Leading Teaching: Empowering the Profession

Fintan O’Toole, Deputy Editor of the Irish Times addressed the attendees at the Festival of Education in Learning and Teaching Excellence on Saturday October 5th.  It’s not an understatement to say that Fintan’s guest lecture really struck a chord with the people in attendance and those who were connecting via social media.  He spoke about how so many memoirs begin with a reference to a specific teacher and used this to illustrate the importance of teachers to mould the lives of so many.  More importantly he referenced the fact that the memories that we have of teachers, are not the that they helped us to achieve an A grade, but their kindness, their understanding of our personality and our specific needs, their encouragement and their astuteness.  Teaching is  “a personal transaction . .. that to some extent can be measured but it must be allowed to transcend measurement. It is an intimate personal relationship that has a huge effect on peoples lives.”.   His understanding of the challenges facing teachers and of the importance of the relationships between teachers and their students was a breath of fresh air.  At a time when so many teachers feel under siege his empathy was reassuring.  I was very taken by his contention that

“It is very important that we don’t allow that language of so-called austerity to capture a narrative about what teaching is and what teachers do. In particular, we have to face the fact as a society, that some of the demands that we’re placing on teaching … are completely at odds with the wider social expectations that we have of what teaching is supposed to do and what it is supposed to achieve.  There is an incoherence in the public narrative of what teaching is right now that can be very damaging.”.

He then spoke about the importance of efficiency, particularly in times of austerity, but he cautioned against the limiting nature of some of the efficiency measures which can be used.  Rote learning could be regarded as being very efficient but this then leads to the question of “What do we want our students to emerge as? “.  As an economy and as a society it is crucial for our future to produce students who are confident, creative and critical.  Creating an environment to allow our students to take risks, fail, and learn from the mistakes which inevitably follow is crucial for our future.  This idea of learning from failure is a recurring idea from many across my PLN over the past few months.  The key to producing confident, creative, critical students is to have confident, creative, critical teachers.  Quoting Gandhi, Fintan challenged teachers to “be the change you want to see”.   He spoke about his concerns around teacher confidence in the face of the other three C’s of casualisation, contempt and containerisation.  The casualisation of the teaching profession undermines the professional status of teaching, will be very difficult to undo and will damage society in the long run.  The implementation of the so-called Croke Park hours is just one example of the contempt in which teachers are held and Fintan contends that if we don’t trust teachers to use the 33 hours wisely we shouldn’t trust them with our children.  He also cautioned against the containerisation of teachers and spoke of the need to support teachers in their different approaches to teaching.

In his closing remarks he focussed on the transformative power of education and the importance of investing in education particularly in the current changing global economy. His parting shot was to talk about the notion of making Ireland the “best little country in the world to be a child” rather than the “best little country in the world to do business” as posited by Enda Kenny.

You can listen to Fintan’s keynote presentation in full here.

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