An insistent knock on the C Block staff-room door at break-time. ‘Is Mrs Parkhill there?’ It might have been the second or third caller. Yet another distressed Year 8 student appears with a problem - a lost school bag, a missing gym kit or a minor injury. Sheila’s chance of a cup of tea recedes and yet, with a smile she starts to defuse any anxiety.
Patience and understanding were not the only qualities that Sheila Parkhill brought to an outstanding career as a teacher. As the first full-time lady appointed to a traditional boys’ grammar school like St. Malachy’s, Miss Fisher, as she then was, had to be strong and determined from the start. While 150 years of male domination and a well-established ‘old-boy’ network did not of itself make her feel unwelcome, there were, doubtless, awkward moments. From her arrival in 1970 she ‘blazed a trail’ for a score of young, talented women who pursued their careers in the College in the 1980s and beyond.
St. Malachy’s in the 1970s was a College in transition. It was no coincidence that far reaching reforms of the pastoral system for Form 1 (as Year 8 was then called) followed Sheila’s promotion to Year Head. A full day of induction or ‘acclimatization’ was introduced for the new intake, class teachers who would take their students for 2 or 3 subjects, a dedicated play area, advice booklets with hints and practical information – all these innovations to ease the transition from Primary School are of course now standard practice. Generations of Year 8s were able to ‘find their feet’ quickly and take a full part in College life due to Sheila’s advice and encouragement.
To describe Sheila as a Francophile would be an understatement; her lessons were creative and full of insights into the culture of a land and people she loved. There were French lunches for students at least once a year. A firm believer in learning beyond the classroom, Sheila organized many an educational trip to Paris, always a rewarding experience for young students. An unusually comprehensive knowledge of football endeared her to her soccer-mad students. While playing tennis, listening to music and reading novels were part of her ‘downtime’ it was frequent mention of her loving family which peppered her conversation among colleagues.
In many areas of educational provision Sheila Parkhill was ‘ahead of her time’. In the 1980s she campaigned for greater recognition of Special Needs issues and help for vulnerable students; her role as the College’s first specialist in this area or SENCO was a natural progression. She introduced counselling provision and put in place a system of assessing, planning and monitoring the progress of students with special difficulties and disabilities. Communications with parents and support services became more frequent. It was no surprise to her colleagues when she was appointed vice-principal in 2002.
Her Requiem Mass in March was still subject to the ‘Covid restrictions’. Had it not been for this and the suddenness of her death the Holy Family Church could have been filled several times over with grateful Malachians in every walk of life to whom Sheila Parkhill gave confidence and the best possible start.
Toujours dans nos coeurs.