How was school today?

tired+teacher

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 counselor 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.

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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.

democracy
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

Teach

 

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)

The Misplaced Vendetta against Religion in our Schools

Today’s schools are tough places for both pupils and teachers.

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Overcrowding, lack of resources, difficulty accessing IT, SEN issues, behavioral problems and the ubiquitous problem of bullying are all everyday challenges. Any teacher can list off areas which require immediate government attention, and in our staff-rooms, no conversation is complete without a reference to one or another of these problems. In my experience, these problems have never included religious instruction or the ‘baptism’ barrier.

Similarly, at parent-teacher meetings, parents raise concerns over discipline, access to support classes, grades, bullying. Never religion.
And sometimes when I listen to the news or scroll through Twitter and learn of yet another campaign against religion in the education system, I feel as though there is a massive disconnect between the media’s reality and my reality.

Reality in the vast majority of schools declares that religion is not an issue – but many other things are. I would appreciate a campaign calling for the government to commit to providing building funds for all schools experiencing overcrowding, or to make PE compulsory for all primary and secondary pupils, or to provide internet safety classes for every child who owns a smartphone. But why the vendetta against religion?

I work in a secondary school. In accordance with Irish law, any pupil who does not wish to partake in religious instruction or activities is permitted to sit in a supervised study area for that period. A small number of pupils do avail of this provision and the arrangement is very respectful and unobtrusive. The majority of pupils gladly take part in religion classes, with many speaking positively of what they learn there. Some have told me that they don’t mind missing Maths or Irish class for extra-curricular activities, but religion must not be skipped. They find the class interesting and for some, it is a peaceful space in the middle of a chaotic and demanding day. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that religious instruction has a positive impact on most pupils’ well-being and moral development.

It is no surprise then that opposition to the role of religion in Irish schools has not originated with Irish parents. Several organisations have been set up to fight the ‘religion’ issue including EQUATE and Educational Equality. They receive funding from philanthropic supporters such as One Foundation along with substantial media coverage and are doing their utmost to turn this into a ‘human rights’ issue. The leaders include Michael Barron, chairman of EQUATE who, along with his partner, Jaime, was a key campaigner for same-sex marriage in May 2015. Before his work with EQUATE, he was the director of BeLongTo, an organisation which promotes LGBT issues among young people in Irish society. April Duff is the chairperson of Education Equality, and along with her work against religion, she also campaigns for abortion and the Repeal of the 8th Amendment .

Clearly those leading the vendetta against religion in schools are not just ‘concerned’ parents. They are not even teachers. They are social activists who have the secularization of Irish society as their aim, and thus their professed sincerity needs to be regarded with great caution. I believe they do not have concern for youth well-being at heart but rather a sinister abhorrence of all Judaeo-Christian values.
There are not thousands of parents from across the country of Ireland revolting against the role of religion in schools. Instead there is a vocal, well-funded minority, led by political activists and favored by the media, stirring up dissent against something which, until now, was never an issue.

Yes, we have a plethora of problems in our education system, including overcrowding.

Religion is not one of them.

How Government Corruption Affects Us All

These are memorable days in Irish politics.

Not only memorable however, but also painful, sickening and disturbing.
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission suppliment(photo credit: oireachtas.ie)

Since February 9th, so many of Ireland’s fundamental institutions have been revealed to be harboring base corruption.

Our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, the nation’s leader and figurehead, has acted dishonestly; in fact, after being forced to relate the facts regarding his dealings with Cabinet Minsters with regard to the recent McCabe scandal, he said in the Dáil on Thursday 16th Feb, ‘I actually spoke the truth in the house today’. He spoke as though speaking the truth was something to be applauded.

The credibility of the nation’s Ministers for Justice and for Children, Frances Fitzgerald and Katherine Zappone, has been weakened considerably by the corruption within their respective departments.

The Garda Síochana has been grossly unethical and the forthcoming Charleton Tribunal will investigate the extent of its corruption. This is the institution that has as its aim the protection of Irish communities, yet a man who attempted to flag wrongdoing within the Gardaí has left unprotected and abused.

