Inspiring educators: How coronavirus has given us a new appreciation of teachers

Many of us see the levels of patience, persistence and personal attention that goes into the role of an educator

Since Covid-19 school closures, we fully realise what levels of patience, persistence and personal attention goes into the role of educator. Photograph: iStock

Since Covid-19 school closures, we fully realise what levels of patience, persistence and personal attention goes into the role of educator. Photograph: iStock

 

Homeschooling has given us all a new appreciation of teachers – with both parents and pupils missing the múinteoirs.

Since Covid-19 school closures, we fully realise what levels of patience, persistence and personal attention goes into the role of educator.

We have remote learning, Class Dojo and even RTÉ’s Home School Hub – but nothing beats the guidance and support of a good teacher.

With them gone from our lives, many of us are reflecting on our favourite teachers that influenced us in our chosen careers – and just what made them special.

Mine was Mary Broderick, from Garryowen in Limerick. She was the strictest teacher in St Mary’s NS in Blessington, Co Wicklow, and could silence a room with one word: “Desist!”

Yet she was kind, like Oliver Goldsmith’s Village Schoolmaster. Passionate about literature, she found a willing student in me. By the end of primary, I’d read AS Byatt’s Possession, Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn; Heaney and Hughes’ Rattle Bag.

The transformative influence of an inspiring teacher is well acknowledged. Albert Einstein, once a teacher, described the “supreme art” of the ability to awaken creativity and knowledge in students.

Research shows high-quality teaching is the most effective way to improve educational outcomes for individuals. One special teacher can leave a defining legacy in a student’s life.

Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College in Dublin 6, believes there is nothing like an inspirational teacher in forming your view of the world.

“What is an inspiring teacher? Someone who is passionate about the subject and has the ability to communicate that passion on the pupil. They matter – their development matters. There has to be a mutual respect there, and an element of a role model,” she says.

Nurturing ability and building self-confidence is key. “Nothing matches up to praise and encouragement. It can be about telling students: it can be done. It’s about stretching beyond imagination to help them see the future they could achieve. I say to students: reach for the rainbow. You might just get the sky.”

Ambitious

Patrick McCormack, head of St Paul’s CBS in North Brunswick Street in Dublin’s inner-city, agrees that a caring school environment is the “seedbed” for education.

“You want students to know you are ambitious for them: that there is a plan of action for them when they leave here. We try to foster a spirit of investigation and inquiry in students and support them in their work.”

He says the school’s philosophy is the antithesis of the Mr Gradgrind approach – the teacher in Dickens’ Hard Times who saw children as “empty vessels to be filled with facts”.

“The writer Anatole France said nine-tenths of education is encouragement, and I hold to that. It’s that it comes down to, whether you are coaching a child in a classroom, or to do a forward roll in gymnastics.

“If you are only pointing out to them what they are doing wrong, instead of showing them what they are doing right, you won’t build the scaffolding towards doing it properly. It’s about helping them learn another piece of the subject area that gives them the fuel in the furnace to push onto the next stage.”

He says sometimes it can be about affirmation: simply acknowledging a special talent. That can give a student the “permission” they need to realise they are good enough to pursue a dream.

Author and journalist Lionel Shriver can trace her decision to become a writer back to one day in tenth grade in Grady High School in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images
Author and journalist Lionel Shriver can trace her decision to become a writer back to one day in tenth grade in Grady High School in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

It happened to Lionel Shriver. The award-winning American author – who lived in Belfast for 12 years – can trace her decision to become a writer back to one day in tenth grade in Grady High School in Atlanta, Georgia.

Her teacher Mrs Watson – a strict schoolmarm of history – called her back after class one day to discuss test results. She told Shriver her answers were very well-written and asked: “Have you ever considered becoming a writer?”

In an open letter to her former teacher, Shriver wrote: “Keep at it, you said, and that was that. I did keep at it, Mrs Watson. I am a writer. But your taking me aside like that has been precious to me ever since. You were right about a certain gift I had, which teachers like you nourished.”

Big impact

Broadcaster, scientist and educator Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin was inspired to study theoretical physics by her physics teacher David McMonagle at St Joseph’s Convent of Mercy in Castlebar, Co Mayo.

“He made a big impact on me as a student,” says Ní Shúilleabháin, now an assistant professor in the school of Mathematics and Statistics in University College Dublin, where she directs the maths and education programmes in UCD’s college of science.

