The changing face of teaching in Ireland

A number of new teaching initiatives aim to diversify the ‘white, middle-class’ profession

It is estimated that only 1 per cent of primary and 2 per cent of secondary teachers come from minority ethnic backgrounds. Photograph: iStock

It is estimated that only 1 per cent of primary and 2 per cent of secondary teachers come from minority ethnic backgrounds. Photograph: iStock


When Dr Rory McDaid, a teacher and academic, began researching the experiences of children from migrant backgrounds, one question kept rearing its head. “Where are the teachers who look like me, who speak my language?”

While about one in 10 pupils in schools are from non-Irish backgrounds, this diversity is not reflected among the teaching profession.

It is estimated that only 1 per cent of primary and 2 per cent of secondary teachers come from minority ethnic backgrounds.

So, why is there such a mismatch? One major factor, say researchers, is the range of barriers facing those who have qualified abroad.

For example, teachers who train overseas cannot automatically teach in Ireland – they must register with the Teaching Council and ensure their qualifications will translate for Irish schools and take up Irish if they want to teach in primary schools.

Wissam Samad, a science teacher at St Fintan’s High School in Sutton, who is originally from the Lebanon, is all too familiar with these obstacles.

After qualifying with a degree in biology and a masters in genetic engineering, he taught for several years in Abu Dhabi before moving to Ireland where, he says, his teaching experience was not recognised when he began to apply for jobs.

He went to UCC to complete his HDip in 2014 and then faced what he describes as an “administrative nightmare” trying to get registered.

However, Samad says his difficulties did not end once he became qualified and registered.

“I applied for lots of jobs and got called for interview but got none of them,” he says.

“I went for placement during my HDip and one of the principals said to my face: ‘If I am going to get someone in to do placement in my school, it is going to be someone who has brothers in the school or is related to someone in the school – not an outsider like you’.”

Schools in Dublin don’t focus as much on who has a connection to the school when it comes to hiring teachers, he says.

“Migrant teachers don’t have family who went to schools here so what are we supposed to do? What are our chances if this is the criteria for choosing teachers for placement or for jobs? It is very closed to outsiders but I find this is more of the case outside Dublin,” he says.

In recent times, a number of measures are being taken to change the face of the teaching.

State funding has been made available for initiatives to encourage under-represented groups to train to become teachers.

Maynooth University’s “turn to teaching” programme, for example, is tackling barriers faced by marginalised students in entering teaching, such as those from the Traveller community, migrants, mature students, lone parents and students from disadvantaged schools.

Over at Marino College, Dublin, the “being a teacher in Ireland” programme has been designed for foreign-trained teachers who come to Ireland.

Course co-ordinator Dr McDaid says these new teachers bring a range of new skills to the Irish teaching pool, including bilingualism, trilingualism and experience teaching subjects such as philosophy.

This year’s participants include qualified primary or post-primary teachers from Spain, India, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Italy, the UK, Croatia, Iceland, South Africa, the US, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Russia, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia.

Huge interest

Dr Emer Nowlan, also a course co-ordinator, says they have been taken aback by the huge interest in the programme.

“We have 680 teachers on our mailing list now, and 140 applied to enrol on our current bridging programme.

“Unfortunately, we could only accommodate 40, so we had to apply selection criteria which took a number of factors into account, including teachers’ qualifications, and their progress through the Teaching Council registration process,” says Dr Nowlan.

She says the programme recognises teachers’ prior qualifications, skills and experience, adding the local knowledge and confidence they need to gain employment in schools.

“There is a strong focus on teachers sharing their own knowledge and experiences, and supporting each other, and we try to support teachers to find their own way through the system to continue to develop their professional careers,” she says.

Dr Nowlan says buy-in from principals about the project has been good and many see the benefits of having a diverse teaching staff.

“However, in general, awareness is still quite low, and some of our teachers found it difficult to gain access to schools to complete their school experience module.”

The institute knows of more than 400 migrant teachers in Ireland who are looking for work, at a time when many schools are struggling to fill positions and hope the teachers coming on stream can fill these gaps.

Dr McDaid says the teaching shortage has been a blessing in disguise for migrant teachers.

“In Dublin, there have been two factors which helped me to get the job – a lot of teachers in Dublin are leaving because of rent increases. With more teachers emigrating, there is more substitute work available,” Wissam Samad says.

“Sometimes, principals doubt our level of English and worry about the potential culture clashes. We need principals to trust migrant teachers can do the work and be treated the same as native teachers. Irish staffrooms need to start reflecting the make-up of their students and have more diversity,” he adds.

‘It can be tough as a migrant teacher as you are an outsider’

Seema Tiwary, a trainee teacher. “It can be tough as a migrant teacher as you are an outsider.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Seema Tiwary, a trainee teacher. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Seema Tiwary is part of the changing face of teaching in Ireland. Originally from India, she lived in Tokyo and Dubai and has a science degree and a bachelor in education.

Having taught for several years, she saw a programme about the migrant teaching project on TV and decided to sign up.

“My child is young and I was settling into Ireland but I always wanted to teach here,” she says.

“I didn’t have a clue how to go about it and would not know of any migrant teachers here until I heard about the programme.”

She says her experience has been great so far and it has given her the confidence to pursue a job in the Irish education system.

“I have five days of lectures from January to May – we receive lectures from experts in the Irish education system, from the Teaching Council and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

“It has been an enriching experience for us as it helps us understand the differences and unique things about the Irish education system.”

As part of the training, she got to visit Irish schools and taught at Firhouse Educate Together and loved the experience.

“I didn’t have too much of a culture shock – I have come to the experience with fresh eyes and am excited to teach in Ireland and to grow and adapt as an educator.”

She says while many Irish-born teachers hear of jobs through word-of-mouth, it can be harder for migrant teachers as they don’t have a ready-made social network.

“It can be tough as a migrant teacher as you are an outsider, but everyone of us on the course has had positive responses from principals of the schools where we had to send in our applications.

“My advice to migrant teachers who want to teach here is go for it. The system is becoming flexible here to facilitate work and to help you get registered so don’t be disheartened or put off. Help is out there.”