 
TUSLA, the Child and Family Agency, has acted dishonorably and has been party to the blackening of an innocent man’s good name. This is the agency which professes to improve outcomes and wellbeing for children, yet Maurice McCabe’s children will be forever scarred by the horror of the false allegations regarding their father which TUSLA facilitated.

 
There is clearly a deficit in our culture of leadership. A deficit of basic moral responsibility. One is reminded of the story of a novice thief who was apprehended by the police. After he had undergone his punishment, he returned to the thieves’ hideout only to face the towering rage of his boss. When he piteously asked why he was being chastised again, the response was, ‘Because you were stupid enough to get caught’. The greatest sin in Irish political leadership seems to be the mistake of being found out. What is lacking is an inherent passion for the common good and a basic desire to be morally upright in all of one’s actions.

 
The actions and attitudes of government set the tone for the rest of the nation. Corruption at national level must be dealt severely, because it is a contagious disease, apt to spread. We look up to our leaders; they decide the moral temperature of the nation, and through their actions, they define what is acceptable behaviour for leaders in national, municipal and local institutions. If it is acceptable for the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice, the Police Force, the Child and Family Agency to be corrupt, then it is acceptable also for the shopkeeper, the teacher, the principal, the mechanic.

 
Even our children are affected. I have written before of the premature disillusionment of certain pupils who looked at me cynically when I encouraged them to report any incidents of bullying to school management. With the insight of childish discernment, they know when management truly cares but also when its care is limited to some fancy words on a policy document.

 
A recent phenomenon in my local town are the fights under the bridge. Some of them happen during lunchtime, when youngsters from nearby schools congregate under a bridge located in the town center and watch the designated fighters take each other on. They are vicious, brutal encounters, and fraught with bullying and harassment. Anecdotal evidence reports that sometimes the Gardaí stop by, but their presence doesn’t make much difference. Others say that when the pupils return to school clearly bruised and bloodied, teachers rarely comment or get involved. Some unfortunates caught up in this activity have been subjected to terrible mental and physical abuse.

 
Corruption is becoming commonplace in our communities. When our national institutions don’t function as they ought, disillusionment follows. Depression rates soar. Suicide becomes the increasingly popular ‘way out’.

It has been a disheartening week. I recently read a quote however from Peter Ustinov which has stayed with me – ‘Corruption is nature’s way of restoring faith in democracy.’ We must believe in the power of our own voices and we must actively exercise the democratic principles of free speech and selection.

It seems that the fight for moral justice must be each person’s individual responsibility; we must be willing to expose ourselves by highlighting corruption in our workplaces and communities lest a day come when unchecked corruption turns into tyranny and free speech becomes a crime.

Wellbeing – refurbishing Plato’s Cave

The introduction of a new subject for the Junior Cycle, Well-being, has been much lauded by the media as the advent of a fresh dawn in Irish education – a dawn which claims to put the pupil at the very centre of the school community. However, for all its promises and positivity, there is much more at stake in Wellbeing than simply a benevolent desire on the part of the Department of Education to help our children be happier. This subject represents a new definition of education, a shift from parents to teachers as the primary educators of children and the replacing of principles of justice and individual responsibility with a liberal concept of care and community.
1. A new definition of education:
School has always been a place of discovery. As a young teacher, I was inspired by the idea that knowledge was power – one book that particularly made an impact on me was ‘And Still We Rise’ by Miles Corwin, a true-life account of how one Los Angeles teacher changed the lives of her pupils through an incisive, comprehensive course in English literature. There is a sector of educational philosophy, however, which believes that such a concept of education is lacking; education should not only be about expanding the intellect and preparing pupils for working life. In a 2008 research paper on well-being commissioned by the NCCA, Maeve O’Brien considers the idea that perhaps ‘happiness is an appropriate aim of education’ (172) and that ‘the possibilities for schooling to make a significant contribution to the happiness of young people’ are significant. The Draft Consultation on Wellbeing states that teachers are to guide children to recognise and understand both their positive and negative feelings – ‘That I am aware of my thoughts, feelings and behaviours and that I can make sense of them’ (37). Of central importance is that every child would realise that they are emotional beings, prone to good and bad days, and that they would be aware of when and where to get support. Under the umbrella of Wellbeing, children will learn to become focussed on themselves, aware of their emotional needs, knowledgeable concerning what services and societal attitudes they have the right to, and experts in analysing their own thoughts and feelings. Thus, in Wellbeing, there is a great danger that education – the transmission of knowledge – will be redefined as the social engineering of a generation that has been convinced that, above all else in life, being happy is most important.
Wellbeing – put simply: Once you went to school to learn, now you go to school to be happy.
2. Teachers (as State employees), not parents, are the primary educators of children
The Irish Constitution states that ‘the State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.’ Parents have always been regarded as the primary source of instruction for their children and it is a parental right for a child to be educated in all areas as the parents see fit. School and family have historically worked together, with both institutions complementing each other at best; in cases where parents have disagreed with the subject matter of a specific class (i.e. religion or RSE/SPHE), it has been their right to remove their child from that class.

