I attended a terrible primary school : apart from the teacher in the infants’ class, the other three varied between hopelessly incompetent and simply deranged. All my teachers at primary school were middle aged women. Two of the four were so bad that they spent a good deal of their time either crying, pleading with the class, or exploding in fits of violence. It was a disaster for them and us, but that was how it was. Parents complained to the board of management – but the main voice there was the parish priest and he supported his teachers to the last. And anyway, even if he hadn’t there probably wasn’t much he could do. This was the late 70s, but even now it is almost impossible to have incompetence teachers removed. The only thing I would hope is that they are rare and that on average most children get decent, capable teachers.
It is secondary that I wanted to talk about, but primary has a huge bearing on how a child fares in secondary. Those who say primary is a crucial foundation are right. When I arrived in secondary I felt that I was far behind the other students. In everything from history, to maths, to Irish, they were years ahead of me.
At our school we did exams every Christmas and I recall that the message from my first set of exams was that I had a lot of catching up to do. Thankfully I developed an appetite for study and over the course of the junior cycle I made up the lost ground. But I was probably lucky. I could easily have become disheartened or found that I couldn’t bridge the gap, in which case I would have joined that quarter of the class or so who never returned for the senior cycle.
The truth is that I didn’t really hate any subjects, but my interest was usually a direct function of the effectiveness of the teacher. I was unlucky again in Irish, English, and French, finding myself with two of the schools weakest teachers. (I had the same one for French as English).
I dropped classical studies (my year was the first where this was offered in place of Latin) after first year, and also dropped Commerce, choosing instead to stick with woodwork and technical drawing. I excelled at all the technical subjects and in the end got very high results in subjects like drawing, maths, and the sciences. But my progress in the languages had stalled.
I had a moderate interest in Irish but the teacher hadn’t. His passion was Gaelic football and he spent large parts of the class talking to the footballers about results or forecasts (I had no interest in sport of any kind and used this time to scribble or write obscenities into the margins of my textbooks). English and French were even worse. The teacher had no command of the class – or her subject matter. I never really read any of the texts. In the end, for my intercert (now the called the junior cert) I scraped a C in English and French and a D in Irish.
I remember well the day the results came out. I walked into the principal’s office to see how it went. He was beaming. I had done very well overall. He said I had 8 honours, among them five As. I was ecstatic. I hadn’t expected to do half as well. Standing beside the principal was the Irish teacher, a dour look on his face, and as I took the slip with the results he said ungraciously, “obviously languages aren’t your strong point”.
It hit a nerve, for I can still feel the way his comment deflated my sense of joy in my achievement.
For the senior cycle I was again unfortunate with teachers. Apart from one year I had the same dreadful Irish teacher, and again the same teacher for English. Thankfully I had a much better French teacher. I made up ground in French, getting a B in the end. But I only scraped a C in English and Irish.
I know now that there was nothing at all wrong with my ability to learn languages. During my first year in college I took up evening classes in Irish. It became a passion and I read voraciously in Irish throughout college and spend several summers in the Gaeltacht. Years later I was to spend three years in France and made very good headway with the language. In English too I developed a taste for literature – and even writing.
My experience has taught me this much about education. One, the competence of the teacher is vital. A capable teacher can be inspiring and can draw students toward their subject. Two, students should never give up. Learning is indeed lifelong, and with a bit of dedication you can amaze yourself at how well you can learn even a subject you might not terribly like. Better still you might discover a way in to a subject that makes you realize you kind of like it after all. Three, never allow yourself to be categorised. I believe that the boxing of people into learner types is artificial. So and so is great at maths and so and so is great at language. True, different subjects require different skills and abilities, but after all, even at the end of the senior cycle the goal is not mastery or deep learning, but to get a very solid foundation, and that can be achieved by any student in any subject.