Category Archives: Northern Ireland

Finding Home by Nicole Kincius

If you’re reading this, it must be because you are considering studying abroad in Belfast, Northern NicoleIreland. Congratulations on getting this far! Let’s be real; the decision to dive into such an unfamiliar experience can be daunting. But I’m here to tell you that in the end, it will all be worth it.

Preparing to study at Stranmillis wasn’t without its worries. In the week before flying outside of the country I’ve called home for the past couple of decades –for the first time, might I add—my mind was constantly filled with anxious thoughts: What if I don’t make any friends? What if I don’t have enough space in my luggage? What if I get too homesick?

I realized pretty quickly that I could handle all of these worries because I’ve already experienced them before; I felt similar feelings when I first left home and came to Drake. Besides, as soon as I arrived, all of these worries seemed to disappear. As soon as I set foot on Northern Ireland soil, I found myself with a great group of people in my program. We got to meet each other before even thinking of going to school; it was nice to know I had people I could talk to if I needed anything. We were shown around the city, and told where the best places to shop and eat could be found. I started settling into living in an entirely different country. It really helped that the people in Northern Ireland are naturally helpful and friendly, and that the staff at Stranmillis were willing to do anything to help us feel more comfortable.

Now, fast-forward two months. Here I am, an entirely new person, living a previously unimaginable life in an international country. I got used to the striking differences, like driving on the opposite sides of the road, using a foreign currency, and eating different name brands of food. I’ve walked around historical sites that are thousands of years old, I’ve learned bits and pieces of new languages from my international friends, and I’ve been amazed time and time again by the natural beauty of this island. I believe that I wouldn’t have branched out if I hadn’t realized early on that this time abroad was an opportunity for me to expand my definition of myself. There’s a balance that I’ve found here, a balance between stretching my personal limits and staying true to myself.

So, good luck in your decision-making and planning! I could tell you all about the culture in Dublin, or the breath-taking views at the Giant’s Causeway, or the fun times observing and volunteering in schools in Belfast, but I’ll let you discover those things for yourself. I’d just like to say that Belfast is no longer just a far away land, or even a temporary study location. It’s become my home, just like Des Moines became my home while I studied at Drake. We have traditions here, like visiting St. George’s Market every Friday to get cupcakes from the same baker, or going to Thursday Night Live, the weekly talent show at Stranmillis. We’ve established standard places to hang out, like the Birdcage on Sunday nights for live jazz performances, or the Lagan Valley park for a relaxing walk on a (rare) sunny day. I’m even going to miss doing the routine acts, like going on Tesco runs or shopping at Primark for reasonably priced outfits.

All of these experiences have contributed to an amazing two months, but they are not even the best part. So far, the most magical part of travelling has been realizing that I haven’t left home by studying abroad; I’ve found it here.

Graduation – Fall 2015


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:

Jackie Klein

“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.

Jennifer Quanrud

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.

Mary Stang

 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.

Elyse Webb

 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.

“Borrowing Belfast” – Britney Mathiesen

britneyStudying abroad was something that came out of nowhere and surprised me with a life-changing experience. I had not premeditated the idea for very long before an opportunity to travel to Belfast, Northern Ireland arrived on my doorstep. With only two weeks to gather the necessary application requirements, I dove in headfirst and made this adventure a top priority. I maneuvered the application process and anxiously awaited the email that told me I had been accepted into the program. Still, though, when that acceptance email came, the reality of this trip had not yet hit me. Fall semester 2013 found me anticipating a semester abroad that I could not even fathom before I stepped off the plane in Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom.

Part of me was afraid, of course, because I only knew one person who would be joining me on this trip. But most of all I was excited for an opportunity for personal, social, and academic growth. I met some really cool people right off the bat, and the Northern Irish natives really helped make this new city feel like home. My memories of the first few days are still a bit hazy, thanks to jet-lag, but I was left with an overwhelming feeling of welcome.

Unlike a lot of my friends who have studied abroad or plan to, my goal for the trip was to live in Belfast. I wasn’t concerned with traveling Europe every weekend or checking off as many things of my bucket list as I could. What I wanted to do was understand what life was like for someone who had grown up in Belfast. I was hoping to gain a better understanding of the social, political, and religious climate and experience the aftermath of some of the history of the place.

