and to have the pupils behind me. That was something special and I still get emotional thinking about it.”
Rosemary gets equally emotional thinking about the low points over the years.
“We’ve had a lot of families affected by suicide, and attending wakes and seeing young people lying in coffins who shouldn’t be there is just awful. We’ve also seen a number of children lose parents in tragic circumstances down through the years and that’s been awful too. In those situations, the job for us is to try and acknowledge that child’s experience and help them get back into some sense of normality. I think that’s one of the unique things about St Therese, there is very much a sense that we’re a family here and that we’re embedded in the very middle of the community. When something tragic happens, we all feel it, we’ve all felt it and it affects everyone in the school. Those are without a doubt the low points of the job.”
Taking the good with the bad and looking ahead to the future, Rosemary says her main hope for the popular Lenamore school is for more of the same.
“It’s in our hands now for a little while and we have to do our best to continue what’s been achieved. A major issue for us is pastoral care and child protection and those are areas where the role of the school has changed massively in recent years. In terms of child protection, for instance, we work in collaboration with a number of other authorities and we have a dedicated child protection officer in the school. All of that is in line with keeping the child at the focus of everything.
“We have them here for those earliest years in their lives and it’s up to us to send them away with a good experience and the best possible preparation for the world outside these gates.”