The Secret Teacher: Too many achieve too little for want of that one single adult

All youngsters can benefit from an adult who observes their needs closely and attentively

Seachtain na Gaeilge changed Sean’s life. He had a talent that he had not shared with his peers at school and was fully committed to never sharing with them. In early 2024, many miles from his hometown, he had the misfortune of bumping into his Irish teacher at a festival. She was staying with friends in the area and he was at an Irish dancing competition. At first he was embarrassed at being caught – he was in his full Irish dancing ensemble when he met her – but made peace with it quickly. He realised that a teacher of any other subject would have been much worse, and any student at all would have been a disaster. If anyone at school had to know, with Bean Uí Mhurchú he was about as lucky as he could have been.

Fionnuala loved public speaking and believed she was far enough out of her comfort zone by delivering several minutes of a prepared speech to a group. She started public speaking while at primary school and had progressed from being among the most timid of participants to confidently holding a crowd for more than seven minutes. Her shyness remains a core feature of her personality, but one she could shed within the few short seconds it took her to move towards a podium. Over time, Fionnuala had moved into the prize-winning category and had an array of trophies in the good sittingroom of her family home.

Sorcha is so used to looking after her little sister at home that she can’t switch off from doing it at school. Caoimhe is in the special class, the school’s ASD (autism spectrum disorder) unit and it is hard for Sorcha not to be in there with her. She is worried Caoimhe will not know what is happening if she is not there to help her understand it. Sorcha got to spend a lot of time with Caoimhe in primary school, but it is all much more separate now and Sorcha both misses her sister and worries about her. That makes it really difficult to concentrate in class and Sorcha knows that she risks falling behind in her own work. She is truly terrified of getting a bad report at school as she knows her parents have enough to worry about already.

A local tragedy led to multiple fundraisers in Sean’s village and the wave of support for the family kept strengthening. New levels of creativity emerged as novel ideas for ways to raise funds came to light. When Bean Uí Murchú approached Sean to see if he would dance to raise funds he knew he had to find a way out of it. But his desire to help was stronger than his need to say no. He had never experienced a dilemma like it before. He had danced in front of thousands, but always strangers.


Fionnuala’s English teacher wanted to enter a team in a debating competition. Fionnuala explained that she did not debate, she only did public speaking. Her teacher was adamant that the potential to be an excellent debater was there and that Fionnuala would be foolish not to use it. The idea of the spontaneity required for refutation and rebuttal almost paralysed Fionnuala. She knew she needed a tight script that she could stick to. Her teacher tried to highlight the extraordinary progress made at public speaking over the years and that it was time to venture into new territory. Exciting opportunities to collaborate and work as part of a team came with debating, and public speaking had only ever been on a solo platform. Fionnuala wanted to believe she was able, but just could not quite feel it.

Sorcha’s class tutor needed to find an opportunity to speak to her. This was one of the brightest and most articulate first-years for a long time, but that was not coming across in academic results. Several teachers had approached him to express concern about how distracted Sorcha seemed to be in class. This contrasted so strongly with how personable she seemed to be that they felt it worth flagging with her year head. Once the year head had brought the concern to the class tutor, there was more than enough to move on.

Sean’s Seachtain na Gaeilge marathon exhibition dance raised more funds than any other community fundraiser. The sight of a young teenager more known for a love of farming and tractors than for dance offering up his time was one thing. His willingness to reveal himself as a dancer to visibly support others gained him huge kudos.

Fionnuala’s courage earned her the respect of her family, friends and teachers. She did not start out as a talented debater and stumbled through numerous spontaneous exchanges before she found her feet. Despite the challenges, she caught the debating bug and stuck with it. Slowly but surely, her comfort zone is expanding.

Sorcha’s concerns needed to be shared, and urgently. This slight 13-year-old was carrying burdens beyond her years and thankfully that did not go unnoticed. Despite no lack of academic ability, this young girl’s school performance was poor. Once she had revealed to her tutor that the obstacle to learning more effectively was simply being consumed by concern for her sister, she was offered an alternative view. Once the degree of support available to her sister became clearer, Sorcha’s need to worry faded.

The common factor here? The adult. All three youngsters benefited from an adult who was observing closely and attentively enough to identify what more was possible. Too many too often achieve too little for the want of that one single adult, but it is something no youngster should have to manage without.