Value teachers, stop glorifying university, and ditch LC reform: dealing with the real problems in our schools

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Source: Quotefancy

At this time of the year, we tend to hear a lot of negativity about the Leaving Certificate, how it needs to change, how it is letting our young people down, how it is all about ‘rote-learning’ (how awful!), and how it kills creativity. This year has been no different, and in the last week two separate reports from DCU produced some ‘newsworthy’ conclusions (with which many teachers disagreed). Let’s have a look at what those reports said:

Research carried out by the DCU Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection came to the conclusion that the Leaving Certificate exams are ‘largely memory tests that encourage “learning off by heart”‘, and raised questions about whether our youth are being adequately trained in problem solving and creative skills at 2nd level. The findings were partly based on interviews carried out with 30 recent Leaving Certificate pupils, who are now in 3rd level education.

DCU, in a separate study, also surveyed 304 first year university students, with results showing that many felt the Leaving Certificate did not adequately prepare them for university life.

Both studies received a considerable amount of media coverage and airtime; many educators have been concerned about how reliable such research can be considering the small numbers surveyed and the fact that the research was limited to Dublin students. It seems somewhat unethical that the responses of 0.005% of Ireland’s student population (an unrepresentative sample) can be allowed to dictate national conversation and indeed policy development on such an important topic. However, what worried me most was the conclusion that the Irish education system needs to move away from knowledge accumulation to skill development.

Without a doubt, there are problems. I distinctly remember a conversation some years ago with my Dissertation Supervisor at NUI Galway’s History department where she told me that most of that year’s 1st year History students had managed to fail History (achieve 40%). Others in 3rd Level Institutions relate how the standard is being dropped – the goalposts are being widened – every year to allow a decent number of students to pass exams, so universities won’t lose face, lose funding, and be forced to shut down. Anecdotal evidence from State examiners continues the same sorry tale: worrying numbers of our children cannot spell, they cannot add, they cannot answer a simple, lower-order question satisfactorily. Recently I attended the final of a schools debating competition at Trinity College Dublin, and was struck by the inability of many participants, even at that level, to listen to a question and logically answer it.

We do have problems – but changing the structure of the Leaving Certificate will not solve them. Indeed, I believe it would be tragedy if we began to mindlessly meddle around with a system that has served us well over the past decade. The new Junior Cycle reform hasn’t been exactly a glowing success, so let’s not be irrational here. Instead let’s look at the glaringly obvious problems in our schools and consider whether our efforts and finances might be better used solving them instead.

Why not value teachers more?
I strongly believe that the Leaving Certificate program, along with the Leaving Certificate Applied, provides a robust and dependable education for our youth. Taught well, by competent and gifted teachers, it is a certificate of which to be proud – but an education system cannot stand on content alone. And unfortunately, our Government has not been doing very well attracting the best-quality candidates into teaching in the past decade. Due to cruel pay cuts, teachers have been emigrating en masse to brighter horizons, with the subsequent creation of a substitute teacher culture which is beginning to wreak considerable havoc on the quality of education in our schools. The salary for teachers is miserable, and we have been the victims of unfulfilled promises about pay remuneration. The Postgraduate Diploma in Education courses are, as a rule, badly organised and poorly taught. Our brightest are being lured into careers in law, finance and medicine; ‘600-point’ students rarely, if ever, take up teaching as their career, and last year, the CAO points for teaching courses dropped.

So, are our teachers inspiring, challenging, encouraging instructors for our youth? Are they the very best they can possibly be? Are they passionate about what they teach, in complete command of their subject, able to present it in a convincing and persuasive manner? Unfortunately, while they do their best, very often the support, training and direction they need is simply non-existent. And our brightest most often turn to careers with far greater financial incentives and professional support than teaching will ever give them.

This is in direct contrast to many of the world’s top-performing education systems – Japan, South Korea and Finland hold their teachers in high respect, and high-quality teacher recruitment and training drives educational success. Before the Irish government pours money into a new Leaving Cycle program doomed for failure, it urgently needs to address the serious issues around teacher recruitment, teacher training and teacher pay; otherwise, reform or no reform, the situation will only get worse.

