Teaching in Belfast by Grace Jones


My pure exhaustion and impending cold are evidence of the fact that this past week in Belfast was our first full week in schools. It’s so hard to get back into the everyday school grind after being off of it for a few weeks!

This week was enlightening for me in many ways. I started the week off with a field trip to Derry with a group of year 9 girls as they were continuing work on some storyboards for the CS Lewis Festival, which is happening this week in Belfast. It was really interesting to see the girls interact with new, unfamiliar students as we were working with two separate schools while in Derry. This, most interestingly, involved mainly working with boys from these schools. The girls, like typical teenage girls, acted all atwitter the majority of the time but it was especially interesting to see how they changed, since I’m used to interacting with them in an all female environment. This field trip definitely got me thinking about the possible negative social effects of attending an all girls school: if these young girls don’t get used to having boys around, will they just continue conforming to stereotypes by acting silly/flustered around boys (since they’re not used to it)? This is definitely something I’m going to keep an eye on and hopefully learn more about.

The rest of the week at Ashfield was not as exciting as a field trip, but it was still wonderful to finally be getting into the groove of things and have the girls get more comfortable with me. One thing I have noticed is that all these girls already know my name (though they primarily refer to me, like with all the teachers, as “Miss”). I can tell you for a fact that many of my students at SEP weren’t 100% certain on my name even in my last week of teaching. I’m wondering if these girls know it already more because of the strong sense of respect that I see in the schools or if it’s purely because I’m interesting to them. Going along with this, I got the opportunity to team teach some this week and work on a one-on-one basis with the girls. Next week is their exam week (similar to a finals week at the end of a semester) and these exams are pretty high stakes for some of the older girls, so most of last week was spent doing some last minut prep work. I worked primarily with students in developing their essays, which they can write beforehand and just hopefully remember everything for when they get to the test. This led me to question the method of exam preparation here. Many of the essays I read were practically identical, from thesis statements to certain words to examples from the text (in this case, Of Mice and Men). In the US, while we are given ideas to work with and sentence structures, we are encouraged to be unique in our writing in order to make our essays stand out more. It seems that here there is much more teaching to the test and stressing the importance of getting in the exact things that are required to make it to a certain grade. I definitely think I prefer the US way and the power US students have in their writing.

On Thursday of last week, I got to teach on my own for a few lessons. My favorite was a lesson over functional writing and an article entitled “The Hell of Nightclubs” with some Year 12s. (If the article seems inappropriate, it’s not, since with a lower drinking age, most teenagers start going to clubs at around 16.) It was so much fun to get to discuss this article with the girls and see how their opinions differed on the topic. They were preparing for a written analysis of the text so we spent the hour walking through the different devices that the author used. Overall, it felt like a success.

One last thing before I (finally) stop writing: The week after next is “Inspection Week” for my school and it is sending everyone into unforseen levels of stress. The Northern Ireland Department of Education inspects every single school in NI every 3-5 years and Ashfiled just found out that this year is, apparently, their year. Nine inspectors will be in Ashfield every single day starting on November 25th for the whole week. They will be observing every teacher teach at least once and taking copious notes. It seems that these observations have the ability to make or break a school in many ways. I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s an equivalent, high-pressure type of inspection in the US and I couldn’t think of anything that’s quite the same. Overall, it’s definitely going to be fascinating to experience this and understand the teachers’ reactions to it.

by Grace Jones