A long way from Tipperary
Tipperary woman Catherine O’Farrell reflects on her journey from DCU to a managing a prestigious international school in the UAE.
Catherine O’Farrell’s favourite DCU memory is from her very first day as a student: “A psychology lecturer walked in and started dancing around with a beatbox playing ‘Teachers, Leave Those Kids Alone’ (the chorus from Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd). I had been at an all-girls Catholic boarding school until university. I was like ‘this is new!’”
After graduating with a Bachelor of Education in 2005, Catherine returned home to Tipperary to teach for a year. She then spent a year travelling in Australia before returning to Ireland to teach in a small school in Carlow, and then in Wicklow.
During this time, Catherine completed a degree in Psychology from the Open University. She then moved to Edinburgh, and it was during this time she decided to move to warmer climes.
“I was training for triathlons. It was always raining; all training was outdoors. I was always wet and miserable. I picked up the phone to a recruitmentcompany and said, ‘send me somewhere hot.’ A week later, I went from Edinburgh to Abu Dhabi (in the UAE). I didn’t even know where Abu Dhabi was!” When it came to teaching in the UAE, Catherine says her DCU degree was a big plus. “I can see how Irish teachers are robustly equipped to enter an international market. We are among the most in demand in the world.” The schools in the UAE are well resourced and well structured.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s very hard work because the pressures are quite high, but it’s worth it.”
She says the biggest educational difference between Ireland and the UAE is in the management of schools.
“Here, there is so much fluidity, career progression is way faster.” She began her career in the UAE as an early years’ teacher and within seven years, aged 32, was principal.
“People are more open to younger people having roles. This culture is more accepting of people that may not necessarily have as much experience but have the enthusiasm and academic knowledge.” Catherine is now Group Manager of School Development for Sharjah’s Victoria International School, which is actively recruiting teachers. The school has two campuses, with three more in the pipeline. When asked if she has one achievement that she is most proud of, Catherine, who also has a Masters in Systems Engineering, replies:
“That’s a pretty easy one. I have established an inclusion and wellbeing forum here with 2,500 inclusion practitioners across the whole region to share practice and expertise, between the Middle East, Asia, and the UK. We hold a monthly forum with about 200 attendees. It’s all free, all voluntary.”
Looking ahead, she says “a major goal for me would be more influential policy reform, especially in the UAE. Policy change is really needed, especially in terms of inclusive education. There’s so much more weneed to do to support people with special needs.”
Catherine also has some sound advice for current Education students at DCU.
“Be brave. Look at other curricula as a pastime. Your methodology becomes more enriched when you experience different curricula. You can learn so much.”
Leanne Hanafin is Radio Presenter with 98FM