Why not tell our students that university is just one of many options?
We already have a skills-focussed, continuous assessment-based Certificate for students who learn differently. It’s called the Leaving Certificate Applied and it is an excellent resource for any student challenged by the knowledge-based Leaving Certificate program. We need to offer it, promote it and value it. There are far too many young people trying to get into university just because society expects them to, because their friends are going, or because the career guidance teacher told them to. There are far too many young people in our universities who should not be there. They should be doing apprenticeships, FETAC Courses, attending local Level 6 colleges, working on the farm, fixing cars. We need to be able to say confidently in our schools – ‘University might not be for you – and that’s absolutely fine. Here’s another brilliant option. You can be just as successful as your college-bound classmate, just this route suits you better.’ Our young people need to be encouraged to find their own path and reach their own potential, not just ‘go to university’.

In the past 6 months, I have not seen the media, nor the government, engage with either of these issues. Instead there is a continual focus on reforming a knowledge-based education system to one that engages primarily with the transmission of skills.  This is not the problem with our education system, for the reasons I have outlined above, and many more.

However, media and government preoccupation with this ‘perceived’ problem is alarming, because it points to a desire to redefine education as we know it. Education transmits knowledge: knowledge is power. If skills are transmitted instead of knowledge, where does that leave the power that comes with knowledge? Skilled people are good workers; they follow instructions, perform tasks and make an excellent workforce – but are they independent thinkers? Will they call out corruption and tyranny? Will they face the future armed with the lessons of the past?

And so today, as we analyse, criticize and sympathize, let us listen to the critics with an informed mind.

Thanks for reading.
Miss de Búrca

 

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#SexEdBill: What Is Education?

This week, on Tuesday 12 June, Cliona Saidlear, Executive Director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland, spoke to the Oireachtas Education Committee in Leinster House on the subject of Sex Education Reform. She does not appear to have any educational training, but specialised in International Relations and International Politics at third level. She spoke at length on how the Department of Education must revise Relationships and Sexuality Education, and stated that there was a need for policy-makers and teachers to be led by the children’s realities – ‘we must upskill and learn from the children we are dealing with’.

What a startling suteachggestion! Education is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘receiving or giving systematic instruction’ and an educator is one who ‘provides instruction’. Teachers are, very simply, channels through which knowledge is transmitted. Yes, they do so much more than just teach, but their primary function is to shape children with information, knowledge and skills that will help them reach their full potential, gain fulfilment from life and live as successful citizens. In the classroom, the teacher is in charge. The children are not. Our training, maturity and life experiences make us the experts. And we not only open doors of knowledge, but we also have a preventative role, in outlining and modelling legal, acceptable and correct behaviours.

For Ms Saidlear to suggest that we be led by the children regarding sex education is bewildering. If the children lead in English, we will only study the lyrics of pop-songs, text language will replace proper English and Shakespeare, Frost and Yeats will be consigned to the rubbish heap. In German, we will watch Bayern München Youtube clips and burn our grammar books. In school in general, smartphones will be in continual use, books and copies will be left at home, the canteen will be a silent expanse of dirty dishes and sandwich wrappings after lunch, exams of any sort will be abolished and the school day will begin at 10 am. Saidlear’s suggestion undermines the very essence of education, which is to provide instruction and security and to act as a deterrent to hazardous, irresponsible and self-destructive behaviour.

Education ought to decisively establish the norms for society; if it is merely responding to current norms, then it has failed its primary purpose and is merely playing catch-up. With regards to sex education, it is the duty of educators to promote objective morality and all that is decent, pure and right. We fail our children abysmally when instead of making a clear distinction between what is right and wrong in matters of sexual conduct, we encourage them, in their childish, celebrity-crazed ignorance, to decide for themselves.

Do Not Let Your Child Watch ’13 Reasons Why’

One of my pupils told me recently that she was looking forward to the second season of 13 Reasons Why on Netflix. She’s young and impressionable. She’s had a tough life so far. She’s Irish. And she lives in a community which has been hit again and again by the dreadful tragedy of suicide. I told her straight out not to watch it. I also said that if she was my child, she simply would not be allowed to.

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And when I think that she might, nevertheless, stay up all night tonight, binge-watching a series that dramatizes suicide and sexual assault, I am concerned. Concerned for her, and for thousands of her peers all around the country who will watch these episodes alone, probably in their bedrooms, without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Wi-fi and mobile data have made it easier than ever for our children to be physically present but mentally far, far away – tuned into stories that raise questions and issues which were never meant to be dealt with by children in the darkness of a bedroom, through the glare of an iPhone screen. That quiet, pale-faced boy at the breakfast table with no appetite, that angry, moody girl who slams doors and cries for no reason – what is really going on in their minds? What were they watching last night? Our children are grappling with ideas, scenarios, images and suggestions of which many parents simply have no notion, most of the time.

