Teaching outside the box

Mary Daly, principal of St Dominic's, a DEIS secondary school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. photograph: bryan o'brien

Mary Daly, principal of St Dominic's, a DEIS secondary school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. photograph: bryan o'brien

Tue, Feb 12, 2013, 00:00

My Education Week:Mary Daly Principal, St Dominic’s Secondary School, Ballyfermot, Dublin

MONDAY

I’ve a 7am start to meet with the deputy principal to discuss plans for the week, arrange meetings with staff and visit the breakfast club.

On the agenda this week: What use is homework and how effective is it? This is one of the issues that the school’s Action Learning Network will discuss tomorrow morning at 8am.

We will be looking at the effectiveness of homework on teaching and learning in the context of a several studies that say too much of it can have a detrimental effect. We surveyed staff, students and parents, and found mixed reactions. Most students stated that homework reinforced their classwork while others found homework difficult. Parents said that the amount of homework was adequate but that additional support was sometimes needed.

In response, we provide assisted study, in which students work in small groups with a teacher after school, and language classes are provided on Saturday mornings. Many students avail of this extra support where refreshments are provided.

We are an all-girls post-primary school in the DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) programme. We have 384 students from diverse backgrounds, including international students and students from the Travelling community. We provide a broad curriculum, including Spanish, French, business and science subjects, home economics, and music. There is a wide range of extracurricular programmes. We have 35 teachers, plus additional support staff including a home-school-community liaison officer, school-completion staff, national behavioural support staff, special-needs assistants and voluntary staff.

After the meeting I make time to prepare this week’s Irish classes. Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam and I am delighted that we have a positive attitude to Gaeilge in our school. Students love to get involved in class debates, Gael Linn debates and take part in Irish music and dancing. They are currently using digital media for a Make a Book project as Gaeilge.

Last year, 20 of our students visited the Gaeltacht. The cost of going is quite high, so we organise Irish-language summer camps in the school to give all students an opportunity to learn the language in a relaxed environment. Last year, about 35 students participated, and we hope to increase that number every year.

WEDNESDAY

I have been teaching Irish and geography for 35 years and have been principal of this school for 13 years. Since the recession, education cutbacks have changed the way we work, and I am certainly always kept busy. For a start, I have taken on the role of Transition Year co-ordinator.

Today, I’m working with the TY students on a cross-curricular presentation about Ballyfermot. After the presentation, it is time to confirm that they have secured work-experience placements for March.

Another cutback is the removal of the allocation for career guidance. This has had a detrimental effect on the students as the girls need more support in choosing their careers.

Support for students from the Travelling community has been severely curtailed. The visiting teacher for the Traveller programme has been axed, while support allocations have also been reduced. We work closely with the home-school-community liaison teacher and school-completion programme staff, teachers and local support agencies to address this, but there is no doubt that it has had a negative effect.

Although, we do have 100 per cent retention level to Junior Cert and parents of children from the Travelling community recognise the value of education, and they want their daughters to stay in school, it has certainly increased the workload of all of us in school.

We have lost one special-needs teacher due to cutbacks, so resources are stretched among the remaining staff.

In spite of all this, we are very proud to have increased our third-level progression rates. In 2012, 47 per cent of our students secured places in universities and colleges, an increase of 20 per cent since 2011, and most of the remaining students are pursuing PLC courses.

Our increased progression rate is due to the hard work and commitment of a dedicated staff here in St Dominic’s.

We also ensure that we continue to support students who go on to third level. Finance can be a big issue, but simply having somewhere to turn when there is difficulty can be the difference between them staying in or dropping out of college.

We have been implementing literacy and numeracy strategies. Our first years have been participating in a Time to Read initiative which encourages the girls to develop a love of reading. We allocate time for reading during the school day and the students are encouraged to read at home.

Our fourth-year students, in partnership with our third-class students on the Dominican campus, have been involved in a Math Eyes’ Project, which encourages us to see and understand maths in everyday life.

THURSDAY

An estimated one in 10 teenagers experience mental-health issues. We are the first school in Ireland to take part in the Storm programme, which trains teachers and support staff in dealing with self-harm and suicide. Today, the care team had our fortnightly meeting.

The school places a large emphasis on getting students to open up and talk about difficulties they are facing, but they need to feel they can open up.

The programme was implemented by our deputy principal, Sr Liz, in partnership with the local drugs task force, Ballyfermot Advance. Students and families are given a school mobile number to phone a trained member of the staff if they are experiencing difficulties in their lives. By Easter, we hope that 80 per cent of our staff will be trained.

FRIDAY

Representatives of 59 schools from the Le Chéile Catholic schools trust will gather in Citywest for our annual conference. I am putting the finishing touches to a presentation for a workshop on school self-evaluation which I will be facilitating from the context of a DEIS school. The DEIS programme is one the greatest initiatives in recent years. It is not just a matter of additional resources. Being in DEIS helps us to focus as educators, and it requires us to constantly reflect and measure our progress. We examine attendance, retention, literacy, numeracy, attainment, progression and links with parents and the community. It encourages staff to gather data and set targets. It raises expectations among the entire school community.

Today is Fiesta Friday in the staffroom where the staff bring in treats at break time to celebrate and relax. Now it’s time to catch up with family and friends: lots of exciting sporting events this weekend.

This week I was . . .

Listening to . . .

Risin’ Time with Shay Byrne on RTÉ Radio One

Watching . . .

Six Nations Rugby

Reading . . .

Everyone Matters by Mary Robins on

Enjoying . . .

Yoga

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