The NCCA Draft Guidelines recognise that ‘wellbeing can mean different things for different people’, and thus have defined Wellbeing very broadly as ‘encompassing social, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, environmental, and physical education’. In doing so, they have appropriated areas for instruction which have always belonged firstly to parents. The state is replacing the parent as the primary educator and is taking responsibility for all areas of instruction, not just intellectual.

Now all teachers are expected to be proactive in promoting wellbeing in the school community, regardless of subject area, and there is to be a pervading climate in which ‘children and young people feel safe and secure and which respects and develops children’s rights and wellbeing’. (By the way, schools are already supposed to be safe and secure environments.) Topics to be addressed under Wellbeing include relaxation techniques and mindfulness, global citizenship, awareness of ecological footprint, sustainable living, weaknesses of the democratic process, sexual intimacy, sexual health and gender identity, among many more. There are many parents with strong moral values who would highly disapprove (and rightly so) of the above being taught to their 12-15 year olds by anyone else other than themselves; yet the State is taking it upon itself to instruct young people in its own definition of wellbeing, thereby bypassing and disregarding parents.

Because Wellbeing is to be incorporated into the whole-school ethos, it will be difficult for any concerned parent to remove their child from instruction in the subject.
3. Replacing principles of justice and individual responsibility with a liberal concept of care and community.
A brief examination of both the NCCA ‘Draft Guidelines on Wellbeing in Junior Certificate’ (2016) and the NCCA-commissioned ‘Wellbeing and Post-Primary Schooling: A review of the literature and research’ (2008) reveals that the educational philosophy of Nell Nodding is central to the objectives of Wellbeing. Nell Nodding is an American feminist, an educational philosopher and a past president of the John Dewey Society. Her beliefs that ‘care…should be viewed as the ethical idea of education’ and that ‘happiness is an aim of education’, are promoted throughout the NCCA literature as the new ideal to which all schools should now aspire. Nodding believes that caring is more preferable than a justice-based approach to ethics, and wrote in 2005 that increasing security, administering tests or encouraging teachers to be knowledgeable in their subject areas will not solve the problems of ignorance and unhappiness; ‘Instead we must allow teachers and students to interact as whole persons and we must develop policies that treat the school as a whole community’. (Educational Leadership, 2005). Nodding views educational success in terms of happiness levels. School is to be, above all, a caring community where pupils feel they belong.
But is care not a subjective term? Where do the realities of discipline, test failure, team selection etc. fit into this model? How does this philosophy prepare our children for the workplace where they must abide by rules and regulations, and they must reach a certain standard of productivity? If we measure success in terms of happiness, what about the child who feels happiest when he is not at school? Or who feels that school-work makes him unhappy? It is worrying that the Department of Education would force us to change our beliefs concerning education to fall in line with the abstruse, impracticable philosophy of a feminist educationalist.
Plato wrote of a cave where the prisoners sat and watched shadows dancing on the wall. Searching for the source of the shadows at first brought pain and discomfort, but those who prevailed found themselves free from the ignorance of the cave. It was once our vocation as teachers to help free the prisoners from the chains of ignorance by giving them the gift of knowledge; with Wellbeing, it now appears that we are simply polishing the chains and refurbishing the cave.

platos-cave

(source: Google Images)