EducationThe Secret Teacher

Young people have outgrown our education system. How we respond is a conversation we need to have

Students are missing out by having teachers who choose to bring less to the table than they could if they felt more motivated

Truly thriving teenagers are surely the legacy of any effective education system. Photograph: iStock

One Day has not left the Netflix weekly top-10 TV series list since its release. In the finale, Emma, the female lead, reads from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

“[Tess] philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year. Her own birthday, and every other day individualised by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought, one afternoon, that there was another date, of greater importance than all those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?”

Having caught her attention as a teenager this remained with Emma and led to bigger questions. Emma the teenager represents many who sit in our classrooms every day. They think more deeply than we could ever imagine, and by not offering them time on the timetable to explore that we risk them exploring it alone, or only with peers. Such an exploration is a good deal safer as a scaffolded learning exercise within the education system. Not dissimilar to scouts, who strive “to leave this world a little better than they found it”. With the right support, leaving a legacy can start early.

Young people have outgrown our education system as it currently exists. How we respond to that is the conversation we need to have. It is one that cannot start until we fully embrace the reality of the day-to-day challenges schools face and we seem nowhere close to ready for that. It doesn’t help that the stakeholders who stay in the system the longest are increasingly disillusioned.


Teachers who remain in the career spend decades in the system and are the most crucial voice in any discussion on changing needs. Given that changing learner needs are purported to be right up there among the main drivers behind decision-making in schools, you’d imagine the views of frontline staff would be actively sought on a regular basis. But here in Ireland that is simply not the case, as no meaningful forum exists to ensure that the collective teacher voice gets heard where it matters. Frustration is too high among teachers, and whether that is judged to be reasonable is irrelevant, because what matters is that students are missing out by having teachers who perhaps choose to bring less to the table than they could if they felt more motivated. Teacher apathy has us no longer even bothering to vent at how wide of the mark current initiatives are when it comes to addressing what is really happening in schools and for Irish teenagers.

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The evidence that teenagers are ageing before their time and could not possibly thrive in what we offer in Ireland today could, and indeed sometimes does, fill this whole newspaper. News stories reveal the territory young people venture into prematurely – often dangerous territory, and as a result they very often pay a high price.

Too many barely wait until they have left primary school to start vaping and secondary until they start driving. Neither of these were issues we needed to address previously. Whether young people were drinking or not used to be the concern, and now it is more what they are drinking. If youngsters start at such an early age, what they consume needs to get stronger quicker in order for there to be any effect. A page three newspaper or an adult magazine (often so expensive it had to be shared) used to represent an illicit peep for youngsters curious about sex. It is now becoming less and less unusual for parents to tell me openly, sometimes even casually, that they are trying to limit the time their child spends on porn. When did we become so uncomfortable exercising our authority over young people? And why?

Many might offer Covid as the key time-marker and perhaps that is correct, but the when is less important than the why. Analysing the when won’t materially change where we are now, but understanding the why could prove invaluable in establishing a considered response which will better support young people.

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A considered response is likely to be more meaningful and have the desired impact. It is also more likely to address actual problems. Currently, we have the promise of free books, something many families already had in hand. There is no denying there were families that needed help and support but there was not a despairing cry from schools to assist with this. Worse still, training days for junior cycle reform actively steered teachers away from textbooks. Our focus was firmly trained in the direction of learner outcomes and how to tailor our classroom practice to ensure our students achieved them. To participate in obligatory training days that pointed in one direction, only to have money invested in the opposite, is hardly the way to inspire or restore faith in the system from those who must stand before the students every day.

Young people are crying out to be heard and to be seen to have a real influence on the world they inhabit. Meaningful classroom engagement supported by appropriately skilled teachers could offer them the space to navigate how best to achieve an impact relative to their age and stage of life. The living legacy today’s teenagers risk is one of unprecedented mental health concerns and unnatural levels of anxiety and depression. We need investment there, and not in textbooks. The wellbeing hours are the ideal target for upskilling teachers to better support students as they navigate complex life choices. Truly thriving teenagers are surely the legacy of any effective education system.