And that is wrong.

In school, we do our best to pick up the pieces, be supportive, listen to our pupils’ voices, hear their worries and concerns, stay tuned in, give good advice, reprimand and warn if necessary. But it is very hard to compete with the lure of the story, the enticement of dangerous topics wrapped up in a gripping plotline, the addiction of clicking ‘next’. Once certain possibilities have been injected into a young mind, it is very difficult to remove them – and they do have consequences. How terribly tragic.

13 Reasons Why is a hopeless story. Suicide is graphically presented. It gives no answers and presents no solutions. It shows how cruel young people can be and where that cruelty can lead. It presents suicide as a response to that cruelty.

It shows our children how to take their own lives.

Its popularity has and will have terrifying implications for our communities.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK and the Samaritans warned against the series, as it serves as an encouragement to young people to copy the suicide of the protagonist. Equally seriously, it trivialises the awful sadness and gravity of this issue.

Parents, do not allow your child to watch 13 Reasons Why. Turn off the wi-fi. Confiscate the iPhones. Don’t buy the credit. Take charge of the influences that bombard and trouble your child’s impressionable mind.

It’s your duty.

How was school today?

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Oh, thanks for asking! Because today was definitely one tough day.

Let me tell you a bit about it. Because I don’t have my own classroom due to overcrowding and funding issues, I spent the morning racing from one room to another, laden down with books and exam papers and tests, being jostled in the crammed corridors, late for every class.

My first class was with senior pupils; it’s mixed ability and I have every level in there, but mostly pupils who hope to do well at higher level. The Ordinary level pupils are utterly lost; and every time I look at them I feel so guilty but it is almost impossible to get time with them because our senior options classes have been cut this year, from 5 classes a week to 4, and I just don’t have enough contact hours any more. We’ve also lost time this year due to the weather, and I notice there are two Junior Cycle training days scheduled over the next two weeks. More time lost.

Then I had my 1st years. I have a pupil with severe behavioural issues and a pupil who is an elective mute, as well as twenty more. I have never been trained to deal with these issues, so every class is like treading on ice, hoping there won’t be any mishaps. I have rarely been so overwhelmed by a group of kids; all so lovable, with so many abilities, strengths, needs and so, so many questions.

Then there was Tom; he’s the hardest-working child in the world, and also one of the most talented kids I’ve ever met. But today, with the Christmas tests looming, something mysterious got the better of him and he cracked. There were copious tears, but no words; and when you have 18 more teenagers looking on and no time for an extensive counselling session, you do feel overcome, to say the least.

At last it was break-time. No tea for me, because I had to organise a sports event for the next day – I manage two school teams. Any free minute I got during the day was spent compiling team lists, organising referees, sorting out time issues, counselling girls who either did want to play and hadn’t made it, or had made it, but didn’t want to play, liaising with the team trainer, and preparing class work for the substitute teacher who would cover my classes when I was gone. My tea was gone cold by the time I got a chance to even look at the cup.

Class then again; my fifth years were worried because they heard rumours about that there was going to be a drugs test on Wednesday. I informed them that I didn’t know anything about it, but that if there was a test, I couldn’t imagine that any of them would need to be worried; moving on, I tried to continue teaching exam techniques. Some of them got confused though because they thought I was talking about the drugs test.

Lunchtime: I spent more time organising tomorrow’s matches, went down to the canteen to get some lunch, was continually stopped by pupils who wanted to talk about one thing or another. More counselling, more talking – simply letting kids know they are cared for. I had barely time to gulp down my soup before the bell rang, and off I was again, on the run to yet another classroom. I had just got started, when there was a knock on the door, and another teacher told me Tom was crying again, and since I knew him better than her, could I talk to him? She supervised my class, while I did my best to console a child who was clearly very upset about something, but who needed time and patience for it to be dealt with. Eventually, the school counsellor was freed up and she took the child to her office where finally he began to settle down and open up. The poor lady – I don’t know if she even had time to even breathe today.

Another class; this time, I had to reprimand a pupil who had a curse-word scrawled across their pencil-case.

