Don’t Pay Your Way to Success

I recently saw a post on Facebook from a private company that was selling interview advice and preparation as well as reviews of Standard Application Forms. Any company is entitled to do this but that is not the issue. Their post (since removed) read as follows:

“In recent days we have received messages from frustrated teachers noting that they have spent the summer applying for jobs but have yet to be called for interview. This is not normal. There is most definitely a problem. It is your application form. Feedback has indicated that teachers are getting called for 20% of the positions for which they apply. Details on how to have your application form analysed is available at [URL hidden]”.

I take issue with an ad such as this as it relies heavily on scaremongering. It also fails to acknowledge the realities faced by jobseeking teachers where one vacancy could draw in over a hundred applications. It ignores the reality for many teachers unknown to principals – you are more likely to be offered an interview for a position if you have previously subbed in the school or made a good impression during TP, so in cases such as this, it will be very difficult for an unknown teacher to secure an interview. The ad makes every effort to convince teachers that the only way for you to increase your chances for success is to engage with their services and part with your hard-earned money.

Continue reading

Hard Sums, Flying Pigs and other Tails – A Reflective Practice Odyssey!

This is the follow-up course to last year’s “Smuggling Donkeys – A Reflective Practice Journey”, both of which were offered by Marino Institute of Education and facilitated by Gerry O’Connell and Michael Hayes. On the surface of it, one would wonder what it will be about and by the last day, one is still wondering about it but in a more meaningful way!

Here’s what I got from this year’s course. The key point throughout is that the questions are more important than the answers.

Day 1: What do we really teach children? Can we teach others to teach? Can we call ourselves teachers? Does teaching something devoid it of meaning? Is a child’s learning best placed when it’s through his own experiences and on his own terms? Why is there such a focus on the end-product as opposed to the experience or the process? We discussed Carl Rogers, read an extract from James Rebanks’s book “The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District” and were provided with an extract of Ken Robinson’s “Finding Your Element”. In this Robinson doesn’t discuss education directly but when he does, he needs to be approached with caution, further views on this here and here.

Day 2: We started off the day with a discussion on learning objectives and learning outcomes. Are teachers expected to be able to see into the future? When we are dealing with a group of people, even with one person, their responses cannot be accurately predicted. Therefore so-called learning outcomes should not be unmovable targets. The learning outcome is in flux, and will depend on the interactions and relationships between the learners and the teacher. Often times, a lesson will end up in a completely different place than was expected, but this should be accepted and is ok. Learning is experiential! We then did a twenty-minute meditation exercise, where some of us took to the giant bean bags to participate in this activity. What followed was a mindful walk from the Marino campus to The Yacht pub in Dollymount. We stopped just before we arrived at our destination for an activity, something called ‘The Complexity Game’ which involved picking two people from the group, assigning them the letters A and B and positioning yourself so that A is always between you and B. Then the rule changes, you have to position yourself between A and B. I won’t say what happens because it is best to experience this for oneself. The thought that emerged from this is that “complex, unscripted behaviour can emerge from simple rules” (course slides). We then had tea and sandwiches before mindfully walking back to Marino. We took home some more handouts – another from Carl Rogers concerning core conditions and education and one from Pamela Bradshaw entitled “What about Sharing?”.

Day 3: After an introduction which reflected on yesterday’s activities, we meditated for 10 minutes. We engaged in various discussions regarding homework and its values (or lack of), the perceptions others have about teachers, the value of what we do and whether or not what is of value in teaching can be measured – equally is what’s currently measured of any value? We looked briefly at Aidan Seery’s views on the competing voices in Irish education. We were provided with an extract from Seán Delaney’s book which focussed on homework. During the afternoon, we discussed data and how it can be manipulated to suit a certain agenda or outlook. This led on to a discussion on standardised testing and the way in which it’s viewed by teachers, principals, parents and policy-makers. A reading of a W. James Popham offering informed this discussion.

Day 4: We met in Howth and had a mindful walk around the cliffs. When we reached the end of our route, the majority of the group doubled back to see things from a different perspective, while four of us took a shortcut back past the summit and along a different walking route, cutting through the middle of Howth. Our day concluded in O’Connell’s Pub for lunch. Relaxed conversations filled the day.

Day 5: We began with meditation. We moved on to a general discussion about the course and the ideas behind this year’s course. We were visited by Gene Mehigan who gave a guest presentation on the topic of spelling – we shouldn’t be teaching how to strictly spell correctly, we should be teaching how to spell. Children will go through transitional phases in their journey to be good at spelling, it is up to us to meet their needs at the various junctures. We don’t tell children not to speak until they’re four years old just because they’re not able to do it perfectly, the same should be applied to spelling. As it happened, during a dictation exercise with our group, none of us spelled all ten target words correctly. This provided me with an opportunity to empathise with the struggling or transitional speller. We finished the course with a mindful dance together, with actions. We then parted ways.

