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Meet the Principal: Catherine McHugh of St Patrick's College in Dungannon on why she encourages every pupil’s 'light to shine'

 

Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

Q. Tell me about your own school days.

A. I went to St Joseph's in Coalisland and then transferred to do A-levels at St Patrick's Academy. I studied religious studies, English literature and history A-level. Religious studies was always my favourite subject. I think religion is the one that lays the basis for coping with life, being able to gather your morals and learn about what's good about life, building relationships and building a faith foundation. When I was a teacher in Loreto in Omagh, I taught religious studies also.

My fondest memories from school are of friendship and fun, and of the opportunities that we got and the enrichment experiences we had. We got peer mentoring and outreach opportunities. I remember when we were at the Academy, we got the opportunity to go over to Loane House nursing home to sit with the elderly and talk with them. So those kind of links and the outreach opportunities were important.

I enjoyed school. I loved first to fifth year, but found the transfer to St Patrick's Academy hard. But when I settled, I was very happy in school. All my school years were happy.

Q. Did you always want to teach?

A. I probably initially wanted to be a nurse. And then I went to the open day at St Mary's in Belfast around the time I was doing my UCAS choices. I then gravitated towards being a teacher.

I went to St Mary's Teaching College and studied religious studies and English as a subsidiary subject. I made great friendships there and have fond memories of the independence and the opportunity to be able to shape your own future and be your own person. It was a great experience. Before that, the furthest I would have gone was Cookstown.

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I had some great experiences out on teaching practice. I remember we did teaching methods classes on a Friday and we had a chance to go out to the Little Flower Primary School and St Genevieve's. I feel that then I got a real taste for making a difference and experiencing teaching, being able to use your senses and draw people in. I got a real love for it.

Q. What has been your proudest moment as a teacher or principal?

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Catherine McHugh encourages individuality

A. I don't know if there is one particular moment. I would be thinking more about names. So I'd be thinking more about pupils I was able to impact or make a difference with, turned things around for or removed the barriers for. I'd be thinking particularly about children with special needs who were able to complete their GCSEs when it might have initially been thought that it might not happen. Or indeed children who managed to get an A* at A-level as opposed to an A, or even just the children who got a C instead of a D.

So it's probably an amalgamation of proud moments. It's more linked to the people than the moments, that I would think of quicker.

Q. And there have been some dark moments, particularly over the last year, how have you guided the school community through them?

A. The death of our pupil Lauren Bullock, who died in a crush outside the Greenvale Hotel, was one of the most difficult experiences. Being part of a school community who are grieving the loss of a student and dealing with the impact of that has been hard because it was such a catastrophic moment for a family, a community and a school. There were so many people impacted by that loss and so many ripple effects. And even just the journey after that, when everything and everyone else retreats and you are still journeying with people who are still bereaved and grieving. And you are still trying to keep those links together and provide the support that is needed for the students and for the family. Without a doubt, it was one of the most difficult times to navigate through and making sure that people got what they needed and kept the faith alive. At different moments, different things were needed.

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Catherine hopes her students leave St Patrick’s ready for the next challenge

I think the first thing was the presence, just being there and providing the support network. But a lot of the time, the professional networks begin to retreat, so as a school community, you still have to facilitate and offer and provide. And in some ways at that stage you are the centre, the hub, for the families and for the children. A lot of it is about making sure that your staff are equipped and your children have access to things.

We have done some things like yoga, team-building exercises and memorial projects and our key aim has been to keep Lauren alive.

At our prize giving we introduced a 'Lauren's Legacy' and this year it was awarded to Lauren's Mummy and Daddy. At the formal, we very much included Lauren in a photographic display and made sure that the year group felt that we hadn't just moved on, that we are not at the next stage yet.

Through one of our enrichment projects, the Men Shed, the students are making a memorial garden also. It is things like that to show that we haven't forgotten, and there is a legacy and a forget-me-not in it.

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Crush tragedy: Lauren Bullock

Q. What has been the best advice you have ever been given as a teacher?

A. My first teaching job was in De La Salle in Belfast. I remember the vice principal there, Pat Durkan, coming in to observe me in a lesson. I was doing a meditation lesson with big Year 11 boys. I remember him saying to me afterwards: "Give them everything, every experience, every opportunity, give them as much as you can." He said: "Give them everything and out of that they will gain something."