With this approach to my experience, I was able to get the most out of Belfast as a city, as well as the surrounding areas. I visited Galway once with my parents, and Dublin and the North Coast twice. These experiences were incredible. The people were friendly, the scenery was breathtaking, and the adventure was irreplaceable, even if I did feel quite a bit of nausea traveling on a different side of the road!

I created a life for myself in Belfast, eating at least one Ulster Fry (huge Irish breakfast) a week and “beans on toast” (like the Northern Irish college kid’s ramen) for many of my meals. I got close with locals and created memories I will cherish forever. I was also able to further my education in a system that was very different from the one in which I grew up.

Stranmillis University College (the Education College of Queen’s University) took me in and treated me as a Northern Irish student. The expectations were the same, though some of the guidance was differentiated for me. The content was challenging, but what was even more challenging was the cultural diversity I felt being the only American sitting in the classroom. It was quite the experience for me, and one that I will apply to my future teaching. I was also able to do a placement (like a practicum) in a P1 classroom (students were 4-5 years old). I learned so much from this experience, and I adored every opportunity to travel to the school and learn alongside the kids.

Overall, my study abroad experience challenged my perceptions of the world, education, and myself. I grew personally, socially, and academically, and would not trade these lessons and experiences for anything.

For more than one reason, leaving Belfast broke my heart. But I value my education here at Drake, and I will honor the lessons I learned across the pond. Perhaps someday I will head back to Ireland, but for now I will be content with the notion that I “borrowed” Belfast. It’s time to make the most out of home.

Gaining Understanding – Mary Stang



It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been in Belfast for one week. The amount of things that we’ve learned, number of people we’ve talked to, and experiences we’ve had blow me away. I can honestly say that despite the jet lag and slightly overwhelmed feeling, I couldn’t be happier. The people have been nothing but welcoming, hospitable, nice, and incredibly helpful. The city is beautiful and there is so much I’m looking forward to exploring and experiencing. The sun has even managed to make a few appearances and the weather hasn’t been too bad minus the sporadic rain showers that seem to be inevitable.

This week has been jam-packed with various orientation sessions at Stranmillis and we’ve also had a few opportunities to explore some of Belfast. The sessions were meant to help us gain an understanding of where we will be spending our time for the next ten weeks, the resources available to us as Stranmillis students, and how their education system is similar and different to that of the system at home in the U.S. While at times it was overwhelming and not always the most interesting of topics, the information provided definitely helped with settling in.

My favorite sessions were on Thursday because we finally got to discuss more about education. In the morning we spent our time with Ms. Curry and we discussed what we would change if we had a magic wand. It was interesting to have this discussion and learn how some of our concerns, such as who is making policies and laws regarding education, perception of the teaching profession, and resources available to disadvantaged children, were consistent across the board. Other issues, like the Catholic versus Protestant struggles, are more specific to Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see the passion and love for teaching and children from every person in the room regardless of their background. The afternoon session was just as encouraging because we got to hear from a primary and post primary principal who clearly love and are good at what they do. By the end, we were all definitely ready and looking forward to taking on our first day of school.

Overall, the settling in process has been seamless. The UVA students have been very easy to get along with and a pleasure to get to know. The Stranmillis students have been incredibly welcoming and helpful. The cab drivers have been full of information and advice. The university staff has gone above and beyond to make us feel comfortable. We’ve done things and seen things, but there’s so much more out there. I can’t wait to see what the next nine weeks have in store for us!

A New Culture and Atmosphere – Jennifer Quanrud



My first week in Belfast, No. Ireland has officially come and gone and what an experience it has been so far! When first arriving at Stranmillis University College I was not only experiencing a new culture, but jet lag as well. Pushing through the jet lag and drinking all the black tea or coffee that crossed my path, I was able to take in the new culture and atmosphere from my new home away from home. The day I was leaving the United States to the time I was flying over the Atlantic Ocean I had continuous butterflies in my stomach and was not one hundred percent sure what I had signed myself up for. However, the moment I stepped onto Northern Ireland’s soil my butterflies disappeared.