It’s the end of the day finally. But I don’t go home yet. We only have one photocopier in our staff-room, again because we just don’t have money – so I spend a while catching up on printing and copying. It’s dark by the time I get out of school; I’m ravenous, because all I had time to eat today was a bowl of soup and two squares of chocolate. Driving home, I make a mental note to schedule a doctor’s appointment for that pain in my hip and shoulder; I’ve been putting it off for almost a year at this stage hoping it’ll go away, but all the running up and down corridors carrying piles of books and lugging a heavy bag are doing nothing to help. Then I start going through my mental checklist for tomorrow’s match: gear, water, first-aid, cheque for the referee… And then my mind wanders through the day, with it’s ups and downs, smiles and tears – and I feel so worn out, depleted, and utterly weary.

 

At home, I see that Minister for Education Richard Bruton and Minister for Children Katherine Zappone released a report on young people’s hugely negative experiences of school, and how everything needs to be drastically improved. It’s called ‘How was School Today?’
And I think of Tom and his tears, and suddenly realize that maybe floods of ‘unexplainable’ tears aren’t too far away from any of us teachers.

March for Choice: Redefining a Moral Debate

Choice.

The action of choosing between two or more possibilities.

Tea or coffee. Rural life or urban life. Fianna Fáil or Labour. Religious or atheist. Conformity or rebellion.

A foetus or a baby.

Life or death.

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Choice is a permanent part of our existence, built upon the foundation of free speech, autonomy and personal responsibility. It is an act we are compelled to perform every day; it is what makes us individuals, delivers us from monotonous, carbon copy lives, and makes every single life unique.

If we are to view the current debate regarding abortion in terms of choice, we need to be honest as to what the choice is. It is about whether an unborn child has the right to life, and about what it means if a ‘bundle of tissue’ has a heart-beat. It is about the responsibility of a government to protect all life, including the most vulnerable, and the responsibility of a nation to cherish its weakest members. It is about that age-old divine command: ‘Thou shalt not kill’. The only choice to be made in this debate is whether one agrees that it is morally right to kill a preborn baby, or not. That is my unapologetic, proud, chosen opinion.
Abortion campaigners therefore label me as being anti-choice. Against a woman’s right to choose. Against personal autonomy. Against women’s rights. Against rape victims. Against reproductive healthcare. They label me anti-choice because of my choice to be anti-abortion, because of my choice to protect a child’s right to life, because of my choice to believe that stopping a beating heart is murder. I am anti-choice, because I choose to be.

Yes, it does sound rather foolish, doesn’t it? How could someone who makes a choice…be anti-choice? Recent days have seen members of Trinity College’s People Before Profit, who profess to support choice, gleefully tear down posters with a pro-life message, thereby shutting down discussion and scorning the right of the public to ‘choose’ their opinion on the matter. We have witnessed the forced cancellation of public meetings promoting the pro-life position in Dublin, with the Spencer Hotel and the Gibson Hotel refusing to host pre-booked meetings due to threats made to their staff. Tragically, in Ireland today, the ‘abortion issue’ is not even allowed to be a debate.
We must remember that the world is made up of many more people than just angry students and radical feminists demanding power, and that the Irish nation consists of many more than just entitled, left-leaning, placard-waving, social-media-addicted, twittering protesters. Clamour, protest and the banner battle can never replace reasoned, fact-based discussion. This debate is about cherishing life and maintaining respect for our Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann. Many of our politicians have already indicated that they do not believe the unborn child has the right to life, including Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone who has repeatedly called for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and is participating in today’s march for abortion. However, the decision belongs to the Irish people.

We must stay focused on the real choice – the choice between living and dying, between killing and sparing. And we must decide, as a nation, in next year’s abortion referendum, whether granting liberty of conscience over life and death is a choice any person should be entitled to exercise.

 

Bring Back Hook

The articulation of opinion has been, once again, demonized in Irish society. In the past I have appreciated the outspoken style of George Hook and have enjoyed his show on the few occasions I’ve had to listen in. There is something refreshing in hearing a man speak his mind – even if it is done so bluntly. There is no other radio show that offers listeners such an experience. This is the curse of Irish media; there is no place for dissent or discussion of controversial topics. It often seems that no show is different to another. One swings between Sarah McInerney on Newstalk Drive to the Ray D’Arcy Show to Mary Wilson Drivetime, eventually turning the radio off, because despite different styles, they are all simply singing from the same sanitized, politically correct hymn sheet.