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Catherine hopes her students leave St Patrick’s ready for the next challenge

Q. What do you think the best quality is to have as a teacher?

A. I think flexibility is the best quality to have as a teacher. And it probably goes along with resilience and coping. Teaching changes so much in terms of direction and demand.

Even the ability of being able to give the children what they need in a minute. You have to be flexible because when you walk into a classroom today, it could be very different to what was presented to you yesterday in the classroom.

I think society is changing so much that you have to be flexible and innovate to go with it, to be able to meet children where they are at and provide them with what they need. Children need role models who are patient and resilient and strong and champions. But they are not going to get that unless you are flexible.

Q. How do you think teaching has changed over the years?

A. My first teaching year was 1995. I think teaching has changed mostly because of what children have access to. Technology has changed teaching so much.

The challenges for schools, because of what the workforce needs now and what the industry needs from students coming out of school now, is that they have to be equipped in technology and softer skills.

It's not just academic now, it's an all-round enrichment experience in schools.

Q. How is the current climate, the political stalemate in Stormont, impacting on your and other schools?

A. The biggest pressures on all schools are probably the budgetary constraints. The fallout from the budgetary constraints is not just the impact on curriculum and teaching and learning in the classroom, it's the all-round support that schools have to provide. Schools are homes for newcomer children and children with special education needs, they are also homes for families who are in need of support.

You can be as innovative and creative as you want, but you also have to fund and finance. You want to be able to offer English as a foreign language to a family, not just to a child in the school, so you need to be able to fund that. For me, the biggest pressure is about the budgets, as you want to be able to offer as much as an enriching experience not just to children in the classroom, but also to families and communities, to the needs of learners.

So you have to have that strategy and approach, which requires and necessitates money.

At the moment, our focus is on building links. So we are about building those links to industry and local businesses. We have been very lucky in securing some funding for an after school engineering class, which wouldn't have run if it weren't for a local business who have secured that for us.

I now have 12 children accessing B-Tech GCSE engineering who wouldn't otherwise get it on the curriculum. We have had companies who have sponsored robotics, another sponsoring a Young Scientist Competition. We have business leaders who are mentoring our Young Enterprise groups. We are getting around a lot of that by doing external funding.

We also have Christmas concerts and a Christmas fair to raise money and those are opportunities for me to raise necessary funds.

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Catherine McHugh encourages individuality

Q. What is your definition of success?

A. As a school, our primary business is wanting our children to achieve the best they can. I want them to be achieving in their goals and aspirations. But for me, the story of success for the school has to be taking care of the whole child, every aspect of the child. So that we are rooted ultimately in respect and dignity and responsibility. It's about the whole child achieving academic success, but also becoming the best version of themselves, so that they can contribute to society and build relationships that are strong and solid and that they can service the community. So for me, it's about an all-round building block for a child.

Academic success is important. I want my children to leave this school able to access the next level that they need, be that a higher or further education, apprenticeships or employment.

Q. What is your school's ethos?

A. This school is very rich in the fabric of culture and diversity and individuality. It is also a place where children are very free to be themselves. There is a lot of respect here for individuality and for being able to be who you are and building relationships that are very strong, our school ethos is to inspire future generations, but it is around high aspirations for learners. It is around being the best that you can be... about not being afraid to let your light shine.

School factfile

Name: St Patrick's College

Founded in: Amalgamation of St Patrick's Boys' Schools and St Patrick's Girls' School, opened in 2008

Pupils: 650

Teachers: 42

Notable recent successes: Mr Ryan Curry achieved the ENTHUSE Award for 'Excellence in STEM Teaching in 2019, in recognition for his work in this area.

We are a Rights Respecting School and we are due to go for our Gold Award in this soon.

We are also one of just 16 schools who are part of the Mtech Academy, which provides a project-based, technology-centric curriculum that addresses the specific requirements of students, teachers and head teachers, preparing them for new opportunities in the digital world.

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