Surprise celebrations for Downpatrick principal

Surprise celebrations for Downpatrick principal

9 September 2020

TO devote 40 years to anything is a real sign of devotion but for Rosemary McLaughlin, the principal of St Mary’s High School in Downpatrick, her four decades at the school have passed in the blink of an eye.

As she and her staff welcomed back students to the all-girls school last week, she was caught unawares when her impressive achievement of having taught in the one school throughout her entire career was marked with flowers, cake and presents from colleagues and friends.

She came to St Mary’s in 1980 straight after qualifying from the former St Mary’s Teacher Training College in Belfast  — and has stayed there ever since.

While she knows her 40th anniversary is perhaps a unique achievement for teachers these days, Ms McLaughlin simply explains it as being fortunate in finding the perfect school for her.

“I was totally oblivious to it all as I was too busy getting everyone settled into school,” said the principal, who like other principals is rising to the challenge of educating children during Covid-19 restrictions.

“I’m sure people might find this hard to believe but I find that every year flies in. I suppose if you are enjoying yourself, time does fly. “The staff have said to me that people will never have that length of service again in one place and I suppose it’s pretty unique. I think it was TS Elliot who talked in one of his poems about a life being measured out in coffee spoons [The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock]. But if you are a teacher, it’s marked out in marking exercise books.

“Some of our head girls can’t believe it that someone can stay in the same job. But I wasn’t doing the same job for 40 years.”

And neither she was. While she started off as a teacher of English and History, Ms McLaughlin soon began to teach exam classes and became Head of Year 8 from 1982 to 1999. She was also the school’s PRO and became Head of English in 1996 until 2006. 

After that, she was a senior leader for curriculum and the school’s special needs co-ordinator for three years before being appointed vice principal in 2009. She held the role for ten years until she was appointed principal last year, succeeding Mrs Sheila Darling.

In total, she worked with the school’s last five principals and knows the Ardglass Road institution inside out.

Her office was once the first classroom she taught in and Ms McLaughlin fondly remembers former principal Sister Theresa, whose office was next door.

She says her mother knew from when she was just aged four that she was going to be a teacher — the only one in her family to date.

Fresh from travelling to Russia and attending the controversial Moscow Olympics, Ms McLaughlin was one of four teachers who drove from their home in North Belfast to teach in Downpatrick.

It was during the height of the Troubles, at the start of the Hunger Strike, and she remembers working in Downpatrick a welcome distraction at the time. 

“It was good to leave Belfast every day to come to Downpatrick and after a while, it was clear to me that I had no desire to teach in a Belfast school, no disrespect intended,” said Ms McLaughlin.

“I just happened to find a school that I really liked. Apart from liking it, St Mary’s really espoused my values in terms of education for young women and with its very strong work ethic. 

“That was very well established when I started here in 1980 under the Sisters of Mercy. I felt that they really wanted to make a difference in the lives of the young women who came here.”

Empowering and encouraging her students to be the best they can be has always been all-important to Ms McLaughlin.

“I really wanted young women to be educated as I could see the power of education has to change a person’s life,” she said. “It was also important for me coming to a school like this where I believe the young girls had already been damaged at the age of 11 in terms of the transfer test, as they call it now, or the 11-Plus in my day. 

“My values are that an exam at the age of 10 should never define what that young person becomes in their later life. I’ve taught girls who still keep in contact with me and who are now well represented in all professions right across Northern Ireland. They battled against that in terms of an outcome of an exam on one particular day.”

Some might wonder why such a dedicated teacher would become a principal after such a long time.

She explains: “It was never a burning ambition of mine to become principal, although I do remember some of my lecturers and fellow student teachers at St Mary’s teasing me and would say, ‘You will be a principal some day’. But my passion was always teaching in the classroom. I still love teaching English, it’s still my passion.

“But it wasn’t everything to me. If I had wanted to be a principal in another school, I could have hopped around and got there with my qualifications.”

Ms McLaughlin said it was the combination of work in a great school with like-minded staff who shared her work ethic and ethos which made her stay at St Mary’s.

“I never wanted to go to a place that didn’t fit in with my values and that’s why it was important to me to stay. I could see that I was making a difference in the lives of the girls in terms of the qualifications they were getting in English.

“Teaching is a vocation and not something you can just drift into or you will become very unhappy due to the sheer amount of work that is required and also the personal investment that it takes.”

Like her predecessor, Ms McLaughlin wants the proposed merger of St Mary’s with De La Salle High School and St Patrick’s Grammar School to go ahead.

“I’m very positive about the proposed merger as it goes back to my own values and belief in all ability schools,” she said. “In terms of social justice, I feel the move is very important. In an all-ability school you can cater for the gifted and talented but you can also support children who need it.”

She has seen many challenges for the school and education in a Covid-19 pandemic is just one more — she and her staff have been working extra hard to protect everyone in the school.

“Staff and students are glad to be back and parents are glad that their children are back at school as our students need the structure of school in their lives. They can’t stay at home forever,” she said.

She selects last year’s achievement — when St Mary’s was ranked fourth in Northern Ireland in the league tables for non-selective schools for GCSE performance— as one of her highlights.

“I want to thank the board of governors, all former colleagues and current staff for their good wishes,” added Ms McLaughlin. “They have all worked tirelessly throughout the years for 

St Mary’s High School and as Brian Friel once said about memories, ‘What’s left is going to be precious, precious gold…’

“I have taught so many generations of girls – each girl unique in their own way with their talents and abilities. I want to thank them for the laughter we shared in the classroom, the lessons I learned from them and the memories that we all created together.”