Opinion David McWilliams

Saturday 25 May 2019

If teachers' morale is low, they should learn something new

Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan has declared she will reform the Junior Cycle, despite prolonged opposition from the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI).
Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan has declared she will reform the Junior Cycle, despite prolonged opposition from the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI).

David McWilliams

There can be few better feelings than successfully explaining something to someone and watching their face and their reaction, as something that was confusing and difficult becomes clear and straightforward. It is a beautiful thing to see the weight of incomprehension being replaced by the freedom of understanding.

You don't have to be Einstein to have your own small eureka moment. We can all have a moment when perplexity is elbowed away by clarity, when the void is filled. But to get to this moment, we need good teachers. To be good learners, we need good tutors.

This is why teaching is so important - not because of what people learn, but because of what these small eureka moments do deep inside us. They give us confidence, the self-assurance to go to the next challenge. Emotionally, particularly for teenagers, these moments are crucial and their developmental impact should never be underestimated.

I love teaching economics, mainly because I cherish those moments when a student moves from the soul-destroying "I can't understand" stage to the beautiful "Wow, I get it" revelatory instance. These are magic moments that teachers live for and, if I had my time again, I think I would focus more on teaching.

It disturbs me to hear that Irish teachers are beset by low morale. Speaking last week, and ahead of the teachers' conferences which kick off at Easter, the President of St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Professor Dáire Keogh, said it was vital that, "teacher confidence be restored for fear that the profession deteriorates - like in the UK and US - where low morale and extraordinary rates of teacher attrition have undermined learning in those countries".

This statement struck me as quite interesting, because a few weeks ago I spoke to the students of one such comprehensive school, Newpark Comprehensive in Dublin. Dozens of economics students at Newpark turned up and we had an extremely lively discussion. The kids seemed to be the product of a healthy teaching environment; they were brimming with questions, unafraid to challenge and extremely well able to talk about a whole variety of economic subjects. If their teachers suffered from low morale, it certainly didn't show up on these teenagers.

Maybe Newpark School is an exception. If, in general, teachers' morale in Ireland is low, what can change it?

Since teachers' attitudes and enthusiasm is a huge determinant of how they communicate to pupils, teachers' morale is a concern for all of us.

One aspect of Professor Keogh's speech that was particularly revealing was when he spoke of teachers' unwillingness to change and adapt to the new ideas regarding teaching, exams and the structure of the education system here. He made the point that with regard to the proposed changes in the Junior Cert exam, now championed by Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan, teachers were, "alienated and distrustful, even of initiatives which may be to their professional benefit".

If the teachers can't implement these changes after all these years, what chance does Ireland have of executing bigger changes, such as the type of educational revolutions being led by teachers in Finland?

Finland is so important because Finland has what is regarded as the best education system in the world.

We all know that changing education is difficult and change for change's sake is a silly notion, although it has the appeal of being seen to do something. However, a look at what the Finns are up to now shows you how far away from a flexible education system we have.

Finland, the world leader in literacy and numeracy, is about to scrap teaching by subjects in secondary school. So rather than have an hour of maths followed by an hour of biology, followed by an hour of Spanish, the Finns are going to teach not discrete subjects but related phenomena.

This comes in response to students complaining about the relevance of subjects. All of us will remember questioning the relevance of lots of material and not seeing the point of certain parts of the syllabus.

The Finns have decided to counter this by teaching related topics together, such as the European Union, which will involve history, geography, languages and culture in one related package, making the link for students between the various different subjects. The plan is that the subjects are not isolated in an intellectual ghetto but are seen as part of a greater whole.

For less academic children, the Finns are proposing initiatives like "cafeteria services" lessons. This would include maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills. This recognises that tourism is a growing industry and that teaching chemistry to people who are intending to work in bars mightn't be the cleverest use of everyone's time. According to an article on Quartz.com, there are other changes too.

The Finns will abandon the traditional class architecture of rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned. Instead, there will be a more collaborative approach, with pupils working in smaller groups to solve problems while improving their communication skills.

This is all aimed at making school more relevant and more realistic so that pupils see the classroom as part of their life rather than some form of temporary social quarantine.

When you think about it, it is amazing how school is the only place in our world where copying is regarded as a crime and being quiet for hours on end is rewarded.

In the rest of our everyday lives, copying from each other and exchanging ideas is called collaboration and is rewarded as the building block of teamwork.

According to the head of our country's teacher training college, teachers' morale is very low. Things that improve your morale are challenges, change and pushing yourself towards new goals.

Your morale improves when you set aside your own limitations and try to adapt to something new, when you try to learn something new.

Like pupils, teachers too can have their own personal eureka moments. Maybe they just have to embrace the challenge of change to experience, once again, the glorious freedom of learning new things rather than the crippling paralysis of sticking with what you know.

Irish Independent

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