Broadcaster, scientist and educator Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin was inspired to study theoretical physics by her physics teacher David McMonagle at St Joseph’s Convent of Mercy in Castlebar, Co Mayo.
Broadcaster, scientist and educator Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin was inspired to study theoretical physics by her physics teacher David McMonagle at St Joseph’s Convent of Mercy in Castlebar, Co Mayo.

“In his class you could come in and talk and discuss anything: whether it was whether time travel was possible or what tachyons were. He was interested in physics, he was passionate about it, he made it interesting and relevant.

“He didn’t enforce the curriculum. I loved astrophysics and black holes and finding someone else with the same enthusiasm was very important to me. I could talk about the subject in a broad way, not just in a textbook way.

“There is the educator who speaks to you as a person, who has your interests at heart. They can make you more confident in your ability and nurture your interest. Someone who knows their stuff and cares about explaining it and communicating it to others.”

Ní Shúilleabháin believes every Irish student should have equal access to such quality teaching. “You can only have a fair and democratic society if school works for all: and for school to work, we have to have really good teachers who care about their subject and their students.”

Chef Neven Maguire is so indebted to his home economics teacher, Mairead McMorrow from St Clare’s Comprehensive in Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, that he dedicated his most recent cookery book – Home Economics for Life – to her.

“I was one of the first boys in the school to do home economics and Mairead McMorrow was so supportive and brilliant. I was so excited to cook and she knew cooking was my love and she was there all the way for me. I still remember the first thing I made: pineapple upside-down cake.

“I think everyone should do home economics: it’s a great life skill. She will always have a special place in my heart. She taught me: follow your heart. And if you love what you do it will come right in the end.”

Poet and former RTÉ newsreader Michael Murphy’s says his teacher Fr Henry Flanagan at Newbridge College set him on an artistic life. “He was an artist and sculptor himself and he harnessed all my artistic idealism. I flourished. He introduced me to art and music and taught me to play the organ. He was holiness in the best possible way, but he was liberal with it.”

Lead role

Writer Stefanie Preissner credits her English teacher Mary Higgins with giving her the confidence to recognise to find her unique style. “Despite not knowing how to use adjectives impressively, or being able to describe autumn like some of the girls in my class, Ms Higgins made me feel that what I had to say was worthy of being listened to. She also taught me drama and gave me my first lead role in The Mikado.”

Writer Stefanie Preissner credits her English teacher Mary Higgins with giving her the confidence to recognise to find her unique style. Photograph: Alan Betson
Writer Stefanie Preissner credits her English teacher Mary Higgins with giving her the confidence to recognise to find her unique style. Photograph: Alan Betson

For some, that truly special teacher may not appear until college days. Musician and historical entertainer Paddy Cullivan found his inspiration in the portrait artist Mick O’Dea, when O’Dea taught at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in the 1990s.

Paddy – whose degree in visual communications is utilised to impressive effect in his live history shows – says O’Dea taught him: “You are learning a trade. What is in your head has to come out in your art.

Musician and historical entertainer Paddy Cullivan found his inspiration in the portrait artist Mick O’Dea, when O’Dea taught at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in the 1990s.
Musician and historical entertainer Paddy Cullivan found his inspiration in the portrait artist Mick O’Dea, when O’Dea taught at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin in the 1990s.

“Mick always encouraged your obsessions; you had to be 100 per cent committed to your subject. He directed you towards the kernel of what you were doing and gave practical, creative advice.

“He also attended the college band gigs we put on – he saw nothing as a waste of time, creatively. Mick is an egalitarian inspiration for those who want to be total artists. I was lucky he was there to point the way for me.”

Paddy adds: “I’ve always hated the George Bernard Shaw quote: ‘Those who can’t do, teach’. When you’ve got someone who can both do, and teach, you’ve got the template of success to inspire you, and the immediate access to their wealth of knowledge.”

Grade expectations: What makes an inspirational teacher?

Personality: Good teachers tend to be open, approachable and fair. They tend to have a striking personality that makes them appealing to students.

Passion: They are enthusiastic about their subject and about the education of students. They have a love of learning.

Value encouragement: They teach through patient encouragement, knowing it will lead to better outcomes and success than constant criticism. Demonstrate confidence in students, building self-esteem through support and praise.

Have high expectations: Good teachers believe in their students and help them to see future possibilities. They identify and nurture special talents.

Good communicators: They are skilled in the art of communicating their knowledge to others.