Graduation from Stranmillis University College by Caitlin O’Donnell


My time teaching and learning in Belfast have given me so much perspective on the powerful impact education has on students, and how that educational system differs between Northern Ireland and the USA. From curricular differences to assessment, these two systems are more alike than dissimilar, but the differences seem to create large differences in how learners learn and teachers teach on either side of the pond. I have been lucky enough to have many wonderful mentor teachers both here in Belfast and back in Iowa, and they have taught me that no matter the cultural differences, best practice is consistent and compassionate.

The most striking differences when I first arrived are still the ones I get student questions about most. Uniforms, age 11-18 secondary schools, and the prevalent use of the word “wee” all seemed to be very, very different from my little middle school in Iowa. Of all the differences which were immediately apparent, though, the one which I believe has the biggest impact on schools here is the single-sex education. My time at Girls’ Model has proven to me that in many ways, single-sex education can be wildly successful. In my middle school classroom in Iowa, students flirt, pass notes, and choose to pay much more attention to the opposite sex than they do their grammar lesson. Research seems to indicate that in coed classrooms, girls suffer from not speaking up, and boys often struggle in English classes which unintentionally end up catering more to girls’ needs.

Not so in Belfast. There are fewer distractions in an all-girl’s school, and I’ve noticed many 11 and 12-year-old girls who are jumping out of their seats to answer questions. They are less concerned about impressing the opposite gender, and this seems to allow more participation in activities such as reader’s theater, debates, and impassioned discussions.  At the same time, these girls are not learning how to interact with boys as friends, peers, and equals. They giggle when I so much as mention One Direction, and I am worried that while they show great speaking abilities in front of their female peers, this might not translate in coed environments. My other reservation is the impact of this polarization for transgender students, or other students who feel uncomfortable conforming to a gender binary. The single-sex system has many benefits, but not without some marked disadvantages.

I’ll admit that I was extremely confused when I first looked at a Northern Irish curriculum map, but when it comes to teaching students life, work, and world skills, Northern Ireland is blowing the US out of the water. Not only do they address “Learning for Life and Work” skills in each and every unit, but these are broken down into manageable chunks and students are assured intentional instruction on multiple life skills. While writing my lesson plans, I plan to teach “Reading Macbeth” standards right along with “self-assessment” and “speaking and listening.” Skills ranging from media literacy to group work are part of the curriculum along with math and reading, and this has been such an effective way to help grow well-rounded students. It’s obviously part of best practice (in any country or culture) to teach students life skills along with grammar, but the Northern Irish system ensures that there are fewer holes in student’s knowledge and abilities.


One double-edged sword of the Northern Irish school system is the policies and funding surrounding special needs students. In the US, I often feel that students with severe or profound special needs are given so few resources and advantages when compared to the “regular” students in their schools. We preach inclusion, but these kids are often pushed to the side, and on a visit to a special needs-specific school in Belfast, I realized just what these kids are missing. Tor Bank School has sensory rooms, art therapy, individual “communication passports” for each kid, a local pool to take them swimming and many other resources that no public school in the US could even dream of providing to their special needs students. This school offers support to parents of children as young as six months, and being in a school that provides these students with such strong resources and staff to kid ratio made me officially decide that if I ever have a special needs child, I’m coming back to Belfast.

The only trouble with such phenomenal funding and separate facilities for students with severe and profound disabilities is that mainstream schools seem less able to provide for and support other students with special needs. The Girls’ Model levels out their English classes so that students are all with other girls at their level, but this sometimes means that instead of making accommodations for a student with, say, dyslexia, she will be moved down a level. Getting students a statement (which is essentially a legally-binding Individual Education Plan) requires a good deal of work. I don’t by any stretch mean to imply that the teachers or administration here don’t care about a girl like her; that’s not it at all. It’s just that in such a leveled out system without funding or Special Ed trained classroom assistants, students like a couple of my girls get lost in the shuffle.

I can’t believe my time in Belfast is nearly over. I’ve had so much fun traveling and exploring on the weekends, but truly my time in the classroom has been the most life-changing part of this study abroad experience. I think between the starkly contrasting classroom management, assessment, and curriculum, there has to be some sort of happy medium between these two systems, and at the very least, I think my future classroom, wherever it is, will be a good place to start.

by Caitlin O’Donnell