December 19, 2015: Celebration and graduation for four Drake students from their educational experience at Stranmillis University College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The students were presented a golden ‘stole’ and a certificate of achievement from their host Stranmillis University College. Gold is an annual theme that was woven through the graduation ceremonies that has a special connection to the Irish author and philosopher Charles Handy. Handy taught, “To plant a golden seed is to identify a talent in someone – something they’re good at – and to point that out to them. If they trust you, it can give them the confidence to go and achieve something with it.” Principal Ann Heaslett challenged the international students to “go forth and plant golden seeds!”
The reflections of the Drake students who took part in this graduation follow:
“What then?” sang Plato’s ghost. “What then?”
This line has haunted me since I first discovered it in a small book of W. B. Yeats poems eight weeks ago. The echoed phrase resonated with me both as a traveler and as an educator. It quickly became my mantra for my experiences teaching abroad. Essentially, it asks, “So what?” I have had this tremendous opportunity to teach abroad, to meet new people, and to explore a new city. But then what? Success is not guaranteed from merely having an experience. In order to make it fruitful and truly meaningful, one needs to reflect upon how they have changed because of it. Therefore, in order to answer Plato’s ghost’s, “What then?” I need not look forward too what I will do, but look back to what I have done.
Going from student teaching in the United States to student teaching in Belfast was, at first, a shock. There seemed to be innumerable differences. However, the more time I spent in the system, the less overwhelmed I felt. Differences still exist, but they are no longer blinding. Shifting from a narrow to a broad focus was in fact quite refreshing. After having worked with such specificity for years in university and in practice, I felt more encouraged to work creativity in the classroom. Moving from specific to generalized standards, studying different effect of sources of student motivation, and experiencing different levels of respect in the classroom all specifically helped me to better myself as an educator. I have seen both positives and negatives in each system, picked out what I admired from each, and learned to apply it to my experiences both in and out of the classroom. I have become resourceful, flexible, and creative. My success in this program is truly not determined by a letter grade or a completed certificate, but by how much I have changed and improved as an educator and as a person. And should Plato’s ghost ever sing to me, “What then?” I think I would have my answer.
The time I have spent in Belfast, Northern Ireland, teaching and learning, has taught me two things: first, how education impacts the lives of students all over the world, and second, how the educational system in America differs from the educational system in Northern Ireland. With the blessed opportunity to have observed and studied both educational systems, and teach within both systems, I have found there to be three main differences between the two: curriculum design, learning and teaching strategies, and assessment. Each one of these differences impacts the way teachers plan, teach, and assess their students’ learning. Though the differences within the educational systems are identifiable, the similarities are more noticeable. From what I have learned, no matter what side of the pond you are geographically located, education is still impacting the lives of students and their learning experiences.
The first difference is that in the United States students are placed in grade levels, however, when I received my placement for my time in Northern Ireland it did not say second grade, but instead stated that I was in a Year 4, Key Stage 1 classroom. This means that Northern Ireland is based on yearly levels, not grade levels, which fall under three stages, Foundations (year 1 & 2), Key Stage 1 (year 3 & 4) and Key Stage 2 (year 5, 6, & 7). These three stages rely on The Northern Ireland Curriculum: Primary, for informing the details in which students should know at the end of each stage, not at the end of each year (CCEA, 2007). After working alongside a year 4 teacher, and teaching based off of the Northern Ireland Curriculum: Primary, Key Stage 1, I have learned the true meaning of having stage standards instead of grade level standards. I think grade level standards hold teachers more accountable for teaching students the content they need to know, instead of hoping the next year teacher will teach the content if there happens to be “no” time for it, however, there are benefits to stage standards as well. What I like about the Northern Ireland Curriculum is how it was revised to be the starting point for planning a school curriculum that meets the needs of individual children (CCEA, 2007). After this experience I have learned the importance of authenticating my time with my students, getting to know them on a level that is beyond their academics, and take their learning, my teaching to a different level. And not just any level, but a level that is more about enhancing, enriching, and authentic to the students and the world around them. The students showed me, that no matter what side of the pond you are currently on, or end up on, the impact of education in students’ lives is more noticeable then any differences that are identifiable. Thus teaching me the importance of investing my time into my students’ lives, rather than time towards making sure they know how to pass a test. For a test score does not define who my students are nor who they will be.
After every trip abroad, I’ve come home wanting more–wanting to see more; wanting to learn more; wanting to give more. Through these experiences I have come to realize how much I enjoy traveling, and how much I grow as a person in the process. When originally committing to Stranmillis and the idea of completing the second half of my student teaching abroad, I could not even begin to fathom how much I was going to learn about myself and grow as a teacher and a person. One incentive for coming was to gain clarity on whether or not I wanted to teach abroad after graduation. I was hopeful that this trip would make clear whether or not I could adapt to a new curriculum, live in a new city, and be away from home. After this powerful ten-week experience, I have a clearer depiction for my future and more confidence in my ability to be an effective teacher in the United States and abroad.
Through the process of learning all of this, I also learned that kids are kids and I have a passion for getting to know them, teaching them, and hopefully making an impact in their lives. The overall lesson plan format in Northern Ireland follows a fairly similar format to which I have experienced in my previous Drake classes and have used in my teaching placements. It includes components that have been emphasized again and again such as differentiation, learning intentions, and assessment. However, the planning process in Northern Ireland does appear to be more regulated. The teachers at Dundonald Primary School are expected to submit weekly detailed plans. The lesson plans I have seen do seem to be a bit more intensive. They specifically emphasize cross-curricular skills as well as thinking skills and and personal capabilities: managing information, thinking, problem solving, and decision making, being creative, working with others, and self-management. This does seem to create more continuity and allows for a flow from one year to the next.
Despite the differences in education, at the end of the day, it’s all about the students. They have a sense of humor, want someone to care about them, and aim to please. I have enjoyed getting to know a new educational approach, but more importantly have thoroughly loved getting to know each and every one of my students and it was exceptionally hard to say goodbye to them at the end of the experience.
The element of the unknown is apparent in the opportunity to student teach abroad in Belfast, Ireland. I entered this environment with confidence in my knowledge of educational theories, managerial skills, and overall content. As my time in Northern Ireland has come to a close, I am leaving with a more worldly perspective on education. I have been able to expand my communication skills and ability to adapt due to the circumstances that I have faced in the classroom.
Before coming to Northern Ireland, I would have never considered the United States’ education system to be simple. However comparatively, America has 2 main sectors (private or public), whereas Northern Ireland has 6 different sectors of schools. Division among the Education Department is evident here. The word often associated with assessment is test. However I have found assessment to be used differently. At the age of 6 or 7, Northern Ireland does not have written exams necessary for students to take. When reflecting on my experience specifically, assessment was referenced more so in dealing with special needs and ability level for differentiation, versus preparing students for transfer tests. My view of assessment made a small adjustment to take a look at the whole child, not just her/his performance on a test.
As a whole, this journey was eye opening and incredibly impactful. Working inside a classroom in Northern Ireland has taught me more about my teaching abilities and new techniques that I will never forget.