A teacher who spent her entire career in classrooms in Laois is set to retire this afternoon.
Meree O’Sullivan, who is currently the Deputy Principal of Holy Family Senior School in Portlaoise, will close the door on her classroom for the final time when the mid term break commences at 3pm.
Originally from Donegal, Meree, who lives in Timahoe, came to Laois at the age of 11 and began teaching in the county when she qualified – initially in CBS Portlaoise which later became St Paul’s which then amalgamated with Scoil Bhride to become Holy Family.
When asked how long that actually is – Meree informs us how that has always been ‘a fun secret’ over the years with people often placing bets – and a secret she’d like to maintain.
Principal of Holy Family Senior School, Ms Roisin Brennan, paid a wonderful tribute to her colleague on what will be her final day.
She said: “Throughout her career Meree has educated thousands of pupils, not only leading them in their academics but also in how to live a life full of kindness and gentleness.
“Meree’s sense of fun and excitement has been palpable throughout her career with the pupils always been at the forefront of her mind.
“Her long and distinguished career has seen many changes not only in education but locally in Portlaoise town and in wider society.
“Meree has adapted seamlessly to these changes and as with everything has always had the ability to be innovative and energetic in everything she does.
“Mere’s style of teaching and management has always been ahead of her time and her dynamic approach interacting with children, parents and colleagues is one that has made her a stalwart in our school community.
“Throughout Meree’s years in the classroom and later on as senior manager she went above and beyond to cater for students and staff alike.
“Meree’s unwavering enthusiasm and commitment to education has paved the way for so many bright futures.
“Meree has brought compassion, understanding and never ending patience to her roles and as a result of this has changed countless lives.
“Meree will be remembered for so many things, her ability to listen without judgement, her ability to make any problem seem solvable, and her ability to make anyone feel better just by being in her presence but most of all her ability to always be there.
“The entire school community of HFSS will really miss our day to day interaction with Meree but in her we know we have a lifetime friend and someone we can always turn to.
“From a school perspective this may be the end of one road for Meree to only the beginning of a brand new journey in life.”
And what about the woman herself? Well, Meree says that she just can’t believe that her teaching journey is coming to an end.
She said: “It’s hard to believe that my teaching career is coming to an end. The journey so far has been long and always interesting.
“Beginning as a young teacher in Christian Brothers Primary School, Borris Road seems like last century, then again, it is!
“We had big classes and very little resources and no SNA help at all. We went into a classroom, we looked at the 35 to 40 kids in front of us, we closed the door, and we just got on with it.
“From the beginning, I think I was very aware of the big divide in Portlaoise town and, I guess, in every town in Ireland. There were the ones who had and the ones who had not. I learned that to treat kids the same, I had to treat them very differently.
“I remember in the early years, taking my class camping overnight. I recall the fun we had, the children arriving pell-mell with their tents and bags on a Saturday morning, laughing and talking.
“The bus was full, the craic was mighty and I can’t remember even thinking of insurance, or any of the precautions I would think of now. If the child had medication to take, parents came and told me how it was administered and I just did it.
“There were long school tours that time. For some of kids that was the only time they got away all summer.
“Half the joy was leaving early in the morning and not arriving back till seven or eight in the evening.
“Johnny O’Brien drove the bus and he was just brilliant. He had a microphone at the top of the bus and the kids would go up, one by one, and sing a song.
“They thought they were on “Ireland’s Got Talent” and we thought they were just fantastic. I have always enjoyed teaching. I was lucky in St. Paul’s. I experienced teaching all the classes from second to sixth.
“Nowadays I might meet a parent and remember him in my class and I’d always think of something about him. Whether he was good at maths or PE or art or whatever. It’s always amazed me the way each child is such an individual and really there is no “normal” child or family.”
As her career progressed , Meree stepped away from traditional teaching and moved in resource teaching – something which completely changed her outlook.
She explained: “Resource teaching opened up a new window for me. Now I was meeting kids in small groups and individually. What a difference – it felt like a whole other career.
“I realised that not all kids like to sit down and learn. The school system just didn’t suit everyone. Some kids found it so boring and hard going.
