Teacher-Leaders in Ireland: Lessons on Adult Culture

Recently two of our Fellowship alumnae and our Executive Director from the Greater New Orleans region visited Ireland, touring schools and meeting with members of the Northern Ireland Department of Education to learn about their system and the avenues for teacher-leadership. The trip was a reciprocal visit after several Irish and British teacher-leaders visited New Orleans last year as part of an exchange program facilitated by the British Council.

Alumna Meghan Mekita wrote some of her key observations about adult leadership in the schools she visited. Later this week, she will have a follow-up post on student leadership.

by Meghan Mekita, Leading Educators Fellow in New Orleans, Cohort 2012

Leading Educators teacher-leaders visiting a school in Ireland.

It has been one week since we returned from Belfast-just enough time to recover from jet lag and allow all that we learned to marinate a bit.

My greatest challenge in looking for best practices in Northern Ireland was reconciling the differences we in New Orleans have in terms of culture, race, and socioeconomic status. A school with 98% of students receiving free or reduced lunch was unheard of amongst the educators we spoke with. Belfast has had struggles aside from poverty, however.

Since “the troubles” ended about ten years ago, Northern Ireland is experiencing a heightened level of political correctness.

People are kind or at least cordial to one another, and discrimination is no longer institutionalized as it was, but no one seems to be talking about their differences either. The solution to the loyalist/nationalist or Protestant/Catholic divide was to separate children based on their religion. As a result, all public schools in Northern Ireland have a religious background. They are either Catholic, Protestant, or from a relatively new category called “integrated”. Students can still choose which school they wish to attend, until they reach age 11, when most students take a test to try to gain acceptance to a selective high school.

Most towns have one selective and one non-selective school.

We were definitely surprised to see prayer happen in almost every school we visited, but we also found many similarities between our system and the Irish system, and many practices to borrow.

Though we are working ourselves to the bone in New Orleans to establish schools that develop new and veteran teachers as much as possible, we are disadvantaged by the newness of our establishments. My most significant take-away was something I learned from Ian Collen at Ballyclare High School. Mr. Collen manages a staff development program that has the benefit of being 20 years in the making. His work is to direct new staff members along a pathway of mentorship, certification, career advancement, and intellectual discovery. All first year teachers spend three years in an adjustment period where they are mentored and monitored. After the three years are up, teachers are required to participate in content-based professional development through outside programs. Mr. Collen searches for teacher exchange programs, grants for teachers to travel abroad, and graduate degree programs that he can share with the staff.

My reflection is that in New Orleans, we need to develop plans within each charter network or school system to promote long-term teacher growth and longevity in the profession. Creating a map graphic of this plan and sharing it with new teachers would send the message that we value teaching as a profession and that our goal is to see teachers move through the system to positions of leadership.