There is a long tradition of public interest in and recognition of the value of education and the role of teachers in Ireland. Research by the Teaching Council confirms high levels of satisfaction and trust among the Irish public; 80 per cent of the public agree that teachers play an important role in Irish society while 70 per cent view it as a difficult job.
But the nature of teachers’ work is changing. Societies are becoming more diverse, complex and interconnected in an increasingly globalised, information-rich world. Education systems need to be responsive to such change as new forms of learning, and by implication teaching, are required. Questions are raised about “good” teaching and good teachers. But what do teachers think is good?
In the school of education at UCD we conducted in-depth research into the views and practices of teachers in a sample of primary and secondary schools. We wanted to know what they thought made a “good” teacher and why they taught the way they did.
Their views reflect the complexity and multifaceted nature of teaching today. First, teachers prioritised passion for teaching and learning as being the hallmark of a good teacher. Those who had been in the profession for more than 20 years especially valued this. Second, having a strong moral and social orientation and being a formative role model were considered essential, especially by primary-school teachers. Third, good teachers question what they do and why they do it: they are critically self-reflective. Fourth, careful planning and managing of learning was considered important, including being consistent and skilled in multitasking.
Finally teachers emphasised the importance of loving children and young people: being joyful in the role and connecting with their students respectfully (this was noted especially by secondary teachers). For teachers in our study, teaching is a valued career and one that, above all, requires passion and commitment to the role.
When we spoke in depth to teachers, they spoke about the challenges they face and the worry and guilt they felt about not doing a good job. They felt a burden of responsibility as well as insecurity in a context of intense educational and social change. This included curriculum and assessment reform, changing forms of school and teacher evaluation and increasing complexity in dealing with the challenges students face as a result of wider social and economic change.
In spending time in classrooms, we observed these challenges and the contradictions that can arise between teachers’ ideals: what they aspire to in being good teachers, and the realities of classroom life. Not surprisingly, how they taught was influenced by the length of time they had been teachers. Older teachers drew on a reserve of experience and self-understanding of the tried and tested. Younger teachers were more likely to question what they did, to try out new methods and worry about control and discipline.
The type of students they were teaching also influenced teachers. Social context matters. In this respect we found evidence of more challenging and focused teaching, and assessment-driven approaches in schools with middle-class students. Interviews with teachers in these schools suggested considerable pressure from parents in relation to their children’s performance, especially in the Leaving Cert.
This pressure to prepare for State examinations was consistently mentioned as a concern by secondary-school teachers, but beginning to surface in primary schools also. It resulted in a focus on more didactic “teach to the test” methods. This undercut trying out “riskier”and innovative methods, especially during State exam years. This lends some weight to earlier findings by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2009) that identified the use of didactic methods as more prevalent among teachers in secondary schools in Ireland than across other education systems.
In contrast, teachers in Deis schools were more likely to speak of challenges arising from poor student attendance and discipline. Over time this could challenge their own resilience as teachers. These teachers were also more likely to emphasise care and nurture with students, going gently with them. This could be at the cost of high expectations for achievement. These teachers were less likely to consider continual professional development, collaboration with colleagues or reflection on what has been taught as important to good teaching. This is of concern, as it suggests a degree of isolation and potential disconnect and burnout in schools in challenging circumstances.
Gender of students also influenced teachers. We identified significant differences in teaching practices across boys’, girls’ and co-educational schools. Greater variety in teaching methods and more focused and challenging teaching was evident in girls’ schools and coeducational schools. Differences were especially pronounced with respect to Deis boys’ schools, where concerns over disruption and concentration weighed heavily in teacher decisions to use more traditional, didactic methods.
The ethnic profile of students was also important in terms of catering for the needs of children of immigrant backgrounds. Our findings suggested they could be presented with fewer opportunities for engaged and purposeful learning. This was more likely the greater the number of immigrant students in a classroom.
All teachers spoke of the challenges of catering to the needs of diverse learners, yet this was most strongly articulated among secondary-school teachers. They expressed the need for greater support in knowing how to cater for minority ethnic students but also students with a range of additional needs who are now present in greater numbers in their classrooms.
Across our study, teachers emphasised the importance of flexibility and adaptability to the often “organised chaos” of everyday life in schools. In reflecting on their teaching, they sometimes found it difficult to articulate how or why they taught in a particular way. They had crafted their practice from experience and knowing their students, rather than through systematic reflection and evaluation. The role of school principals was important here in terms of how they facilitated and encouraged shared discussion of planning for teaching and learning.
With increasing globalisation, governments strive to have the best education system to give the state a competitive edge. At local level, schools are compared with one another in rankings of the “best” schools. This fixation on performance without sufficient attention to socio-cultural context can result in a narrowing of focus in teaching and learning. A standardised “one size fits all” approach is often applied to improve performance in education. Trust of teachers is absent as is a more critical and self-reflective approach to teaching and learning. Such approaches tend to be more prominent in countries (for example England, US) where teachers have lower standing and where a neo-liberal thread frames educational policy and reform.
Good teaching, however, cannot be separated from the wider purposes of education. In any debate on good teaching and good teachers, we need to focus on what empowers children to be the best they can be, but also how teachers and schools can be supported to make this happen. This is encapsulated in the wider values and attributes teachers in our study identified as central to being a good teacher.
That there are contradictions between these aspirations and practice shows the complexity of teaching and how socio-cultural context matters. It dovetails with some of the patterns in relation to social inequalities (especially in terms of social class) in Irish education that are evident in the Pisa (OECD) studies. Schools and teachers cannot address these challenges alone.
But this does not take away from the need for teachers to also critically engage with and reflect on how they teach and with different types of students. In this respect the challenges they spoke of in relation to working with diversity, of creating inclusive classrooms with high expectations for the learning of all, warrants attention.
Prof Dympna Devine is head of the school of education at UCD. This is an edited version of a paper by her, Dr Declan Fahie and Dr Deirdre McGillicuddy in Irish Educational Studies called What is Good Teaching: Teacher Beliefs and Practices about their Teaching