“Wild Christian brothers sharpening their leathers / Learn it by heart, that’s the rule / All I remember is dreading September and school” – Mick Hanly
In his book, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, Bill George observes that, “reframing our stories enables us to recognise that we are not victims at all but people shaped by experiences that provide the impetus for us to become leaders.” My narrow, parochial, secondary school years left an impact on who I am and on what I believe about schools and learning today.
My school had some good teachers. There were a few teachers who connected with students with great skill and insight. There were also priests and lay teachers who were decent human beings, but ultimately did not seem happy with their lot or capable of imparting anything more than a vague sense of mediocrity. This was also a time of ubiquitous corporal punishment in Ireland and latent aggression from unexceptional clergymen who wielded authority as a blunt instrument and a constant threat. I found my voice through my love of literature and I discovered that I could express myself on the sports field. These things sustained me. I came away from that experience with a resolve to succeed academically, to be respectful of others, to take the principles of that unenlightened time and to apply them to whatever circumstance I found myself in later in life.
Conor Pope, a fellow graduate of the school, writing in The Irish Times in 2011, described it as a “school run by a collection of humourless priests, violent and often profoundly stupid … a place where independent thought was not encouraged.” Physical punishment was prevalent as a means of “motivating” learning. Pope concludes his assessment of the school by thanking it for helping him to, “decide what I wanted and, crucially, what I didn’t want out of life.” Herein, I believe, may lie my unconscious motivation for being attracted to a career in education. It has always been my sense that schools should be places of joy, of care, of forming personal connections, of locating personal passions, and of young people and teachers feeling supported and respected.
I left my school in 1983. Writing in The Irish Times in 1982, around the time that corporal punishment was finally banned in Irish schools, Christina Murphy reported from a teachers’ conference in which delegates articulated a belief that the challenges facing Irish education could be largely attributed to a failure of leadership among school principals and “the irrelevance of the curriculum”. I think, like many, that my adult beliefs on education and learning were shaped by my personal school experiences and a quest for “relevance”. In both a conscious and unconscious sense I have tried to take those experiences with me as a teacher and school leader with a desire to respect the following fundamental beliefs:
Context is everything. There needs to be a firm conviction that students and teachers will flourish in the right setting, one in which all community members are given the time and encouragement to learn and to be themselves. School leaders need to make this explicit.
Each individual has a unique story to tell. One can never assume that each individual story is predictable or straightforward, but in that very personal story may be the heart of what allows people to become talented students and inspiring teachers. Each school should provide an individual who ensures that the voice of each student and teacher can be heard when needed.
Everyone can learn. In the right, supportive environment, students with struggles can soar; teachers just learning their craft can change lives. A great school provides strong support for all members of the community.
A safe place is a right. Inappropriate behaviour, whether from a student, teacher, parent, or administrator has no place in an organisation charged with nurturing growth and learning.
Schools need to provide opportunities for individuals to find their voice. Whether the avenue is academics, sports, the arts, writing, designing, leading or supporting others, there must be multiple ways for young people to locate their personal, sustaining passion.
We are in the business of second chances. Young people make mistakes, that should be a given in an organisation in the learning business. Teachers also have the right to learn from their mistakes. If the focus is on learning from mistakes together, everyone will learn.
Conscious intentionality needs to lie at the heart of our words and actions. Uncertainty in the global workplace and society is here to stay. It is now trite to state the obvious – that we may not know what jobs we are preparing our young people for, but we need to be aware that we are shaping the people they will become and we need to be aware of this.
Looking back on my own school days, I really don’t feel it was the awful experience that it was for many. There were enough caring teachers along the way to make it tolerable and I discovered ways of developing confidence in my own abilities, something I largely credit my parents with. But I can’t imagine ever looking forward to returning to school at the start of a new school year the way I see students do today. At the end of the day, school leadership is about ensuring that the conditions in which students and teachers will flourish are created and sustained and, just maybe, a desire that, one day, a fulfilled adult will reflect on her school days with a recognition that her school got it just right. That’s the kind of impetus one hopes for.