Collaboration and professional development: big changes in teacher-training
Something has to change in Irish teaching; much of that change will have to come from the teachers themselves
In the classroom: Emma Daniel, science teacher at Piper’s Hill College, Naas, Co Kildare
‘A scream for reform” was how Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn described last month’s Inspectorate report on teaching standards in our schools. It has left the rest of the country asking: what are we going to do about it? Can we really tolerate mediocrity in a quarter of post-primary maths classrooms, for example? One-third of Irish classes failed to meet the required standards in secondary schools.
At primary level, problems with Irish and maths teaching arose in 28 and 17 per cent of cases respectively. Inevitably, the focus has turned to the teacher-educators. What is going on in our colleges of education?
The current teacher-training structure in Ireland is a bit like the education sector in general: an evolved rather than planned system without the “survival of the fittest” process to keep it keen. Primary and secondary teachers learn in unconnected environments.
Some teacher-training colleges are guided by religious ethos, whereas others operate on a commercial level, such as Hibernia College, which offers online teacher-training. Until last year, we had 19 colleges of education training primary teachers. Post-primary teachers learn in a range of universities and institutes of technology around the country.
Last year Quinn announced the system is to be overhauled; the 19 will become six and all major centres of teacher education will be linked to universities in which research and reflective practice are part of the culture. Primary and post-primary teachers will be educated together and the training course has been lengthened. But what, if anything, will this reform mean for the students in badly taught Irish and maths classes? If the Department of Education Inspectorate found so many examples of substandard teaching, that suggests we could have hundreds of qualified teachers who fail to meet the mark in our classrooms. No tweaking of initial teacher education in universities is going to change that.
Tomás Ó Ruairc is the head of the Teaching Council, which was established in 2006 to regulate the profession, set standards and identify new ways to support and develop the teaching corps.
For the first few years, however, much public conversation about the council was negative. Many teachers resented having to pay €90 – now reduced to €60 – a year to register and couldn’t see what they were gaining, apart from another layer of bureaucracy. At the beginning of this month, the Minister signed into law an Act that will require all teachers to be members of the council in order to keep teaching.
Ó Ruairc is adamant that the council will make a significant contribution to raising standards within the current teaching cohort, not least because it has laid out a set of standards to which schools and teachers can refer.
“When a teacher is not performing, it can be a very difficult conversation for a principal to have,” Ó Ruairc concedes. “Even finding the language is challenging, because it’s all too easy for the teacher to say, ‘You’re questioning my professionalism’ and shut down the conversation. However, if there is a set of defined standards that everyone in the system has access to, it provides a platform for the exchange.”
Continuing professional development is the key to unlocking better teaching, but there is currently no obligation on teachers to partake in extra training, and recent budgets have removed financial incentives to gaining further qualifications.
Ó Ruairc says that, in future, taking part in CPD will be a prerequisite for council membership, which should have a significant impact, but it’s not enough. One of his goals is to fuel the energy of teachers who want to develop their skills and enable them to light fires throughout the profession in a range of formal and informal ways.
“The c ouncil can and will take responsibility for teaching standards in ways that go far beyond initial teacher education, and it’s not all about rooting out and ‘fixing’ bad teaching,” he says. “Our emphasis is on encouraging good practice and finding ways to spread it among professionals.”
He claims an undercurrent of change is coming from teachers themselves and that he and his staff are trying to give it a platform it has never had. The council recently held a Festival of Education in Learning and Teaching Excellence, or Féilte, which he describes as a ‘festival for teachers’, and was encouraged by the response.
“We had about 400 teachers there on the day, but we could have had three times that if we had had a bigger venue. The teachers came to share resources, seek creative solutions to problems and find out what other professionals were doing. There’s a lot of really exciting stuff happening at the level of the school and the classroom, and as a council we want to do all we can to give these innovations a platform.”
John Coolahan, professor emeritus of education at NUI Maynooth, is a specialist on all things educational in Ireland spanning many decades. He believes attitudes are shifting in the teaching profession, and this needs to be supported and fostered.
“I have noticed a sense of networking that is gathering momentum,” says Coolahan. “Individual teachers and schools are going through a change in culture that is breaking down the old tradition of the individual teacher in the classroom. There’s an openness to observation and sharing. An interactive subculture is evolving.”
It begins with motivation on the part of the professional, but it needs to be supported at every level, says Coolahan.
“At the level of the school, we are starting to see clusters of schools coming together and organising for teachers to work in small groups.” The hope is that schools will take increasing responsibility for the professional development of their own staff, taking into account teachers’ individual needs and the needs of the school.
At the level of the colleges of education and universities, the growing emphasis on research should feed back into the process. There is also a lot of evidence of practical interaction between teacher-educators and schools, such as Maynooth’s TL21 programme, a collaborative professional development and research project between the university and some schools in Leinster.
Another solid example of a quiet cultural shift going on within the profession is a new teaching journal by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. At its launch, Coolahan said that after many years the time is now right for a major change in teaching practices in Ireland.
“Teachers are now expected to take initiatives on curricular design, on innovative forms of pedagogy, on humane styles of discipline. In many ways, the teacher’s role is envisaged as centre stage, in the driving seat of reform. Féilte, organised by the Teaching Council as an annual event for World Teachers’ Day, can be seen as a public celebration of this role,” he said.
Coolahan is quietly excited by the prospect that, after decades of reports and recommendations, things are really starting to move in teaching.
“I believe that we are going through the most exciting and transformative era ever seen in Irish teacher education. If we can pull it off,” he says.
The #edchatie Twitter debate
Fred Boss is an art teacher at De La Salle College, Dundalk, Co Louth. In 2011, Boss established a weekly Irish educators’ online Twitter discussion #edchatie.
Every Monday night teachers come together on Twitter to spend an hour discussing a chosen topic, which can be anything from
the best way to lay out a classroom to using art in lesson planning.
“We could have between 20 and 50 teachers involved in the discussion; sharing ideas, posing questions and sometimes breaking off into conversations about specific measures. It’s a real live-and-kicking event. The topics for discussion are voted for by the members.”
All the discussions can be read back after the event on Boss’s edchatie wiki. Subjects include teaching creativity, using art in the classroom and tackling cyberbullying. “Teachers want to push their own professional development,” says Boss. “Teachers sometimes get a lot more [from it] than they would from a formal CPD session where they spend three hours listening and never follow it up.
“We always try to get examples: sharing lesson plans, and photos of work. We are dealing with real-world problems.”