Our teachers have an immense power and potential to shape our future

Opinion: School communities can play a key role in tackling issues such as climate change

Children performing at Féilte, an annual festival of education in learning and teaching excellence organised by the Teaching Council.

Children performing at Féilte, an annual festival of education in learning and teaching excellence organised by the Teaching Council.

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World leaders gathered earlier this month in Glasgow to agree a new direction for how we live so that we can do so sustainably. Our own Government also set out Ireland’s climate action and sustainability objectives.

For some time now, many people have been calling on education to help educate us all in pursuit of these goals. And so the pursuit of more sustainable ways of living seems to call for a reflection on how we all learn – and crucially, share our learning

This brings me to the Secret Teacher who, in a column earlier this month (November 2nd), highlighted the importance of core values within schools as a key element in students’ wellbeing and future success.

Tomás Ó Ruairc is director of the Teaching Council

That means empowering and enabling students to more clearly articulate the values that drive them in their pursuit of learning and other activities – and to more explicitly live these values in their daily lives.

As the father of four school-going children, that resonated strongly with me. As a teacher, and CEO of the Teaching Council, it also got me thinking about how such an approach might work for our deeply -valued teaching profession.

I didn’t have to think very long.

For teachers have already enunciated their core values in the code of professional conduct which frames their professional practice in a statutory, accessible, framework. Respect, care, integrity and trust are the four values underpinning all the standards in the code.

Connectedness

These values speak clearly of the importance of an authentic sense of self (integrity), and even more so of the connectedness of teaching and learning – the relationship with others to empower them to grow and fulfil their potential (involving respect, care and trust).

We know from Féilte, our annual festival of education in learning and teaching excellence, how teachers have innovated and thrived in realising these values in so many aspects of their professional practice.

Every year, more than 1,000 teachers gather to showcase ways in which they have brought learning alive for themselves, each other, their students and their parents/guardians.

We know this too from the Teaching Council’s Beacons process, a new and emerging model of facilitating more and better conversations between teachers, parents and students.

Climate change alone demands of every single one of us that we each play our part in sustaining the spaces and landscapes that we live, learn and work in

From Ennistymon in Co Clare to Dublin’s northeast inner city, I have seen and heard teachers, principals, parents and students from the same school communities see and hear each other in new ways. They have connected even more strongly as a result. They have agreed actions and ways of working that have changed each others’ lives in tangible and meaningful ways.

I think the Secret Teacher is on to something really exciting. Imagine if we recognised and celebrated how our students and teachers, along with their communities, are changing their lives and their environments for the better.

Restorative practice

In many cases, the values on which they are basing their work are clearly agreed and shared. In others, they may well be more implicit but nonetheless real. I’m aware of many schools enhancing the lives of all members of their communities through restorative practice. We know of others who are engaging teachers and students in open and safe conversations on how they aspire to live a certain set of core values, for example through initiatives such as Lift (Leading Ireland’s Future Together).

And let’s not forget how schools and teachers so admirably continue to support teaching and learning throughout the pandemic.

Climate change alone demands of every single one of us that we each play our part in sustaining the spaces and landscapes that we live, learn and work in. Nobody is exempt. Yet if logic, evidence and argument alone were sufficient to change behaviours, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

We need to find other ways of engaging each other in this endeavour and in this regard, Peter Mohan, an executive coach, has said: “To involve people at the deepest level, we need stories.”

We know from our earliest days in school that all stories have certain assumptions and cultural values woven into their fabric. We also know from our time in school how we can write our own stories.

Someone once said that “curriculum is where one generation chooses the stories that it wishes to tell the next”. The challenge of climate change would seem to indicate that we need more than just the stories handed down to us. We need to give our school communities more space and time to create new stories, grounded as they will be in the soil and word of all who have gone before them, and all who surround them now.

Immense power

Our teachers and schools therefore have an immense power and potential to shape our future. Before we get carried away with concepts of “power”, however, we might remind ourselves of the words of the poet Pádraig Ó Tuama:

“May the rivers of our aching

Know their force and mend their rending.”

Or as the proverb says: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s all about balance: passion and drive to do what needs to be done on the one hand; space and time to rest, to reflect on what we have done and talk to each other about that, on the other.

We need to support our school communities in harnessing their collective agency. To this end, as a society we need to collectively work out how we can give them support and space so that they can work with us in writing new stories for a new world. Not so much time capsules for the future, but rather gifts to each other for our emerging present.