independent

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Good teachers not all about qualifications

FR MICHAEL COMMANE

Published 21/09/2011 | 11:49

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LEAVING AND Junior Cert results are history and it's back to ' normality'. At least for most people. Four years ago I got a call asking me if I would fill in teaching German for a teacher out on maternity leave. It was great to be back in the classroom. When the teacher came back the principal kept me on teaching English and religion. It's the job I like best and I managed to keep the job for four years.

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My luck ran out at the beginning of this school year and due to all sorts of numbers, permutations and combinations I am no longer in the classroom.I miss it and am sad about it. That's life.

Because of my own teaching experience and link with the school system I have been listening closely to the current debate going on about the number of math teachers in our schools, who are not qualified to teach the subject.

That sort of a story is grist to the mill for the media. It's really sensational. And naturally too. The idea that someone could be out there teaching math and not qualified for the job sounds completely daft. Imagine a non-qualified engineer building a bridge or a non-qualified doctor operating on someone. It doesn't bear thinking. But as you and I know, nothing is as simple as it looks.

I began full time teaching on the Department of Education payroll in 1980. Teaching with me, were two fellow Dominicans, who were teaching math and science. Two gifted teachers, who gave their students a love of their subject and also produced outstanding results.

One of these men had all the required qualifications and was a brilliant teacher. The other man was the late John James O'Gorman, who had been a student at the North Monastery in Cork and had obtained a university scholarship on his Leaving Cert results. Instead of taking up the place at university, he joined the Dominicans and later did post-graduate work in theology. On the strength of his theology degree he did his Higher Diploma in Education in Maynooth and then went teaching math and religion.

He had a brilliant mind and his first love was always math and science. But his only qualification in the subject when he set out teaching was Honours Leaving Cert. He later went on to do a doctorate in computer science but during all the years he was teaching at second level he had no qualification for the specific subject of math.

He blazed a trail and between the two men every year there was a string of As in honours math. There were two streams doing the honours course. And close to two thirds of the students came away every year with an honour in math.

Of course John was some sort of exception. But when I hear these days all the emphasis placed on qualifications all I can do is think back to John O'Gorman. He was just a natural and because of all sorts of reasons not relevant here, he never got to study math at university before his post primary teaching. After his stint at post primary teaching he went on to do a doctorate and spent the rest of his short life teaching computer science in the University of Limerick. And there too he excelled.

Not for a moment am I arguing that people should not be qualified for the task at hand. But, as in so many areas of life at present, maybe we are too quick to lock ourselves into straight jackets. And that mentality can easily stymie initiative and imagination.

Indeed, there is a school of thought that teachers are born not made. There is something in that.

When it comes to doing an audit in our schools, hopefully those doing the examining will look at the broader picture. And there sure is a broader picture. Nothing is ever as simple as we think it is. And if we think it is, then really, we don't know what we are talking about.

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