After 37 years service in schools across Derry, Catrina McFeely, principal of St. Paul’s Primary School, Slievemore, has this week, stepped back from the blackboard, as she retires from “the most rewarding job in the world.”
And Mrs. McFeely said she felt privileged to have taught over 1,000 pupils during her years in the teaching profession.
Born and bred in the Top of the Hill area of the city, Mrs McFeely started her career in the Holy Child P.S. in Creggan back in September 1980.
“I was there for two years and I absolutely loved it. It was the most fabulous school for children, a lovely haven for them to come in to through all the times of the Troubles.”
She later worked for a “short but happy” time at St John’s P.S. before securing a permanent post in Good Shepherd P.S. in the Waterside, where she was to spend the majority of her career.
“I was there for 28 years,” she recalled. “I was teaching P1 to P4, Foundation and Key Stage 1.
“I loved all the schools I have worked in and of course, I have a particular fondness for Good Shepherd because I was there for so long, and my own four girls all came through Good Shepherd Primary School.
“It was a big wrench for me leaving, but I was able to bring all the good practise I learned there over to St. Paul’s with me and coming to St Paul’s was the best decision I ever made.”
Catrina arrived at St Paul’s, in the heart of Galliagh, in September, 2011, and while it was an area she wasn’t all that familiar with back then, she is now very much part of the community.
“My first impression when I arrived was that it was so welcoming and friendly, not only from the staff but from the parents. It was a school at the heart of the community and I decided to make the best of that and I did a lot of work with welcoming the community into the school.”
This has included the FAST (Families and Schools Together) weekly programme involving parents coming into school with their children to do activities and strengthen relationships, with teachers and community partners also getting involved.
“One of the visions I had for the school was that the parents would value the importance of education, where it could take them and heighten their aspirations,” she said.
Back in 2011, St Paul’s had 119 pupils and 26 more in the nursery. Word of mouth about the many achievements and the sterling work that has been developed by staff and the wider community has helped boost numbers, with 172 children entering this year.
“We have had the Rights Respecting School Award Level 1 and we are now working towards Level 2, we have the Eco Flag, the FAST accreditation and our ‘Daily Mile’ accreditation working with different agencies.
“We are teaching them respect for each other and others and to respect their environment. We have a beautiful eco school garden that we have developed, with a bug hotel and pond, and we are also teaching the children to grow their own food and they have made salads and soups from the produce they have grown.
“We have two teachers, Anne McGuigan and Sean Fleming, who have given up their time to go to Zambia and we have a partnership there with Lusaka P.S, and our teachers created a garden there and brought them plants and tools. It’s teaching the children to respect each other and the needs of the world.
“One of the big things we have in the school that I am particularly proud of is our nurture rooms, the ‘Sunflower Rooms’, and we have a nurturing ethos throughout the school. The nurture rooms are there to help any children who need a wee bit of extra time and one-to-one support. It’s early intervention and it is aimed at our P2 children, to make sure no child is left behind.
“One of the advantages of having a school that has under 200 children is you that I know every single child by name, all the parents, and you know all the children’s needs.”
Catrina said she loves meeting former pupils and hearing about how they have done. And she describes teaching as “the most rewarding job in the world,” although she does add that at times it’s “a very, very tough job, very challenging, you work very hard.
“I really want to pay tribute to the staff here at St Paul’s. They are great examples of fabulous teachers, every one of them and great role models for the children as well. The school also has a very supportive Board of Governors.
“We do leads of initiatives through the school, we have the breakfast club, Irish dancing, zumba, karate, and we have a Let’s Play programme for two-year-olds and Families Connect, which came from FAST, where parents come in and do literacy and maths with their children.
“It is a real community school and I love a vibrant, energetic school and that is what we have got here.”
She said the main factor in her decision to retire is to spend more time with her husband Billy and daughters Erin, Sarah, Bronagh and Clodagh (who is herself now training to be a teacher). And then there little grand-daughter Isla.
“Isla is the daughter of Erin and Chris and she is the light of our lives at the minute.
“I couldn’t have done this job without the support of my family, especially my husband, because it is so time consuming.”
Catrina also plans to keep her hand in community and voluntary work in the future, having been involved over recent years with the Greater Shantallow Community Partnership, Greater Shantallow Community Arts, Off The Streets, St. Joseph’s Parish and Galliagh Women’s Group.
And she said she was delighted to passing on the reins to new principal, Gareth Blackery, who has been her deputy at the school.
“He knows and understands the children, families, the staff and communities coming in, and I’m sure he has great ideas of his own which will be brilliant as well.
“I’m looking forward to hearing all the future successes of St Paul’s PrimarySchool and I’m sure there will be many of them!”