Lessons in diversity: The changing face of teaching in Ireland
New teaching initiatives aim to diversify a ‘white, middle-class’ profession
Ireland has long prided itself on having one of the best education systems in the world, but in recent decades we have been falling behind many other industrialised nations in one key area.
Just as Irish society has become increasingly diverse, the teaching profession has remained homogenous.
Today’s schools are host to different nationalities, ethnicities, religions and heritage, but the face at the front of the classroom remains overwhelmingly white, Irish, settled, Catholic and female.
Some may ask: “If the children are getting a good education, what’s the problem?”
Researchers say the problem is that provision of high-quality education requires more than just adequate resources and high academic standards.
Studies, both in Ireland and around the world, demonstrate unequivocally that children from diverse backgrounds - whether they come from ethnic or religious minorities, migrant families, marginalised communities or experience disabilities - need to see themselves reflected in the teaching profession.
For most children, teachers represent the most significant role models and authority figures they experience outside the home.
In Ireland today, some 99 percent of student teachers identify as ‘white Irish’, as compared to 85 percent of the population, while less than 5 percent of people training to become primary teachers has a disability, in comparison to 13.5 percent of the country as a whole.
It is well-documented that entry to the teaching profession is largely predicated by social class, with those from farming and professional backgrounds being over-represented in all areas of teaching.
Indeed, some sectors of Irish society are almost entirely excluded from the profession: in 2014 only one person from the 2,437 students who applied for primary teacher training identified as being from the Traveller community.
In the context of a modern, pluralistic and diverse nation, the continuing homogeneity of the teaching profession suggests we are failing to provide many thousands of children with an educational environment conducive to their future success and wellbeing.
And this is not solely because they do not see role models they can relate to when they go to school each morning.
Research shows that teachers from diverse backgrounds set high expectations for students from marginalised groups, and act as mentors and advocates for them, often with transformative results.
Moreover, it has also been shown that the advantages of a more diverse teaching profession extend beyond the experience of students from minority groups, bringing crucial benefits to the entire student cohort.
This is because internalised and unconscious beliefs about inferiority and difference are overcome when children see people from disadvantaged groups as professionals and authority figures.
Research shows there are several barriers facing underrepresented groups when attempting to access initial teacher education.
These include financial barriers, a lack of experience of third level education, knowledge of the Irish education system and the high academic standards required to access initial teacher education.
It is widely understood that there are inequalities across Ireland which impact how and why students perform well academically.
One of the most controversial topics when considering access to the teaching profession is the Irish language requirement.
Applicants for primary initial teacher education must have achieved a H4 in higher level Leaving Certificate Irish or an equivalent examination, and postgraduate student teachers must also demonstrate a high level of fluency in an oral test.
Though most agree the Irish language is a foundation stone of our culture and national identity and must remain a key pillar of our education system, the conversation over how it is delivered in schools, and the concomitant implications for access to teacher training, is ongoing.
Many experts believe the current approach to the teaching and examining of Irish is not conducive to students’ experiencing it as a living, enjoyable language.
Change to our approach to teaching Irish, and the requirements set for aspiring teachers, is not something that can be achieved overnight.
Nonetheless, some critics say the fact that many schools simply cannot deliver adequate results in higher level Leaving Cert Irish effectively precludes many thousands of young people from ever becoming primary school teachers.
Some initial steps towards improving diversity in Irish teaching are being taken.
In 2017 the Department of Education in partnership with the Higher Education Authority, funded the six centres of teaching excellence across Ireland, under the Programme for Access to High Education (Path) scheme, to widen access to initial teacher education for underrepresented groups.
One of these projects, Maynooth University’s Turn To Teaching programme has taken an expansive approach; directly targeting the barriers that prevent aspiring teachers from acceding to the necessary training.
The programme, now moving into its second year, offers a spectrum of academic, financial, social and logistical supports to would-be teachers from communities including migrants, ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities and people from marginalised backgrounds in order to facilitate a pathway into initial teacher education.
Being conscious of the crucial role played by mentors in supporting young people from these communities, it also provides training to those who have already made it into the profession. This aims to facilitate them in building supportive and ongoing relationships with those who are coming after them.
Most researchers agree that these programmes are critically important, pioneering first steps towards tackling the problem of teacher homogeneity in Ireland.
The benefits mean that our school staffrooms will reflect our classrooms to the greatest extent possible.
Conversely, experts says, failing to do so risks suppressing the potential of all Irish children to learn about and better understand the richness and beauty of difference.
Most fundamentally, they say, diverse classrooms need diverse teachers. As the pioneering children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman famously said, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”