So the teachers of Ireland are having their annual get-togethers as I write this and there seem to be two things that are engaging the nation as a result....well those who are on Twitter anyway.
Firstly there is the idea that Ruairi Quinn floated about ‘defeminising’ primary teaching by introducing a requirement for candidates to have honours maths. Leaving the ‘defeminising’ element aside because that would be an entire column in itself, the idea that potential teachers of four to 12 year olds should have honours maths to me shows a worrying lack of what it is that makes a good teacher of very young children. Some individuals more cynical than I assumed that this daft idea was merely to deflect the debate away from the Junior Cert mess and other issues.
Twitter was also consumed with lecturing the badly behaved teachers who showed no respect for their Minister by their heckling, use of a megaphone and slow clapping. If I saw one I saw ten tweets to the effect that teachers should be providing better example to their students by behaving better. Mmmmm... I have a sneaking regard for rebels and strongly believe in the need to make our voices heard when we passionately disagree with something that is being implemented. I still believe that most teachers have the welfare of our children at heart so I can understand their anger.
Let us not underestimate the power of teachers on our lives and on the lives of our children. On receiving her Fellowship Award at the last BAFTAs earlier in the year Dame Helen Mirren talked about teachers. “My journey to this place, right here and right now, began with a great teacher”, she said. She went on to reference Alice Welding who taught her the power of literature and who alone encouraged her to become an actor. Ms Mirren asked her audience how many of them remembered a great teacher who had “opened the gate that led to the path that led you here”? She asked for a show of hands. “That’s a lot of teachers”, she remarked.
We are lucky if we have had one great teacher in our lives. We are truly blessed to have had two or more. And these great teachers may or may not have been actual teachers. My first great teacher was a teacher. Her name was Mrs Nellie McGloughlin and she taught my class in Oliver Plunkett National School in Monkstown. When I was 7, I thought Mrs McGloughlin was old. She had grey hair and wore comfortable shoes which she kicked off one at a time as she warmed her foot on the heating pipe in the classroom on chilly days. She was one of those brilliant teachers who didn’t force us to learn but rather opened our young minds to endless possibilities, endless stories, and endless interesting facts.
Mrs McGloughlin also seamlessly shifted from Irish to English and back again, right throughout the day. She read us poetry – in both languages – not so that we could understand the concepts being articulated but rather so that we could develop an appreciation of the beauty of language. She encouraged us in ‘creative writing’. She even gave us advice on how to find a good partner in life.
We were incredibly lucky in that Mrs McGloughlin taught us from second to sixth class. When myself and my classmates made the transition to the local convent secondary school our oral Irish marked us out as the girls from Oliver Plunkett.
My second teacher came into my life shortly after I had turned 30 years of age. I was not in a happy place for lots of reasons, the lack of a job I liked being one of them. I was ‘temping’ at The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and the Chairman was an amazing man called Michael Coote. Michael had just turned 80 years of age but was one of the most creative, positive, energetic people I have ever met. But more than all that, just as Helen Mirren said, he saw something in me and he gave me an opportunity.
He offered me the newly created role of PRO for the fledgling charity. For the next couple of years he mentored and guided me. He taught me so much; about selling, about motivating volunteers, about ensuring your message was heard. He was simply inspirational. Just like a good teacher should be.
I hope the cynics are right about Minister Quinn’s motives for introducing the mad idea of primary teachers needing Honours Maths. Because the teaching of young children is as much about magic and endless possibility as it is about reading and writing and adding. If teachers should require an honour in anything it should be in magic and perhaps another in creativity. And thankfully some are born with just that.