Teachers matter

Looking to the past, Michael Crowley reminds us of the important role that the teachers of today play in the future.

Once the National School system had been set up in Ireland in 1831, the question of finding teachers very quickly became an issue. Many teachers were untrained in the 19th century though some were former hedge schoolmasters or famous poets in the Bardic tradition like Eoghan Rua Ó’Súilleabháin, Brian Merrimam or Sean Ó’Tuama. Before the Famine, as many as 5,000 hedge school masters operated across the country, but, content and standards varied. As a first step, the 1831 initiative, in addressing this organisational deficit set up a District Model School system of training for teachers (the Dunmanway Model School is a relic of that era and still operates today). However, this did not sit well with the Catholic Hierarchy, and, following a successful lobbying campaign, two training colleges were established for Catholics in Drumcondra (1875) and in Carysfort a couple of years later. By the start of the 20th century, Training Colleges were also in operation in Waterford, Belfast, and in Limerick for Catholics, with a Church of Ireland Training College in Dublin also. Bit by bit, the number of trained teachers in Irish schools increased and a measure of control was applied. For example, the code of conduct for teachers in post-Famine Ireland advised them to, ‘avoid fairs, markets and political meetings, to promote cleanliness, neatness and decency and to avoid all forms of vice’. For a time too, teachers were paid by results, which meant that the regurgitation of facts and rote learning using harsh methods became recognisable features of school life in the second half of the 19th century – teachers’ pay depended on it. It would be difficult to imagine the young professional teachers of this generation working under such conditions or accepting those societal expectations with respect to their personal lifestyles.

By the first decades of the 20th century, primary education in Ireland was, effectively denominational. Teachers were trained in denominational institutions run and worked in a complex world with many intruding factors. These included, a cultural revival movement, a rise in political activity around the prospect of Home Rule in the run up to WWI, a proliferation of quasi-military alliances such as the IRB, The Irish Volunteers, the Citizens’ Army, and so on. alongside a political reconfiguration that brought Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin party to the fore and a trade union movement that was increasingly politicised.  Following Independence, Irish primary teachers began to assume a much greater role in society as the guardians of tradition and culture. They were both victims and agents of that post-colonial educational philosophy, as programmes were re-designed in line with more traditional and nationalist ideals. Irish became compulsory and Gaeltacht students, as well as those with ambitions to become civil servants, were naturally attracted to teaching. These were the children of middle-class Ireland, predominantly, and had a measure of social capital, which suited the emerging socio-religious narrative.

From a teacher training perspective, the new State inherited five teacher Training Colleges in St. Patrick’s Dublin (St Pat’s), Carysfort Dublin, the Church of Ireland College, Rathmines, Dublin, Mary Immaculate College in Limerick (Mary I) and the De La Salle College in Waterford. When Waterford closed soon after independence, to that list was added Marino College Dublin which had been, up to that time, run by the Christian Brothers. Teachers were, predominantly, male and the ‘Master’ eulogised so brilliantly by Goldsmith who, in the Village Schoolmaster said, ‘…and still they gazed and still the wonder grew, how one small head could carry all he knew’, became a conspicuous figure in society. That’s all changed of course and the gender make up of primary teachers today is 87 per cent female, 13 per cent male.

From 1960s onwards teacher Training Colleges became co-educational and additional post-graduate courses were offered, which infused them with a more academic approach and culture. Today, all teachers complete a four year degree programme and their qualifications must be accredited by the Teaching Council of Ireland. Generally, they work in a tight regulatory framework (different to the time when attendance at a political meeting was a crime but, arguably, no less repressive) and still serve too many masters. The Church these days are minor partners, ostensibly managing schools, but, increasingly, unable to do so very effectively. The great Church-State experiment has, the facts would suggest, run its course and the monopoly that the local priest once had on the schools in his parish is no longer evident.

When Cardinal Cullen, in the late 19th century, turned the educational arena into a major political and religious battleground, he knew what he was doing and at that time the Church Hierarchy was the undisputed moral authority of the nation. The ‘quid pro qou’ was, of course, that both Church and State expected schools and teachers to serve their very obvious agendas in post-Independence Ireland and serve as the gatekeepers of the extremely conservative and very inward looking new Ireland that followed independence.

Teachers today are well educated and amongst the brightest and best of their tribe. The points system, with all of its faults, has improved equality of access into the profession making it a broader church than it once was. Many teachers now have post-graduate level qualifications. They belong to a generation who have, in their personal lives, turned away from institutional religion and are, increasingly, secular in their worldview – you don’t find many of them collecting at Mass these days! With some notable exceptions, their attitude to cultural nationalism and the Irish language is entirely different to their predecessors. Their political perspective is often as global, as much as it local. They are no longer just reservoirs of facts passing on canonically-approved and absolute truths. Since 1831, they have experienced change on a grand scale, endured an era of payment by results (1972-1900), experienced curriculum change that reflected changing political ideologies of pre and post-Independence Ireland, were caught up in denominational managerial structures and expected to serve societal expectations. But they have endured and professionalised and still play an important role in society through schools, which remain parochially organised and locally managed by voluntary Boards who act on behalf of Patronage bodies. This is a model that is, probably, not fit for purpose any longer, and, though change is inevitable, it should be planned for now in an open and democratic manner – not when the wheels come off the managerial wagon! 

We should never forget that, in education, children should always come first and schools are for them. But education cannot be individualised, as it too big and consensus must be the basis for any future reconfiguration plans – common sense must prevail. Teachers’ voices matter in these emerging realities – they are, after all, the experts! On a daily basis, they deal with a complex set of clients and stakeholders in a reshaping society where change has become the norm. But they remain critical agents in the reshaping of that new and, hopefully, socially just society. Many will leave a lasting impression on the young minds they help to shape. And they need your support!

Dr Michael Crowley

Michael Crowley, Ed.D is a retired educationalist. In his career he has worked in primary education as a teacher/principal, in teacher training, in teacher professional development, in school evaluation and in adult education. His particular areas of interest are the history of education, school leadership and change management. He still works, from time to time, in an advisory/consultancy capacity with schools.

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