Ever since arriving in Northern Ireland the atmosphere has been so welcoming and the citizens have been so kind, patient, and helpful. Though I, and the other international students, are still in the process of meeting new people, the people we have interacted with have been so kind, welcoming, and patient with answering the thousands of questions we have as “outsiders” and explaining what certain words mean to us when we do not understand, such as craic, which means great fun! Meeting faculty and students of Stranmillis who are authentic and real, has truly affected my initial thoughts and feelings of the city and the University, which are only good ones! Without these interactions and the guidance we have received from the faculty of Stranmillis, I do not think I could already say Stranmillis is my home away from home.

Because I am able to call Stranmillis home after just one week, I would stress to anyone who is traveling abroad that interacting with anyone, and everyone, that crosses your path is vital to your experience. I would also inform any travelers that if a situation arrises that gives you a positive discomfort because it is something that is outside your comfort zone, dive in and soak it all up! When arriving in Belfast and talking to a wise Irish women she informed me that “What doesn’t challenge you doesn’t change you.”  Allowing this quote to be my motto for the duration of my adventure here in Ireland has allowed me to get a solid first taste of what Belfast, and Stranmillis, has to offer.

A Wee Dote – Jaclyn Klein


What a whirlwind of a week I’ve had! From the long flights to the bustling city and schools, it’s truly been both an exhausting and exhilarating experience. Although I was a bit disoriented while waiting for the jet lag to fade, I was still ardently focused on two things: getting a feel for Stranmillis University College as a school and picking up on the local accents and phrases.

On the whole, Stranmillis took me by surprise. The campus itself is beautiful and filled with trees just beginning to turn a spectrum of colors for the autumn season. Being the in the middle of the city of Belfast, Stranmillis is a sort of scenic oasis from the industrial. An unexpected trait of the college is how hilly it is.  As I’m sure my fellow travelers would agree, there are some hills on campus that require iron will and sometimes mountain gear to overcome. Even local students agree that it’s a doozy. On that note, I have found all of the staff and students at Stramillis to be overwhelmingly friendly and helpful. It may just be that I have the look of a confused American, but I have never had trouble finding help here when I’ve needed it.

That help normally comes in some form of accent or phrasal translation. Coming from an English speaking country to another English speaking country, I did not think I would have as much trouble understanding the locals as I do. Because English already fascinates me, I took special interest in discovering how their language operated. First of all, and most shockingly, “wee” does not always refer to “small.” It may mean something closer to “a little bit” or occasionally thrown in randomly. It’s very colloquial, as I have heard Dubliners comment on the seemingly improper usage by Belfastians. Because of this, I have been relying heavily on my ability to use context clues and other comprehension tricks to better understand what people mean. However, there are certain circumstances when I have absolutely no hope of pulling meaning out of an adage or asking for a sixth repetition of a phrase. It’s at this point that I have found I can rely on the Irish friendliness to throw me a line and declare me “a wee dote.”



Today marks the 7th full day I have been in Belfast, Northern Ireland preparing to embark on an educational journey. I am in a completely new environment, living alongside others from around the world, and acclimating to a different money system. I am enrolled in Stranmillis University College. To Americans, this name may sound odd, considering our standard way of communicating about higher education. Personally, it was not until the second day here when I finally understood the differences. Stranmillis is the teaching college of Queen’s University Belfast. Imagine if Drake’s education building on University Avenue had it’s own land, separate name and multiple buildings about ½ mile from the center of campus.

Although it is different, I am very impressed with the amount of amenities provided solely for teacher education. We have our own dining hall, main lecture buildings, library, residence halls, student unions, and administrative building. We are just a wee walk from the City Centre and most stores in Belfast, as well. The first few days were jam packed with informational sessions, group trips to grab necessities and time spent sipping on tea while getting to know others in our program.

The overarching emotion I felt throughout the first week was being genuinely welcomed. From every staff member to the program coordinator to students on campus, people would always greet me by saying “Yer very welcome here. So glad yee could join us.” There is not a doubt in my mind that they really meant it. Resources such as the Students Union, International Office and Dr. Audrey Curry have supported our transition very well. I feel comfort to ask questions from how do I do laundry to what is the purpose of education.

I can tell I will be learning more about myself both as a teacher and individual while I am away from America for 10 weeks. I am excited to start experiencing life in Northern Ireland from inside and outside of the classroom within my time here!

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

Graduation from Stranmillis University College by Grace Jones


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

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