What Irish education can learn from teachers with experience abroad

Five young teachers who have worked overseas share their insights and concerns

Mary Clare Relihan: ‘We seem to be blindly following the direction of struggling education systems like England.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

Mary Clare Relihan: ‘We seem to be blindly following the direction of struggling education systems like England.’ Photograph: Thinkstock


What can the Irish education system learn from teachers who have spent time working abroad? Five teachers with international experience share what they think of the Irish system, led by a piece by Mary Clare Relihan who recently returned from Melbourne after five years.

Mary Clare Relihan, primary school teacher

Worked in Australia from Sept 2010 to July 2015

I left Ireland in September 2010, intending to travel the world for a few months. I ended up spending almost five years working in Lumen Christi Catholic School in Melbourne. Teaching in Australia was a brilliant experience as it pushed me outside my comfort zone, and although there were challenges, I learned a lot working in a different education system to Ireland.

The school had no text books and an endless supply of laptops and iPads. Newly qualified teachers were mentored and supported, and there was a huge emphasis on professional development. Teachers were constantly encouraged to complete further study. There were also plenty of opportunities for career advancement for ambitious teachers.

Although five years away might not seem that long, I am surprised at the subtle but poignant shift that has occurred in the Irish education system in my absence. I was so excited to return home last summer, as I really believe our deep rich culture of music, art and poetry is such a valuable part of education. But I feel there is a now a growing emphasis on the academic performance of our students. Of course this is hugely important, but it should not be our sole purpose.

Teachers are swamped with administrative paperwork, and vital support services have been cut. We seem to be blindly following the direction of struggling education systems like England, where nearly four out of every 10 teachers leave the profession in the first year of their career.

Fuelled by this frustration and by my experience abroad, I have decided to run for the Teaching Council of Ireland elections as the Leinster Female Primary School representative (facebook.com/maryclare.relihan). I feel we need to analyse what other countries are doing in education and not just blindly follow. We need to carve out an education system that suits our needs as a nation.

Below, other young teachers like me who have spent time working abroad share what they have learned from other education systems, and their concerns for the future of Irish education. Some of us have returned home, but unfortunately that is not an option for all, due to current pay conditions and the constant battle to find work for young teachers. First names only have been used to protect their identities as they search for work.

Darragh, secondary school English teacher

Working in China since September 2015

The school days in China are punishingly long in comparison to Ireland, starting at 8am and finishing at 4.30pm. I quickly realised the English-speaking ability of some of the students may have been exaggerated in the interview. The school I work at is isolated, and the teachers are bussed in and out each day, which by the ninth week of the 11-week term leaves you feeling like part of a chain gang. The city of Wuxi is not the most interesting place to live, so monthly treks into Shanghai quickly became a necessity.

And yet, there is nothing I would like less than to be still living in Ireland as a recently qualified teacher, to be staring at my phone every Sunday evening praying it would ring so I might get some hours subbing, to realise I’m actually hoping someone gets sick so I can work. To hear a friend has got hours teaching in a school where I’ve worked and begrudge them their good fortune, thinking “that should have been me, why didn’t they call me?” To be sitting across from someone in the staffroom and know they are on a better salary scale than me by dint of the fact they started teaching at a different time.

In Wuxi I can teach full-time. I can build relationships with my students, and I can develop as a professional. In Ireland, a newly qualified teacher will have to wait, on average, seven years before they get a permanent position in a school.

If and when I return to Ireland, it will not be as a teacher.

Orlaith, primary school teacher

Worked in Abu Dhabi from September 2011 to July 2015

Having spent four enjoyable years on career break teaching in Abu Dhabi, I returned to Ireland in July 2015 to a delightful school in Meath as the English as an Additional Language teacher. I taught in both an American and British curriculum school under Abu Dhabi Education Council guidance, and my years away were probably the best professional development I could ask for. My experience abroad was challenging, requiring me to be flexible and willing to learn.

Most subjects are based on free-flow play experiences. Play is the dominant methodology for learning, alongside an adult-led small group of up to five children. The majority of classes have a teaching assistant, which allows for greater adult interaction, communication and observation. In general, books did not exist in the schools I was in.

Assessment is based on anecdotal note-taking, photographs, and checklists made by teachers and assistants. Assessment is recorded continuously online and is monitored by year heads and vice principals. Class sizes are small, maximum 25, which allows for greater socialisation, personal, emotional and oral language development.

