My Way

Jonathan Croall

Name: Seamus Kearney. Age: 49. School: St Patrick's Primary School, Dunamanagh, County Tyrone

Post: Principal and class teacher

After nearly 20 years as a primary school principal, Seamus Kearney still finds teaching children the most satisfying part of his job, and is deeply irritated by anything or anybody that keeps him out of the classroom.

"Children are here to be taught, not to be written about," he says firmly. He is scathing about the curriculum, assessment and other documents produced by the Government in recent years. "The people who write them know nothing about what goes on in primary schools. It's just more wee trees being cut down, and all wasted. The best file for them is the rubbish bin."

In this small village school some 12 miles from Derry, with its three teachers and 69 pupils, he's able to spend four full days a week with his Primary 6 and 7 class (10 and 11-year-olds). "Good teaching is a matter of being on the same wavelength as children. It's not a matter of informing them, but of getting them to think for themselves, to come up with their own ideas and methods of discovery."

He likes to use a mixture of whole-class teaching and small-group work, favouring the latter especially for English, maths and science, where he might give groups very different materials to work on. "I try to take the best from everything that's available," he says.

But in general he dislikes formal subject boundaries, believing they result in missed opportunities, which can be grasped if you approach a lesson more flexibly. "I just don't like talking about things in isolation," he says.

This afternoon's geography lesson is a case in point. The previous week the children had been on a field trip to the nearby Sperrin Mountains, looking in particular at the course of the river there. Now Seamus Kearney is seeing how much of what they observed has stuck. It proves to be a great deal.

Moving steadily round the room ("I never sit"), he takes the whole class through a re-run of the trip with a map of their route. He tests their memory, their powers of observation, and their familiarity with some basic geological terms. He then sets them a maths exercise based on one moment in their journey, and ends by passing round two short poems that have a "watery" theme, and asking the children what pictures they conjure up for them.

"I seldom use textbooks, I like to do my own thing," he says. "I also try to relate what we do as much as possible to the children's everyday lives. If we're doing something on machines, we might look at their bicycles; if it's something to do with economy, I'd bring in their pocket money."

Everyday life for the children also means the religious divide. Although the school is near the centre of Dunamanagh, not a single child from the village attends it. While the school is Catholic, the village - five churches, four bars, a Union Jack flying at one end, a heavily fortified RUC station at the other - is solidly Protestant.

A few summers ago, 39 pupils were withdrawn from the roll after disturbances in the village during the July marching season. Protestant children go to a primary on the other side of the village; St Patrick's pupils come from outside.

Seamus Kearney is saddened by all the emphasis on religion. "At the end of the day there's only one God, and only a hair's-breadth between Catholics and Protestants. The soon- er the past is forgotten, the better."

He sees education as critical for overcoming ignorance and prejudice, and encourages openness among his pupils. One of the poems he uses in the geography lesson includes the word "harassed". Having checked that they know its meaning, he asks the children who does the harassing in Northern Ireland. The answers are interesting: Sinn Fein, the IRA, the UDA. "It was useful that the word happened to be there," he says later.

His teaching style is relaxed and friendly, keeping it light, but pushing steadily through his lesson plan. The children, dressed in casual clothes, seem interested, and eager to show what they learn. They're delighted at the format of a short French lesson, during which he tests their vocabulary by placing them in unexpected places around the classroom ("Ou est Marie?" "Marie est dans l'armoire").

He knows the background of every child in the school, and has taught some of their parents. "These country children have more innocence than those living in the city. But some parents are so much in the fast lane, the children don't know much about current affairs. I think there's more common sense if there are grandparents in the home."

When he first came to the school in 1970, there was no running water, no electricity, no school meals, and no playground. A lot, he agrees, has changed for the better. On the other hand, the "interference" from bureaucrats has increased the pressures in his job. So now, in the evenings, he likes to help out on his brother's farm.

"I'm not a teacher there, I can cut off when I'm with the sheep and cattle. If I couldn't, I'd pack the job in tomorrow."

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