Teacher shortages: ‘I had principals begging me to work’

Tom Mullins is one of many retired teachers covering short-term absences in schools

Tom Mullins: ‘It’s a different world to what I was used to . . . every classroom has an interactive whiteboard. Young teachers are downloading stuff from the internet.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Tom Mullins, a retired school principal, had been out of the classroom for 17 years when he thought about a return to teaching last year.

“When I retired I didn’t think I’d ever be back,” says Mullins (67), originally from Mitchelstown, Co Cork. “Then I heard there was an awful shortage of substitute teachers . . . so, in fear and trepidation, I thought I might try it. I contacted a few schools and was very nervous about it.”

The response, he says, took him by surprise. “I had principals begging me to work, offering me maternity leave cover or 17-hour weeks . . .”

Mullins is one of a growing number of retirees who are plugging gaps in schools desperate to find cover for short-term absences.


As principal at St Mary’s boys national school in Rathfarnham, Dublin, until last year, his role was mostly administrative. Returning to a teaching role in the classroom after more than a decade and a half took some adjustment.

“It’s a different world to what I was used to . . . every classroom has an interactive whiteboard. Young teachers are downloading stuff from the internet,” he says.

But the biggest change of all, he says, is special education. The drive to support and include children with special needs in the classroom means there are far more support staff. It is, he says, a hugely positive development.

“It’s very sophisticated nowadays, and very interesting . . . There’s a lot of team teaching and in-class support.”

These days Mullins is teaching children with special needs. It’s a big change, which he finds stimulating and fulfilling.

Huge variety

“Last week I was with a child with a serious autism spectrum disorder. When I was with him at first I was a bit nervous. He was non-verbal. He turned out to be a beautiful child. There are children with Down syndrome or Asperger’s or elsewhere on the spectrum. There is huge variety to it.”

The teacher shortages, he feels, seem to be linked to various factors such as the cost of living in the capital, high rates of maternity leave and many younger teachers heading to the Middle East.

"I think a huge thing is that a lot of teachers can't afford property in Dublin. There are very high rents and many have no possibility of buying a home. Huge numbers seem to be heading to Abu Dhabi. "

A significant number of those heading abroad seem to be teachers who have secured permanency and are entitled to career breaks, he says. “Why wouldn’t they? They can make some money; it’s an adventure. These places are very exciting, and there are lots of Irish people there.”