The advantage of a teaching assistant is invaluable for both observing children’s behaviour, preparation and paperwork. I was glad to see that “Aistear”, or the Early Childhood Curriculum Framework - the British equivalent of “The learning journey” - had made its way to Ireland, and teachers are being trained on how to implement the programme. For it to succeed, we need reduced class sizes and assistants. The class sizes at all levels, but especially at infant level, are appalling in Ireland. In my opinion, the Government is neglecting the needs of 4- to 6-year-olds, who are most likely used to an adult ratio of 8:1 from pre-school.

The Irish system relies too heavily on text books, and teachers are overburdened trying to get through them. Doesn’t this kill creativity, discovery and spontaneous learning opportunities? I witnessed teacher and student burnout on my travels and I realise how important the school holidays are to both child and teacher well-being. The continuous monitoring often creates a negative atmosphere in the workplace.

I am fortunate to work in a school where trust and respect is prevalent among senior and junior staff. I’d like to see the next government re-establish promotions in schools to motivate and drive teachers. It’s not all about pay scales and salaries. The next government needs to provide funding to help reform education so we can keep up the pace with other countries. And no, iPads for all children is not the answer!

John, secondary school teacher

Worked in the UK from September 2009 to July 2010

Just after completing my teaching qualification in June 2009, I left Dublin to teach English at a comprehensive secondary school in Kent. It was a decision heavily influenced by the lack of job opportunities for graduates in Ireland, but also built on the desire for a new challenge in a different cultural and educational environment.

Kent is one of the few counties that still has a selective system. The top 20 per cent of students who complete entrance exams go to grammar schools. The rest go to comprehensives or academies. Students are streamed throughout their schooling according to academic ability.

The working day was quite different. We taught hour-long classes and had compulsory staff briefings in the mornings, and mandatory staff meetings once per week. Students didn’t have textbooks, relied hugely on technology and, at the time, completed coursework in class for their continuous assessment grade which would make up 40 per cent of their grade come exam time.

Class sizes were also a bit bigger, stretching to mid-30s in some instances. The levels of paper work were demanding. On any occasion, your mentor (all newly-qualified teachers had one), head of department or any member of management could walk in and observe your class and most classes would have at least one teaching assistant or a team-teacher colleague. The constant fear for the school was that the national inspectorate, Ofsted, would arrive and downgrade their “excellent” status.

Overall, while I was quite impressed by the rigorous structure and organisation levels of the schools and their ability to nurture and induct new staff members, I often craved the autonomy of the Irish classroom where you work within set criteria but teach as you want to teach. I think we need to be very careful about adopting a business model of education. Accountability is a positive thing but living in a state of fear yields no educational benefits for students or teachers: it only limits.

Teachers need to be valued, paid well and trusted for the profession to retain its respectability. In England and the US, teaching is undervalued and viewed by governments as a menial job. As a result, it becomes a pencil-pushing, uninspiring role where burnout is common and talented, ambitious people leave the profession. We are well-trained and dedicated and work well beyond 9 to 5 each day, and often correct or plan during the holidays we are berated for.

Current attempts to revamp the Junior Certificate have great merits. But Ruairi Quinn’s reforms prioritised cost-saving over measures of educational value, and we missed a huge opportunity to bring about meaningful change. Teachers need to be given time to do what they do best: teach. Accountability becomes more sustainable when people are empowered to do their job to the best of their abilities, not when “drive-by” inspectors lurk in the back of our classrooms.

In a time were young teachers are still struggling to gain employment, and our second year students sit in uncertainty while the government rethinks hastily-pushed through reform, perhaps we can learn one thing: we have the ingenuity to be our own standard bearers as educators. We don’t need to follow everything England does, because they can get it pretty wrong; I know, I’ve been there, done that.

Sorcha, secondary school teacher

Worked in the UK from September 2009 to July 2012

In June 2009, I finished teacher training and applied for at least 40 advertised positions in Ireland but received no replies, not even to say my application was unsuccessful. I was hired in September in the UK for a maternity cover post, and taught with the teacher until she was due to go on maternity leave. I was fully employed and paid for the whole 12 months. I felt valued and respected, despite my substitute position.

There was a fully paid cover supervisor, and external substitute teachers employed to supervise the majority of lessons. I was expected to be in the school from 9am to 4pm, but facilities and resources were available to plan lessons and to monitor student learning. I was also paid for any extra revision classes I chose to put on during holiday time.

My hope of eventually achieving “self-actualisation” in my “vocation” as an Irish secondary school teacher has been eroded by my basic desire of full-time working hours, and an equal and fair wage. There is very little sense of collegiality here in the current school environment, rather a sense of competition and jealousy among staff. Teacher retention will soon become an issue, as junior teachers will realise that building up to full contract hours, and thus full pay equal to that of our older colleagues, is highly unlikely even the distant future.

So why I am I still working in Ireland? My family and friends are here.

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