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Opinion: 'I want to support my students, I don't want to judge them'

Times are changing, as is teaching, but we can’t lose sight of what’s important; instilling a love of learning in our students.

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I DID THE old Inter Cert (or Inter Course as we, hilariously, called it), an exam that required diligent study, fierce concentration and the ability to sit quietly and listen. The old Inter wasn’t for me. I can’t remember how I got on but I doubt that it was above a C. I didn’t, and some would say still don’t, posses any of those skills or qualities.

Despite this I still got into the “top” honours class for the (old) Leaving Cert, thanks to my teacher. He had taught me since 2nd year and obviously liked having me around. He was seen as the “top” English teacher by the students, if not the staff – but, if he was teaching now, he would be seen as a relic. His style, like all of ours, was of a certain time. Poems were read and then analysed by him, with a short class discussion followed by written questions and then an essay. No planning of the essay by him or us, no advice by him, no structure given. Just write. This was true of all writing. Just write. I was never taught the structure of a speech, story or even paragraph. I just wrote. He corrected by giving a percentage and a couple of lines as a comment.

We listened.

His knowledge and passion enveloped us and made us strive to better ourselves and improve.

Times have changed.

Group work, pair work, class discussion, class games, performance, filming, tweeting, Shakespeare inspired charades, poster making, scaffolding of paragraphs, personal responses to texts, story breakdowns… these are all part of my class, and classes all over the country. And they have been for years. Students are engaged, they debate, they disagree. Classrooms are noisier and more open. This is all for the better.

We’re not all stuck in 1989

The new JCSA, and specifically the new JC English curriculum, seems to have been designed as if these pedagogical approaches were new, as if none of us had ever heard, or thought, of them before, as if we were all stuck in 1989. I’m not alone in feeling insulted by this, but, worse, I’m not alone in feeling insulted by the implication that, before the new JCSA was announced, we didn’t really know what we were doing. That we were harming our students. That we were turning them away from learning. That we were some kind of blind, elitist, group of patronising, nostalgia-loving conservatives.

What has really changed with the introduction of the new JCSA is the amount of paperwork we now have to do to justify ourselves, to prove to the outside world that we are doing our job. The new JC has, in my view, an over-reliance on structured, prescriptive, learning objectives. These seem to many teachers imposed merely to control and straitjacket our classroom teaching but, in reality, will serve only to dumb down the process. Tick a box, fill in a form. Cover yourself. That’s the way of the world, isn’t it?

There are two main changes to the English course. Oral communication and a continuous assessment element. When you look at how the former is to be assessed you soon realise that it isn’t about communication per se but really about how to make a business style presentation. Seen Dragon’s Den? That’s it, but with PowerPoint.

Is the new JCSA really about creating business people? Are we just creating ‘workers’? Is this the fulfilment of our educational ideals? What about self expression? What about the holistic development of the person?

Continuous Assessment, where students work on a portfolio of work over a number of months, has its flaws. Who will really be rewriting those short stories? Mummy/daddy/brother/sister? Grind? Website? Teacher? Will it by like learning off notes and preprepared essays without the learning?

The heart of teachers’ concerns

But the flaws in both elements can be worked out, fixed, after all there are many similar elements present in the current Junior Cert. What can’t be fixed is the loss of integrity surrounding a teacher assessing his/her own students. This is at the heart of teachers’ concerns. Let me be clear:

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I want to teach the new JCSA, I just don’t want to correct it.

I want to support my students, I don’t want to judge them.

I want the students, and their parents, to trust the system, just like they do now.

But all of this pales into insignificance when we look at what is coming ; standardised tests.

These are what will really change the Junior Cycle. If you thought that the pressure on 3rd years was bad wait ’til the 2nd years have to do these tests.

My old English teacher loved English and we loved him for it. We sat there enthralled by his knowledge and passion. Times are changing, as is teaching, but we can’t lose sight of what’s important; instilling a love of learning in our students. He did it back in the ’80s because we trusted him and, by keeping external assessment, that, crucial, element will remain.

Conor Murphy is an English teacher. He is member of the ASTI and serves on the Central Executive Council of the union.

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About the author:

Conor Murphy

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