JENNY Horgan, a secondary school teacher and author of The Secret Teacher column in the Irish Examiner, has published a book calling for change in the Irish education system.
This mother-of-three primary school-going children talks about “the brute force” of the secondary school system in the new book, O Captain, My Captain.
She objects to forcing students to study a range of subjects “despite the difficulties or issues they might be having”.
Jenny believes that the Leaving Certificate needs to change.
“I think we should be giving students more choice at senior level. I don’t really believe in compulsory subjects. It’s important to remember that for 12 years, we give students exposure across the subjects. I’m not talking about dumbing down. I’m talking about diversification, giving students exposure through top quality teaching but allowing them to choose what they want to study for the last two years.”
She added that there are “too many people going to university in this country. Globally, we have among the highest rate of students going to university and we have the lowest rate of people doing apprenticeships. So you have a lot of students who don’t feel valued. We are wasting so much talent.
“Yet we know that in the normal run of things, you need different types of people. Someone who can understand a plumbing system is equally as impressive as someone who understands brain surgery. We need all of these people to be valued. At the moment, I see a lot of students switching off and wanting to leave the system.”
Jenny, who teaches at Educate Together Cork Secondary School, says that, in general, she doesn’t like the atmosphere in secondary schools in Ireland.
“It doesn’t feel very exciting or innovative. It doesn’t feel very collaborative. I think there’s a lot of resentment (towards teachers), a lot of bad feeling.
“Respect is a fundamental basic of education; respect between teachers, parents and students. I think our system is letting everyone down. I don’t blame anyone for it. I just think we need to change.
“We need the Department of Education to have more of a sense of what is going on in classrooms and the difficulties students are having, particularly with the system as it stands.”
Originally, Jenny wanted a career as a writer. With a masters degree in English, she started to write for The Echo but said she wasn’t really confident enough to put herself forward.
“I don’t want to suggest that teaching was a fallback. But if I’m honest, I didn’t come out of college dying to be a teacher.
“I spent a year working in a school with autistic children before I went into mainstream education. I think that was really good for me. I knew I enjoyed working with young people. With my background in English, teaching seemed like the logical thing to do.”
A past pupil of Scoil Mhuire in Cork, Jenny said she had “great experiences” of teachers, both inside and outside school.
“I was always encouraged in my writing,” she adds.
Jenny has had creative writing published in a number of journals.
She has been teaching for 15 years, mostly abroad. When she came back to Ireland, Educate Together Cork Secondary School was the first school that she felt drawn to here.
“I felt I was on the same wave- length as the principal. The school is a really good fit for me in terms of my thinking around education. I like that the school is mixed and multi-denominational.”
When Jenny, her primary school teacher husband and children moved back here, she was disappointed that her son, Sam, (now aged almost 11) was relegated to the back of the classroom during preparation for First Communion.
“He really didn’t want to make First Communion. He didn’t have much exposure to Catholicism. He had a really tough year, starting to slump when walking, and he lost his confidence. It struck me as a significant problem. Children (not partaking in religion classes) are just left to sit in the classroom with no provision for them.”
Jenny finds this strange, considering there has obviously been a change in people’s beliefs.
“According to the Census, we have a much lower percentage of people identifying as Catholics so it seems odd that our education system is maintaining Catholicism’s centrality in primary education in particular.”
However, Jenny says she is at pains in her book to explain that she’s not anti-Catholic and not anti-religion.
“I actually have a huge respect for it. Religion holds great meaning for people and I absolutely believe in people’s right to explore and live their religion. But I don’t think it needs to come into the classroom (in the traditional way.) I think the classroom would be enriched if we allowed for open dialogue where kids from all different faiths talk about what they believe in. One of the things I love doing in my ethics class is getting the students to talk about their beliefs in their systems. You can see so many connections.”
Having taught abroad, Jenny experienced “a certain drop in respect” when she returned to the Irish education system.
“A lot of people are supportive and, at primary level, it’s quite positive for teachers. But in secondary schools, teachers are sometimes seen as the enemy. There’s the rhetoric about the holidays being too long and teachers being lazy. From writing my column, the more negative comments are louder. They’re in the minority but they’re having an impact on the profession and on teachers’ wellbeing.”
Acknowledging that teachers’ holidays are long, Jenny believes secondary schools could do with shorter holidays.
“We could do with more time to collaborate more during the year and work at a slower pace.”
Jenny is keen that parents become more involved in their children’s education.
She points out that secondary school teachers, relative to teachers abroad, have very high contact hours teaching students.
“That is something that isn’t really appreciated. On average, we have five hours contact time daily. if you think of that in terms of say office presentation, a whole lot of preparation also has to be done. Also, it’s really draining to perform for five hours a day. Most teachers feel burnt out at the end of the school year.”
While Jenny feels there is an appetite for change in the education system, she is critical of the unions.
“There are really exciting ideas about having 40% of marks coming from continuous assessment. They get blocked by the unions who say they don’t want teachers to become assessors. They want them to be allies. I just think that is really short- sighted in terms of understanding the teacher’s role. I’m perfectly capable and happy to assess my students. I think I know them better than anyone as an assessor.
“The conversation around teaching needs to be really broad so that we get everyone involved. That’s why I wrote the book. As a parent myself, it’s hugely important to me how my kids get on and how they experience secondary school.”
O Captain, My Captain is published by Orpen Press.