Reflective practice was the main theme of the course and was present to various extents during each discussion. That said, what was the outcome of the course? It depended on the individual. There was no compulsion for one strict type of engagement throughout the week. Each individual interaction or reaction provided the course participants with something unpredictable. There were starting points each day but it was up to the group what direction it took. For this type of course, I would say that the process is more important than the product. It is a course where you are treated as a professional and you are acknowledged as an expert at what you do. It’s not a course where you are given a list of ideas for use in the classroom, rather it is a course that reminds you to think about what you do (and what you have done) and to do it meaningfully and mindfully.

Helping Children With Homework

As we approach the end of another school year, homework will probably start to ease off. With most of the curriculum covered, and with school tours and sports days providing some much-needed relief for pupils and teachers alike, the focus of June will be about wrapping things up for the year and having a bit more fun.

Homework throughout the rest of the year has the potential to cause a headache for some pupils and for some parents. If you see a child struggling with something, your natural reaction is to want to help them. This is where the problem lies – there is a wrong way to help a child with homework (as well as a correct way, that will be discussed as well).

With all the best intention in the world from parents, homework may end up as a meaningless activity. Let’s look at a maths activity. A number of unhelpful approaches are as follows, and in no particular order:

  • Telling the child how to do the problem
  • Showing the child what number goes where
  • Confusing the child with an alternative method not yet learned , a prime example being the two popular subtraction methods: renaming (regrouping); and borrow and pay back.

Telling the child how to do a problem deprives them of their ability to think about the problem. It doesn’t matter if the child goes to school the next day with wrong answers. This is valuable information for the child’s teacher. The teacher can then have a conversation with the child (time allowing, of course) about where they went wrong and can offer them an opportunity to think again about the problem, to verbalise it in their own words and to maybe use concrete examples to assist. Even better, the parent can do this at home.

If that fails, should you just tell them the answer? Please don’t. Again, the child learns nothing, practises nothing and is deprived of the opportunity for their teacher to assess their work meaningfully for the purposes of future learning.

My last bulletpoint dealt with alternative methods for figuring out calculations. These are fine, but it’s worth letting a child master one method with a real understanding of what’s happening with it before showing your child how you used to do it in school. If a child is having trouble with one method, introducing another method will not help them to understand the original method better. Instead, talk to the child; ask what they were learning about; maybe have a look at the maths book; or simply ask the child’s teacher what method is being used.

The bottom line with this is that it’s ok for a child to experience difficulty, or even failure. Let them make their mistakes, let them think about their mistakes and let them learn from their mistakes. They will get there eventually – every child progresses at a different rate.

There are arguments for the total abolition of homework in primary school. Finnish schools don’t give homework and, amongst other reasons, are doing pretty well educationally. The question is: why subject children to even more work after spending five or six hours per day engaged in formal learning activities? Shouldn’t their free time be used for other activities so that they can experience a balance throughout the day?

There are also arguments to retain the practice of assigning homework. It is a way for parents to get some idea of what their children are learning in school. It reinforces what was done that day or that week. These are valid points but there are answers to these. Parents can ask their child or their teacher what has been happening in school lately. Communication can definitely be improved between schools and parents and there are, no doubt, many innovative ways for this to be done effectively and meaningfully. As for reinforcing learning? With home-school communication taken care of, parents can use their time with their children to reinforce their learning out in the real world, making memories and away from the abstract nature of the textbook.

Doing a Disservice to Gaeilge

I follow a number of teacher blogs through Facebook and I’m quite interested to see what these blogs have to offer. Some offer sage advice covering the many aspects of primary school teaching. Unfortunately, I occasionally come across bad advice. The latest I’ve seen is a mention of using translation, with very little comhrá, during an Irish lesson. This bothers me as the blog in question is quite popular, therefore many newer teachers or student teachers will be on the receiving end of unhelpful, or possibly damaging, advice.

Comhrá should be an integral part of any Gaeilge lesson, at any level in primary school – from Junior Infants to Sixth Class. This sets the foundation for the reading and written work that will come later on. Gaeilge will be an additional language to the overwhelming majority of primary school pupils so it needs to be taught with that in mind. The way we learn our mother tongue is through listening to the language and by beginning to use the words that have become familiar to us. We build this up to a level where the foundation for reading and writing is solid. The same approach to Gaeilge, albeit in a slightly altered form, is necessary. From First and Second Classes onwards, pupils will have begun to use reading and writing in their Irish lessons. This does not and should not take the place of oral work. Pupils should get used to using the vocabulary orally before they attempt to apply their reading and writing skills. Using language is naturally an oral activity so this should be applied in the classroom – use language in its natural form before tackling it at a more abstract level.

Translation is a useful skill in and of itself but it is not the sort of skill that should be encouraged during an Irish lesson. Translation slows down the thinking process if it is applied to the use of a language in a natural setting. The (bad) advice I read on a particular blog encouraged teachers to get their students to translate verbs as a part of a game. In the same breath the advice was not to do this in front of an inspector, so the question is – why bother suggesting translation in the first place if they know it is unacceptable?