“Frustration can lead to new initiatives, and so began Danny’s shop on Fridays. The shop is named after a young boy, Danny Whelan, who taught me so much about human behaviours.
“The shop was opened as a reward scheme, a behaviour modification programme that set out to be short term and didn’t close for 15 years! It was run by the 6th classes. We sold everything – chocolate, sweets, taytos, treats of all kinds. The kids decided what would be best to sell.
“We owe so much to the kindness of the staff in the old Dunne’s Stores, particularly Mary Phelan, who was always so great to the kids and me.
“The staff in 4 Aces were exceptional and welcomed us on “Thursday Shopping Days” with generosity and helpfulness. Some Fridays we cooked hot dogs and some Fridays we cooked chips.
“Some days, very special days, were ice cream days and they were particularly stressful and yet most memorable. Berni, one of the most talented people in our school, was always there to keep us all sane.
“Everything cost one euro. We never knew we were creating memories, we were just having fun. Danny’s shop is probably what most of the kids will remember me for. I hope they do.
“Starting an evening club was a most exciting venture. We met on Monday and Wednesday evenings from 7pm to 9pm, and then after school on Fridays.
“We played cards, darts, told ghost stories and in general, just had fun. The kids were amazing. They never failed to show up even in the coldest darkest evenings.
“I often thought that if I never mentioned home time, they would stay there all night. They got to know each other, to have serious chats about themselves and who they were. And getting to know them was such a joy for me.”
Away from the classroom, Meree married her loving husband Eoin and has two daughters, Brianna and Aoibhinn, who she describes as her ‘greatest joy’.
Looking back on her career now, there is a number of people that Meree would like to thank.
She said: “I have to thank all The Boards of Management over the years. They are a great source of support to me personally and to the school.
“The parents’ councils have been a rock of advice and friendship. They were and are such friends, and always there to advise and to help, and to fund raise of course.
“I worked with Principal Des Sutton for years. He is just amazing. He always advised us to find what the child was good at and this would help the child.
“His way increased the self esteem of everyone, even for us as adults. If we were good at chess, we did chess; if we were accomplished at table tennis we did it with the kids. This kind of motivation made teaching fun.
“Moving from St. Paul’s to Holy Family Senor School was a miracle. I will be forever grateful to Monsignor John Byrne.
“Without him that dream of having a new school would never have been realised. The school itself is the epitome of child friendliness and colour.
“The space, the classrooms and the facilities are just amazing. Who could have dreamt that we would have our own Astro Turf? How lucky are we?
“We have two “Star Units” in the Holy Family Senior School. A highly skilled staff teaches 12 children with Autism. It is a very special place to visit and the atmosphere there is unique.
“I often think of how blessed we are to have these highly resourced centres. I pay tribute to all the children who negotiated mainstream school in the past without this specialised help.
“Our Principal, Roisin Brennan, has brought new energy to our school. Together with Dermot O’Connor, our new Deputy, they are a very accomplished team.
“I have been and am very lucky in working with an amazing group of people. The atmosphere in our school is welcoming and warm.
“We love to meet the parents of the children we teach – we are all a team.
“The underpinning ethos is kindness, we are a family. The teachers and SNA’s in our school are fantastic and go way beyond their remit to do everything they can to help, with children always being the centre focus.
“Our caretaker, Damian, is one in a million. He is so talented and is ever- ready to make, fix and do anything that is needed.
“The school yard recently benefited from his skills. He crafted benches for the kids that are, not just sturdy and functional, but also painted in the most brilliant colours.
“The fabulous floral mural ,created and painted by our ingenious staff ,completes the picture and makes the yard a lovely space.
“I am glad to be leaving our school in such capable hands.”
In 2003, Meree completed a INLPT Master Practitioner Course in Life Coaching, and then went on to receive a BSC in Psychotherapy and Counselling in 2011.
For the last number of years, she has been working as a psychotherapist in the evenings. And this month, she graduated as a supervisor.
Meree’s plan is to continue to grow that side of her life and she has secured an office in Portlaoise.
We wish her all the best in her new role as a Psychotherapist, CBT, Counsellor and Life Coach.