Sunday 25 February 2018

Why your first teacher is a class act

Everyone has fond memories of junior infants -- that first glorious carefree year in school. So what's it like to teach this funny bunch of four and five-year-olds

Ailin Quinlan

NEXT month more than 65,000 junior infants will take a seat in their first primary school classroom. For some the experience will be tinged with anxiety or fear of the unknown, for others it will be hugely exciting.

For all, however, this is the start of something big, something new. A door is opening on the long road through Ireland's state education system for the latest, excitable cohort of four- and five-year-olds.

Most people will have some memory of their junior infant class. In the years ahead, as children move up through the school and beyond, many will recall the sounds, the colours, the sheer fun of that first, glorious, carefree year. And they will most definitely remember their infant teacher.

"They sort of imprint on you -- you're a kind of mother figure. They love their teacher and you're very important to them," says Lea McDaid, who has been an infant teacher for around 20 years.

"There's a very different connection between a junior infant and his or her teacher to that between older pupils and their teachers," agrees Maeve Doyle, a junior infant teacher in Scoil Mhuire Junior, Newbridge, Co Kildare.

"I love junior infants because no day is the same. You're dealing with children who are so spontaneous. They're so eager and they form a very different connection with their junior infant teacher to the connections they make with other teachers as they move up the school.

"You're very much in loco parentis -- if you're female, for example, you may be a mother figure to them," says Doyle.

"There's a dual role there and you're definitely far more to them than their teacher -- you're their rock!

"There's a unique connection with the junior infant teacher," says Doyle, who reveals she can still remember her own experience and often meets parents who say their children still remember their junior infant experience with great affection.

McDaid is equally enthusiastic.

"I really love teaching infants," says the mother-of-three, based at St Patrick's National School in Calry, Sligo.

"I love their innocence. They come in to you and they know very little; when they leave they're reading and writing and doing sums. There's great job satisfaction with them. You can clearly see the progress you make -- it's really obvious."

Many children now arrive in school with some pre-school experience and are a little more independent than they would have been decades ago when they came to the classroom fresh from home, but they still have a big learning curve ahead of them.

"A lot of children now have experience of pre-school education and so have already been in a system. Many have at least learned to socialise with other children outside the family."

However, even with that initial experience under their belt, entry to 'big school' brings a lot of new experiences, says Doyle. In an ideal world, she points out, there would be no more than about 25 in a junior infants class.

"I usually have about 30," which, she adds, is a big change for young children fresh from the low pupil-teacher ratio at pre-school.

"Junior infants have a huge range of needs. They want you to listen to everything, and they are so young and so vulnerable."

But year after year, they make that jump -- and very successfully.

"Every June I stand in my class and think back to the children when they came in to me the previous September.

"I look at them and think about how they have grown in independence and become more social, more confident, and are able to do more things for themselves."

Every day brings something new, says 25-year-old Caroline Walkin, a junior infant teacher for the past three years, who currently works at Mater Dei Primary school in Dublin's south inner city.

"The main focus in junior infants is based around the development of social skills and they talk about their feelings and when they're happy and sad.

"They're very open about themselves and can be very witty -- they once told me that a man was 'just a kid with long legs!'

"Every teacher should take a turn at teaching infants," she says. "It's hugely enjoyable and very unpredictable."

Edel Crowley (26) has just finished her second year teaching infants.

"They're so enthusiastic! They come in like a blank canvas. Everything is new to them and they are like little sponges," says Crowley, who teaches at St Joseph's Girls National School in Clonakilty, Co Cork.

"They love learning and they soak up everything. I find them very interesting.

"The infant class is very much its own little world, full of song and dance and games and play and it's all fun. The infants are great. I have a very rewarding and fulfilling job and I love it!"

Irish Independent

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