Teachers have never been in so much demand in this country.
In part, this is due to extremely high rent, particularly in Dublin which is often prohibitive for teachers. Cork primary school teacher, AlicO’Driscoll, is currently job-sharing, working week on/week off at Scoil Barra in Ballincollig. She wants to spend more time at home with her two young children as she was away from them a lot when she went back to college to retrain as a teacher.
Alice, who has also taught at St Columba’s Girls’ School in Douglas, finds teaching an “extremely satisfying job, especially when compared to the legal profession which I worked in before.” A solicitor for eleven years, Alice had thought long and hard about whether she should consider a teaching career.
“Even in fourth year at school, I did work experience with an aunt who was a primary teacher as well as with a barrister. I loved both experiences. At school, I really enjoyed English, history and debating, so I did law. I enjoyed it and had good colleagues but after a while, I didn’t have fulfilment. I found it hard to separate my considerations about redundancies and difficult situations. It’s hard to walk away. Some people are very good at compartmentalising their lives. I wasn’t.”
When, at the age of thirty-three, Alice started studying primary teaching at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, she used to commute from Cork, leaving the house before seven every morning and not getting back until 8pm. The graduate diploma course, now called a Masters , lasted for eighteen months including teaching experience.
“It was a difficult time. There were times when I was questioning it, being away from the children so much. But now I’m delighted I did it.”
With Alice’s husband working full-time, she says her home helper was much appreciated. Alice could have studied for and got her teaching qualification through Hibernia, online.
“I considered it but I know myself that I prefer to be there with a live lecturer. Mary Immaculate was a different experience from doing law at UCC. I loved the lectures. We did philosophy and child psychology. When I was doing law, jurisprudence went completely over my head. I didn’t have the life experience for it. With the teaching course, studying philosophy opened up a lot of my thinking. I needed to be at the age I was, with the experience I had, to study it.”
Traditionally, teaching attracts a lot more female graduates than males. But at Scoil Barra, Alice says there is a good mix of men and women teachers “which is good for the kids.”
Alice loves her job, teaching nine-year-olds in third class. “They love learning new things and are very interested in the world around them. There’s a few kids who are interested in different countries and flags. Others are mad into Harry Potter. They all have their unique personalities and interests. It’s lovely – and no day is the same and no class is the same either.”
However, there is a downside to teaching in Ireland.
“The number one thing for me is class size and over-sized classrooms. It’s a huge issue. In Finland, there’s a maximum of twenty in a class. In Ireland, you could have 28, 30or even 32 in a classroom. This year, I have a smaller class. Normally I’d have approximately 28 kids.”
Big class sizes make it hard to address all the children’s needs.
“The academic side of it is only a small part of what you’re doing as a teacher. You’re addressing all of their social needs and trying to address social situations that come up in their lives.”
Being a primary school teacher requires being something of an all-rounder, good at Irish and maths, perhaps even having singing ability?
“I really enjoyed Irish in secondary school but I hadn’t used it since my Leaving Cert. A very good secondary school teacher friend, who has excellent Irish, gave me grinds. I would listen to Radio Na Gaeltachta and watch TG4 and practise Irish whenever I could. It came back to me. I was lucky to have had brilliant teachers in primary and secondary school. You have to have honours Leaving Cert Irish for primary school teaching. Some people have to go back and repeat the Leaving Cert exam.”
While Alice studied history and geography for her Leaving Cert, she says that studying the content of subjects like this is only one part of teaching children.
“It’s also about methodology and connecting with the children. When I was at school, there was an emphasis on rote learning. Now it’s more about teaching the children to become independent thinkers and to have meta-awareness so they’ll be able to think about their thinking. They should be able to evaluate what they’re doing and plan their work.
“We get them to use graphic organisers and concept maps. We have a KWL chart when starting a topic. A teacher would ask what they already know about the topic, what they want to learn and at the end, what they learned. It really engages them. It’s much more active learning. They say 65% of the jobs that children in primary school will do when they leave school haven’t even been invented yet. What you’re trying to do is create flexible independent critical thinkers and learners.
“We don’t know what knowledge or skills they’ll need but if there’s that meta-level awareness, they can acquire that skill and can apply it to pick up new skills.”
While hand-writing is still the norm at primary school, with some computer usage also taking place, the children are digital natives.
“They’ve grown up with technology while many of us still struggle with it. They know how to use the technology. We show them how to critique what they come across. If I picked up an encyclopaedia when I was at school, I’d know that what was in it was accurate. With the fake news stuff on internet, we try to teach the children to verify the source. That has to be built into our teaching and planning.”
A long time ago, there used to be a music test at Mary Immaculate College for aspiring primary school teachers. “Thankfully, that no longer happens. My singing voice wouldn’t be great. Luckily, in our school, there are teachers who are good at music and singing.”
With the rising cost of living, Alice thinks that teachers should be paid more. The department of education has started paying teachers the salary increases set out in the recently agreed public sector pay agreement.
“People may be under the impression that teaching is a lot easier than it actually is and that we have great holidays. The holidays are necessary and are great. But from what I can see from the schools I’ve worked in, teachers work really hard. People think that at 2.40pm, all the teachers get into their cars and go home. But you have to do all your planning and correcting.
“That happens outside school hours. With teaching, you’re never finished. There are lots of jobs for teachers. A lot of the younger teachers seem to go teaching in Dubai. There’s more money and the chance to have time abroad.”
Alice’s chief concern is class size. “The government has spoken about reducing it and increasing the number of teachers. But that will take time.”