During my first or second year at Drake, we were asked to write a philosophy of education for one of my courses. I distinctly remember finding this assignment so difficult, at the time, because I didn’t understand how I was expected to already have a philosophy. Our philosophies encompass everything we have seen, learned, and experienced in education and I had seen so little at that point. Two years later and I am about to complete my student teaching before being thrust into the real world. And thanks to two wonderful and distinct student teaching experiences, my philosophy and feelings about education are so much more than they once were. Through experiencing an education and culture beyond that of what I knew, I have been able to more holistically understand education and what these understandings mean to my own teaching.
Given that it is a Westernized culture, I didn’t expect for Northern Irish education to be so different from the US. What I was met with was far beyond my expectations. Upon my arrival in this wonderful, wonderful country, I was nervous, excited, and everything in between. Through our classes at Stranmillis, I soon learned just how different this education system is. Beyond the uniforms and the differing set up of schools (‘secondary’ school being ages 11-18), the curriculum and philosophies of teaching are what stuck out the most. The curriculum, at the secondary level, is used in different ways based on what school you’re in. If you’re at a Grammar school, students will work faster and harder at more complex versions of the information. At a secondary school, however, it’s not quite the same. Most of my girls who are 15 have not been truly challenged in years. And due to this, they have such a lack of confidence and basic skill that they can’t even do the things that should be extremely easy. This system creates a vicious circle wherein the teachers don’t challenge the girls, the girls can’t complete even the simple task, the teachers tell themselves the girls are weak, and then give the girls an easier task. I have heard more teachers say that their students are weak in the last 8 weeks than I ever have in an American school.
On the flip side of this, I have seen the positive impact a single sex environment can have upon schooling. At an all girls school with primarily all female teachers, there is, at times, a greater bond than I have previously seen. The girls seem more comfortable speaking out in classes, discussing more personal things, and sharing things with their teachers and peers. And because of this primarily female environment, there seems to be a different kind of relationship going on. I’ve heard many a teacher refer to a student as “sweetheart,” “pet,” and “honey.” Beyond vocal closeness, there is much more physical closeness; little hugs, arm squeezes, and pats on the back are much more common here. Since it’s such a female dominated environment, these more personal touches seem to arise and create a stronger bond between teachers and pupils. Along with this, there is strong evidence to suggest that single-sex schooling has a positive impact on body image. Spencer and Barrett (2013) suggest that girls at an all female school cared less about weight and beauty than girls in a mixed environment.
Here in Northern Ireland there is a vastly different testing system that involves much more rigorous and high-pressure tests than anything I’ve experienced in the US. At 16, students take the GCSE and either leave school after that or, if they want to go onto university (and do well on their GCSEs), go on to A-Levels. The system here makes the US’s version of “teaching to the test” look like child’s play. Students spend weeks upon weeks preparing for the different parts of the GCSEs. They even attempt to memorize their written responses so they can just churn it out on exam day. Teachers are constantly reiterating what the students must say and do on the test in order to do well. Many of these girls are under extremely high stress—which I haven’t seen at all in students of the same age in the US. Putwain (2008) shows us that text anxiety is higher for females from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This would imply that the test anxiety at Ashfield, which has a fairly low mean income level, would be, on average, very high. With these implications in mind, it seems that something would be done about this to ease the pressure on students and allow them to do their best. This is not the case and teachers continually put high amounts of pressure on students of all ages and abilities. Even as an outsider and non-student, I found this high-stakes environment to be overwhelming. It seems like it would crush students’ creativity and personal thinking capabilities.
While the above is in no way a complete outline of my learning during these past few weeks, it is definitely the things that have stood out to me the most. As to how what I’ve learned will impact my teaching, I’m confident that I’ll be realizing ways that this has impacted me for years to come. First, and foremost, is my ability to adapt. Thanks to this experience and having to work with six different teachers for six different classes, I am so much better at adapting my teaching to a given situation than I have ever been before. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite the early stress of this situation, I truly believe that I can now go into any new teaching situation and feel okay about having to develop meaningful lessons on the fly. It’s thanks to this experience that I was willing to adapt my future plans in order to accept a long term subbing job at an elementary Montessori school. Despite having little background in these areas, I feel like I am well prepared to adapt to the situation and make a difference.
Another important impact that this experience will have on me is simply the experience of teaching a younger age group. The majority of the teaching that I’ve been doing has been for the equivalent of 6th-8th grade. The love of learning that these younger students have, compared to my other students, is amazing. It not only makes me want to teach them even more but it makes my job all the easier. Before coming here, I scoffed at the idea of teaching middle school. But now? I would take a middle school job in a heartbeat.
For the remainder of my career in education, I will be grateful for this experience that has made me a better educator. I suspect I will be able to see aspects of what I learned while here in my teaching on a day-to-day basis for many years to come.
More pictures of the graduation ceremony at Stranmillis College may be found at
by Grace Jones