You may remember a running column in the Irish Examiner, The Secret Diary of an Irish Teacher. Well, the previously-anonymous author of this piece has gone on to write a book in the hopes of starting an earnest conversation about the meaningful change she believes is needed in the Irish Education System. She spoke to Oliver Callan – sitting in for Ryan Tubridy – on Monday.
Jennifer Horgan always wanted to write but lacked the confidence to pursue it and opted to train as a teacher instead. After several years abroad she came back to Ireland with her young family and started writing, initially for her local paper in Cork and subsequently the aforementioned Secret Teacher column for the Examiner. With hindsight, Jennifer feels very privileged as a teacher to have had this platform:
"We very rarely hear from teachers when it comes to education. We hear a fair amount about them, but we don't hear their voices very much."
Fresh out of college, Jennifer landed a job in an a socially-deprived school in East London, which she says was a baptism of fire coming from a much more parochial environment. She remembers getting lost on the way to work many times in the early days and hiding in a cubicle or the smoking room with what sounds like imposter syndrome. However, once her confidence started to grow, she began to really see her students, realising that every one of them is bringing something from home to school. The only chance you have of getting through to them, she says, is to:
"Work from the students’ perspective and meet them where they are."
To facilitate their long term family goals, Jennifer and her husband (also a teacher) decided to move to Abu Dhabi where he worked while Jennifer raised their children initially. Later, Jennifer became a Tutor and ultimately a Year Head at a school for children of royalty and diplomats, among others, for several years.
Now back in Ireland, she tells how she loves working at home and how wonderful her staff and school is, but does say that:
"At senior cycle, it is probably the least meaningful system I’ve worked in, and I find that very difficult."
Jennifer goes on to describe how she feels the Irish Education System is so similar to that of the school in the film Dead Poets Society (which inspired the title of her book) where there is huge pressure on students to succeed in particular professions (such as medicine or law) or to follow their parents career path. And the teacher is working in a system where the focus is to earn as much money as possible, cut back on your interests and passions and focus on the race.
"At senior level we call it a race, it’s a points race. We funnel students into particular courses [….] I think we really need a conversation, and everybody needs to be involved in the conversation, about what the purpose of education is here."
The system we have was designed for a different Ireland – a young state. Different skills are required now to meet the future needs of the country. Oliver ascertains that Jennifer is not a fan of the Leaving Cert and when she explains the reasons why, she doesn’t hold back:
"8% of children in Ireland live in consistent poverty - that’s two or three in every class. We know that 1 in 4 of our children has a special education need. Globally 60% of children have some exposure to trauma. We’re not all the same, we’re all coming from very, very different perspectives, so to say we are sitting the same exam is a lie."
Jennifer gives examples of alternatives to the Leaving Cert, not by way of offering a solution, but to start the conversation about the changes that we need to progress as a nation and to do right by the next generation.
"We survived the versions of the Leaving Cert we’ve had for the last two summers so we know everything will stay standing if we do something different."
If you would like to be part of this conversation, start by reading Jennifer Horgan’s book, O Captain, My Captain! One teacher’s hope for change in the Irish Education System, and you can hear the rest of this interview here.