Monday, 8 September 2014

The Importance of Relationships

Since becoming a teacher, I've learned about a variety of different educators who all contributed something to how schooling has developed, both across the world and in individual countries. One of these educators who made a huge impression on me was Rita Pierson, an American teacher whose career spanned 41 years. When she died unexpectedly in June 2013, she was the Community and Family Outreach Officer for the Prosper Waco initiative, a project designed to tackle poverty in the Waco school district of Texas.

I first learned about her at a staff training day last year, in which we were shown the video below. More than anything else, her speech sums up the fundamentally important responsibility that all teachers have.

The video inspired me to look up what else Rita had done. I was quickly very saddened to see that she had passed away, but as she said herself, the true lasting legacy of any teacher is in the relationships he or she made in the classroom. There's no doubt that Rita Pierson had a positive effect on the students she taught. Likewise there's no doubt that she has inspired other teachers from all over the world to build on the relationships we have with our students to create an environment where everyone can learn, grow and develop.

I work in a centre where we teach our students on a one-to-one basis, so it's easy for me to talk about the importance of establishing a relationship with one's students. For a teacher who has seven classes of thirty students, this isn't so easy. There are so many more of them, for one thing, but there's also far less time - barely enough time to devote to one class group, let alone to individuals. There's no denying that teachers face huge pressures on their time and energy as they work with each group, and there's no denying that building up nuanced positive relationships in this setting can be difficult. But we still have to try.

Why? It's as Rita said. Kids don't learn from people they don't like. From Day One of the PDE (formerly the H. Dip) program, we are warned that we are "not the students' friends". This is entirely true - I don't meet my students for coffee or tell them about my problems, and any teacher who does might want to think about a different career. But the way that this warning is expressed by teacher training programs almost seems to instill an "us vs. them" mentality, one centered very much on the teacher as the authority figure and the student as the subordinate. A distance must be maintained, but not at the expense of building good relationships with our students. We're not the students' friends, but that doesn't mean we can't be friendly to them.

I learned the hard way about the importance of building relationships during my teaching practice year. I had a Second Year History class with which I almost immediately got off on the wrong foot. They much preferred their previous teacher and resented me for coming in and taking them away from him. In particular, there was one student in the class with whom I had a difficult relationship. He very quickly learned how to antagonise my as-yet-quite-inexperienced self, and delighted in doing so. I found him hard to teach, and none of the rules-based methods of discipline I attempted were very successful. There's a culture that says students must respect teachers. This is true. What's often ignored is that this is a two-way street. Teachers must respect students. I realised that if I was to get this student to work with me at all, I had to earn his respect.

How did I do this? By sitting down with him and talking to him. I asked him what parts of History he found interesting, what parts he didn't, what he thought about school, and what he thought would make it better for him. It was a productive conversation. He told me what he wanted to go on to achieve. He told me what he thought his weaknesses were, and he told me that he wanted to do well. This wasn't by any means a sudden turnaround from his previous behaviour - these revelations came in between sometimes exasperating bursts of sheer distraction and hyperactivity, and with a fair amount of frustration and sadness - but it was the start of a process, one which I kept up by having more conversations and offering more encouragement.

Our relationship in class remained variable, we could have good days and bad days, but it was at the end of the school year when I realised how much the encouragement I kept giving him had paid off. The History summer test for Second Years was that day, and at the end of it I happened to be in the computer lab, printing something. That student came and found me, only to tell me how much he had written in the test and how well he thought he had done. In the end, he did very well indeed. That experience has stayed with me ever since.

Positives and Negatives
I consider myself fortunate to teach in a centre where I have the opportunity to get to know my students as individuals, where I can tailor my lesson planning to their individual needs and organise events and activities that match their interests. I won't always work in a place like this, and when I do return to a mainstream school I will have brought this entire experience with me. The students at this centre are early school leavers, a label that carries with it a stigma (more on that in a future post), but they are - each and every one of them - an absolute joy to teach. If I was to go back in time and teach that Second Year class as I am now, I'd be a lot more equipped to deal with behavioural problems from the outset and ease their transition from one teacher to the next. Even if I could go back and nip those problems in the bud, I'd still make the same effort with that student, no matter how frustrating it was or how long it took.

We all have those students who seem beyond convincing to participate positively in class. It's those students who most need a positive relationship with their teachers. To paraphrase Rita Pierson, a negative teacher sucks all the life out of you. An encouraging teacher says I ain't all bad.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014


I've been teaching for three years now. That isn't a very long time at all, indeed the first of those three years was my PDE (H.Dip) year. So the thought crossed my mind that it might be a bit rich of myself to start putting my ideas and thoughts about learning and teaching on to a blog when I still have so much to learn. Maybe some people would think so. But if I were to encounter a student doubting him or herself in a similar way, I would tell them not to let those doubts decide what they do. So I've no excuse for letting mine!

