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Retiring early: ‘I am going before I burn out, in case I burn out’

The Great Resignation: ‘To do this job properly by my standards is no longer possible for me,’ says Leitrim primary school principal Máirín O’Keeffe

Case study

Máirín O’Keeffe rattles off a list of primary school principals she knows personally who are retiring prematurely this year, including one woman “young enough to be my daughter”. Another, aged just 40, will continue to teach but has decided that a principal’s life is not for her.

O’Keeffe (58) has also decided to go despite loving her job as principal of St Patrick’s primary school in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim, where her late father, Paddy, was also principal. She is retiring early, she says, not because she is burnt out but because she knows she would be if she stayed much longer.

“I would hate to think Covid pushed me out the door. I think the biggest thing for me was the no down time, the constant accessibility. You cannot switch off your phone.”

The mantra of her twin 19-year-old daughters who are about to start college (“probably not a great time to be retiring”) is, she says: “Mam, get off the phone.”

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“I get emails all the time, that’s 24/7. Yesterday, over a one-hour period, 27 emails came in — and the school is closed. With some you go, ‘delete, delete, delete’, but in the middle of that are ones you do need to answer, like end of the year bills coming in.”

Having started teaching 39 years ago, she has been a school principal for 22 years. On September 1st she plans to be in London with yet another school principal who has just retired, as she is not sure how she will feel as she finds herself for the first time since the age of three not heading through the school gates as the new year begins.

Pressed on why she is leaving what she says has been “a plum job”, the Leitrim woman said it is constantly being “on”, the juggling umpteen different WhatsApp groups, the never ending flow of emails and phone calls which have to be made and responded to. Often it’s the frustrating quest, so familiar to principals all over the country, for a substitute teacher after receiving that dreaded late night or 6.30am text from a colleague who has tested positive for Covid-19 and who wants to give her the earliest possible notice. Even more stressful is the ongoing battle to sort out services for children with critical needs who can’t function at school without supports such as Special Needs Assistants (SNAs). “SNAs are like hen’s teeth. The whole SNA system is a scandal,” she said.

That is the issue which “literally keeps me awake at night”, she said.

“This is a very nice school, there is a really good community behind it. It is well resourced. It is as good as it could be. And I have had the best time,” she said. “Maybe it is to do with me. Maybe men are better at compartmentalising and saying I am going to work from 9am until 6pm and then I am not. When I hear those emails coming in I have to look. Maybe that is a flaw in me.”

She says Minister for Education Norma Foley’s acknowledgment of the work of schools and of principals throughout the pandemic “is cold comfort”.

One of the reasons she could not delegate the extra work which took up weekends and evenings was that there was no remuneration, not even days in lieu, so she felt she couldn’t ask colleagues to do extra work for nothing.

“You can keep your acknowledgment. What are you going to do to support it.”

In July she was still battling to secure adequate SNA cover for children with special needs who will be attending mainstream classes from September. (The two classes in the autism unit have a separate allocation of five SNAs.)

“The situation is that in the unlikely event that you get what you apply for, this leaves you with just weeks to advertise the positions and carry out interviews,” the principal said.

By mid-August the SNA allocation had been confirmed but school transport had not been sanctioned for every child with exceptional needs, which meant that not all bus escorts could be put in place. “And it’s just two weeks to go,” O’Keeffe said, adding that if she happened to be somewhere such as China on her holidays, these last minute arrangements would have been impossible to sort out.

Another “absolute bugbear” is having to fight for services such as speech therapy for children in the school’s autism unit.

As she bows out, O’Keeffe has a few observations about how schools could run more smoothly and cater better for every cohort of pupils. Every student teacher should get training in special education, she said.

“The [teacher training] colleges went from three to four years and I don’t see what the difference is. There should be a year of special ed. I never heard the word autism in college,” she said.

Her two daughters did the Leaving Cert during the pandemic, but she admits she was more preoccupied with the needs of some children in the school whose routine had been so disrupted.

“To be in your house 24/7 with a child whose whole regulation has been turned upside down. I worried about the mental health of parents, and some parents might say, ‘Bloody hell she had no need to worry about me’, and I know that.

“But I think it is hard with any small children, and a lot of these parents were trying to work from home as well.

“I taught my own girls piano for a bit and it was the nearest we ever got to calling Tusla into the house,” she joked.

“Seriously, I felt terrible all the time, and it might be controversial to say it, but I think we should have left the special classes open. A lot of staff would have come in, even one day a week. That respite would have been huge for parents and children alike.”

Her father died in 2020, and with her daughters studying for the Leaving Cert at the time, she felt guilty about being so preoccupied by work.

“The guilt was shocking — but I would honestly say more about the school than my daughters. And then I felt guilty about that.”

Her school has a new autism unit serving 12 children, but because there aren’t similar facilities in towns such as Carrick-on-Shannon and Mohill, it is over-subscribed‚ leaving many local families perplexed about why there are no places for their children. “And it’s traumatic to have to tell them that not only have you no place now but you won’t in three years time because nobody is due to leave.”

The Leitrim woman thinks the Department of Education could ease the pressure on principals somewhat by simple things such as not sending out group emails on the first day of the Easter holidays or at the start of the weekend.

“There is something about sitting at home on a Friday evening at seven o’clock and seeing ‘info@covid’ dropping in that makes your heart turn over and spoils your night.”

O’Keeffe says if she hadn’t made the decision to retire early she would worry about how the ongoing stress would impact her.

“I think I suffer from anxiety. I have never said that before, but I know when I wake at night my head starts to go like that [clicking sound] and I can’t sleep. My brain is racing.

“Or when that phone goes ping in the morning. I hate looking at it. I dread it because if someone is texting you at 6.30am or 7am in the morning, it’s not because you have won the lottery.”

She is at pains to say that she hasn’t a single complaint about any parent or staff member and the children, especially those in the autism unit have a special place in her heart.

“I am flipping mad about them. They have not an agenda in the world.”

So why is she leaving?

“I think the reason I am retired is because to do this job properly by my standards is no longer possible for me. There are literally not enough hours in the day or the week. Other people might do it differently, but it is no longer viable for me.

“You can never ever get away from it. You are on call all the time. I don’t think that is sustainable.”

She says that Covid “certainly did not help” in the sense that the job got bigger and, with teachers isolating from each other, the support got smaller.

“It was isolating, but I don’t want to concede that it was Covid and I don’t want to connect it to burnout. I think I am actually going before I burn out, in case I burn out. I would hate to think I didn’t do as good a job last year as I did eight years ago.”