Translation is a tedious way for children to learn or to practise a language. If the teacher is going to translate everything, that’s what the children will wait for. Why would they pay any attention to the Irish vocabulary if the translation to English is on the way? Their exposure to Irish will therefore be extremely limited because there’s no real motivation to listen to it. Translation is not real teaching and should never be considered an effective methodology for use with primary school pupils. The more effective way to teach Irish is through Irish, which can appear difficult at first but with some thought and consideration in advance, it won’t pose a problem. Speech should be clear and not rushed, with altered pitch when appropriate. Gestures should accompany speech where possible and visual aides will be invaluable. Will the pupils understand every single word you say? Most likely not. Will they get the gist? Highly likely. Give the pupils an opportunity to use what they have been taught with a partner or in a whole-class setting. Don’t be too worried about their mistakes because every language learner makes mistakes. When the focus is on encouraging use instead of correcting mistakes or just translating everything, you will begin to see success.

It is doing a huge disservice to Gaeilge  – and to the pupils who are learning it – if it is taught without the effort required for success. Teaching Irish properly in school will not answer the question of why some people choose not to use it in any other context – this is a discussion for another blog post. However, providing the best conditions for learning the language will at least give children the opportunity to make a real choice.

ClassDojo – Is it really worthwhile?

Over the course of my teaching career, I have had to consider how best I could utilise a behaviour management system in my classroom. When I started out as a teacher back in 2009, I taught 5th Class – 34 boys in a relatively small space with old furniture and no interactive whiteboard, in fact not much by way of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) resources at all. An effective classroom management tool was going to be crucial if I was going to make this first year a success for me and for the pupils.

This meant that I could not rely on any gadgets or graphical displays to assist me with classroom management. A simple teacher-made display sufficed, which was used to track and reward groups – not individuals.

Nearing the end of the second year of my career, we were blessed with a range of ICT equipment due to a grant from the Department of Education so this opened up a range of possibilities for me that I hadn’t previously realised. The following year I discovered ClassDojo. ClassDojo allows teachers to set up a way to individually track the behaviour of pupils in a class, by way of rewarding pupils with points or sanctioning them with the removal of points. Each pupil has an avatar of a little colourful monster linked to their name. The number of points currently held by the pupil is visible. All pupils’ avatars and points are on display together, projected onto the interactive whiteboard whenever the teacher chooses.

I tried this out for a few months at a time over the course of four years, each year hoping that I would feel more at ease using such a system, but each time I couldn’t shake the feeling that something about this method of classroom management didn’t seem right. I needed to give it a chance though, but I also had to question the system itself and my own reasons for using it. It was only near the beginning of the 2016/2017 school-year when I finally realised that ClassDojo was definitely not for me. The following are my conclusions about individual behaviour tracking using such a system. Continue reading

Food for Thought for Student Teachers

At this time of the year, the majority of – if not all – student teachers are on School Placement (formerly known as Teaching Practice). It is arguably the most demanding element of teacher training. Due to this pressure, students in such situations may be tempted to look for ways to ease the workload. Some choose to purchase lesson plans online – I have discussed the issues surrounding this in a previous post, but to be blunt, it’s sacrificing long-term gain for short-term gain.

There is no magic formula for success on School Placement, but there are some steps the trainee teacher can take that will set good foundations. Continue reading

Primary Languages Curriculum – A Review of an In-service Training Day

I attended training for the new Primary Languages Curriculum yesterday. The focus for this year is on the Oral Language (Teanga Ó Bhéal) strand for classes from Junior Infants to Second Class, while next year will see training of some sort in the Reading and Writing strands. An overview of this new curriculum is available here.

From the outset, it appeared that the facilitators were eager to address the concern that many viewed this new document as merely an assessment checklist, with individual tracking for each pupil. They pointed out that this was not the case and that the Milestones (from ‘a’ to ‘h’) were not to be applied to each pupil, rather they were to be applied to the class from a general perspective of where the group as a whole is currently at, with other milestones only being used specifically where differentiation was required. This was some relief.

The next clarification was that long-term and short-term planning does not need to change straight away. We are to continue planning as we normally would and to continue teaching as we normally would. This makes sense as it would be a complex task to rethink a curricular area in such a manner with just over one term left in the school year.

It wasn’t all positive unfortunately. I was particularly unimpressed with how the Gaeilge elements were presented. I heard nothing that teachers didn’t already know from the 1999 Gaeilge curriculum. “Make Irish interesting” was put forward as the answer to teaching it effectively – this isn’t new thinking! There will always be challenges when teaching Irish, and in fairness, a question on this was put to participants. School and local context will always decide whether you have an easy or a tough time teaching Irish. This point was acknowledged but not dealt with in any depth.

We were shown some videos of activity in a classroom, which looked normal. What I found unrealistic were the follow-up videos where the teacher was asking questions of individual children in order to assess what oral language milestone they were at. I call this unrealistic because I couldn’t hear the sound of any other children in the background. Where were they? What teacher could assess like this on an individual basis with a large number of pupils in her class? If a video of an unrealistic situation is being shown to me during a training day, I can only deem that particular element of the training to be without merit. Idealistic and realistic are two completely different things.

When it comes down to it, I won’t be teaching a curriculum, I’ll be teaching children. I will continue to use my professional judgement whenever the situation requires it. All this curriculum does is ask us to look at things from a slightly different angle. Teachers have always done this – it’s nothing new to us.