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High Noon is different. It’s different, earthy, unrefined, provocative. When you listen to Hook, you know you are listening to a man with opinions. There is more to this man’s life than the fabricated niceties of Dublin media society. He gives the impression that whatever he says, whether one agrees or disagrees, it is genuine opinion. For many of us who live outside the Pale, who drive to work on twisty, bendy roads with no overtaking lane, who struggle with inconsistent Wi-Fi connections, who eat cheese sandwiches for lunch and bacon and cabbage for dinner, who rarely travel beyond the borders of our home county, Hook is the man on the radio with whom we can identify. And that’s rare.
But last week, he was too much for the keyboard warriors and the liberal moralists. The topic was an alleged rape case, and when Hook dared to vocalise what many, many Irish people believe, by asking the question, “Is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?”, he was vilified, demonised and forced to leave his post. In the past, such treatment was reserved for people who denied the Holocaust or defended paedophiles; today, you can be demoted for practicing your right to express freely your convictions and opinions, as articulated by Art. 40.6 of Bunreacht na hEireann.

Not only that, you can be punished for voicing common sense. We teach our children not to run out on the road because they might get hit by a car, not to talk to strangers, not to walk down dark alleys late at night because they could get mugged, not to take drugs because they could ruin their health, not to meet people alone with whom they’ve been in contact online, not to get in the way of the bullies at school etc. We teach them to take responsibility for their own safety – we teach them not to put themselves in the way of danger. Hook applied this very practical reasoning to a situation where rape was alleged after a girl put herself in a dangerous situation, and he immediately became the subject of a hurricane of criticism. Where is the justice in that? 
If Hook loses his job over this, the future will look very bleak for free speech in Ireland. To demonize outspokenness and dissent from politically correct norms is to place a society in a vulnerable position. Naomi Wolf, herself a liberal author, once said, ‘it is never smart, even in a strong democracy to declare some debate off limits’. With the vilification of Hook, a whole stratum of Irish society is declared off limits, uneducated, unwanted. And that is an unhealthy situation to have in any democracy.

I say, bring back debate – bring back Hook.

Let Teachers Teach

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Many of today’s teachers are afraid.

We are afraid of saying what we really think. We are afraid of being opinionated. We are afraid of controversial issues, especially if we hold the less favorable position. We are afraid of debate in the classroom. We are afraid of complaining parents, of offended pupils, of unsupportive management.

In an age when political correctness has run amok and social mores we lived by for centuries are being ploughed up and revised at whirlwind speed, the teachers are becoming shorn. We are fearful beings. We teach with a superficial cheerfulness, and deliver lessons that steer clear of any serious thought or deep discussion. Deep polarization in Irish society has silenced us.

Last week in German class, the issue of heritage, origins and migration cropped up. The lesson became quite intense and some careful navigation was necessary due to the presence of immigrants in the class. But we had the debate, and we needed to have it. When the bell rang, some of the children took no heed, so engrossed were they in a break-out discussion of terrorism in the name of religion, ISIS and the IRA. Many of the opinions expressed were not the ones heard in mainstream media, but they were perfectly valid viewpoints in a nation built upon the principle of democratic freedom. My pupils will take something valuable from that class that they would not have gotten if I had refused to facilitate and guide a controversial discussion.

I do these ‘risky things’ because I know that the subjects we teach are most often just a means to an end – and that end is the development of our children’s minds and characters.

I am a qualified teacher, with over six years of university and many years of experience behind me.

I have beliefs which I know to be valuable because they have been tested in the furnace of my life experiences and have held strong.

I have the benefit of hindsight and know which actions were successful and which were foolhardy.

I have values which have enabled me to make responsible and successful choices and decisions.

So let me teach by the light which I have been given. Let me help my pupils detect the difference between depth and superficiality. Let me encourage them to identify courage from bravado. Let me enable them to differentiate between liberty and license. Do not muzzle me with sanitized, one-sided lesson plans. Do not force me to teach that which I do not believe to be true or right.

The glory of our schools has been its inspiring, dedicated, selfless teachers. We remember the art teacher who taught us to see beauty in everything, the English teacher who taught us the feeling of self-worth that comes from facing up to and working through our challenges, the science teacher who taught us about the joy of discovery and the importance of a plan. Today’s children are going to miss out on this if we succumb to current pressures to leave our identities and our personal beliefs outside the classroom door and stick rigidly to the prescribed text.

They will get their beliefs and values somewhere – maybe from the media, from YouTube or from Facebook. Without good values, our children will lack the light by which they can successfully navigate their lives.

We must give them this light – light to know the difference between fake and real, love and sensuality, faith and superstition, false and true, right and wrong.

We owe it to the next generation.

(Image credits: Google Images)