I taught for one year in a mainstream school and for two (and counting) at an alternative education centre. The things I've learned in those three years have helped me to become a better teacher, and a better person. I learned these things not just from the H.Dip program, not just from senior colleagues, but from my students as well. That's the thing about education - it's not merely teachers teaching students, it's people learning from people. My students learn from me, and I learn from them. That's the way I always want it to be, and that's the way it should be.

So one of the reasons I decided to start this, against the somewhat dour advice of the doubting voice in my head, was to write down for myself what I've learned, so that it isn't merely swimming around in my increasingly forgetful mind. Teachers are trained to reflect from Day 1 of their teaching practice: what worked in this lesson? What didn't? What can I do better? As frustrating an experience as writing those reflections could sometimes be every night, it's something that all teachers should remember to keep doing. We can all do better. There's no such thing as a perfect teacher, but we can try!

When I first set this site up two years ago, I intended it for use in my classes, and didn't put much thought into it beyond that. The fact that it became so popular (over 340,000 views in total since August 2012) and that it has received such positive and encouraging feedback is amazing and also very humbling. I became a teacher to help people, so knowing that the work I've done on this site has been doing just that makes it more than worthwhile. I hope that what I write here will prove worthwhile too - teachers have so much to say, and we should all be saying it!

The new school year starts in two weeks. It will bring with it challenges, opportunities, successes, failures, laughs and drama. And not just for me - for everyone. Students, teachers, parents... we're all part of the same world. What will we learn from each other this year?

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Why Should We Learn About History?

I spent two nervous hours in my school last June, waiting for my students to come out from their Junior Cert History exam. As I paced a corridor, I thought about the work they’d done so far, their time in the school, and everything they’d been through – good and bad – to get to where they are now. My thoughts turned to their future. What would they become? What successes and challenges would they meet? What would their stories be? As a History teacher, I couldn’t help but think of this. I love stories.

The Question
Every History teacher in the country can attest to hearing the Dreaded Question at least once a year: “What’s the point in learning about this?” This question became a national discussion with former Minister Ruairi Quinn’s plans to remove History as a compulsory subject in the Junior Cycle and his challenge to historians to show why History should matter to 12-year-olds and their parents.
The Dreaded Question is actually a good one. Sure, there are many dramatic, exciting topics in the History course, such as World War II, the American Revolution, and the Irish struggle for independence, but then there are other, less exciting topics such as early Christian Ireland and the Plantations. Indeed, what is the point in learning about them?

The Story
Imagine reading the third book of the Hunger Games series without ever reading the first two, or watching Game of Thrones from the most recent episode without ever watching the earlier seasons. Sure, you’ll pick up on bits and pieces of the story as you go along, but without reading or watching what happened before, you’ll never gain a complete sense of the story, the events that have happened in it, and what the characters have been through. Every character has an origin and every story has a beginning, including our own.

We live in the longest-running and most complex story there has ever been. Most of us exist in this story as background characters, only a few of us go on to influence the overall plot. Some parts of the story began a long time ago, other parts are just starting now.

Take, for instance, the story of the Troubles in Northern Ireland: the long-running discrimination and bigotry that resulted in decades of death and destruction. It’s certainly a dramatic story, and much more likely to capture the attention of students then, say, the Plantations – but how can one understand the former without the latter? The Plantations may come across as dull and uninteresting, but they’re a prequel to the partition of Ireland and the Troubles. History is full of prequels and sequels. The world we live in today is a sequel of sorts to the events of World War II. It will in turn become the prequel to something else.

The Characters
Of course, just because most of us might be background characters in the larger story, that doesn’t mean we’re barely a part of it. We all have our own stories: where we came from, what we’ve been through, and how we came to be who we are. Even if we never turn out to be as prominent a character as Rosa Parks, Michael Collins, Mary Robinson or Barack Obama, we still have our individual parts to play – just as each of those four people did before they were famous, and just as they would have done anyway.

Irish people often tend to cherish our stories. The struggle for independence still captures peoples’ imaginations today, and we have given a great amount of attention to commemorating the many centenaries that take place in this decade – not least the one coming up in 2016. Even Ruairi Quinn himself acknowledges the importance of the story and his role in it – he wrote about it in his 2005 memoir, Straight Left.

The Historians
So, how can we expect children growing up today to enter this story as adults if they don’t know what’s already happened in it? How can someone properly understand the economic downturn, the Garda surveillance controversy, or the recent horrible discovery in Tuam without knowing what previously happened in the story that led to these events?

Ireland has developed around that story. Our cities and towns have developed around that story, and we as individuals have developed around that story. The popularity of shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? and The Genealogy Roadshow is evidence enough of our desire to know the origins of our part in the story. To answer Ruairi Quinn’s challenge, historians don’t need to convince anyone that History matters. We have always been a nation of historians.

The Future
My students came out of the exam centre in dribs and drabs. We chatted about the exam, and I congratulated them on all their hard work and effort. I was still thinking of their future as they walked off: how their stories would tie in to the larger one in which we all live. As they get older, those students will experience the latest twists and turns of that story. How can we expect them to live in it if they don’t know what twists and turns have happened already?

This post appeared on on 7 August 2014.