With enduring thanks to Amy – For reminding me how much I loved teaching, and being an ever-present reminder that care is at the heart of what we do.

I’m not a fan of the holidays. I don’t enjoy the period of seemingly forced reflection. But, as a new decade dawns, I’m indeed finding myself in a state of forced reflection. This time around, it’s given me some new insight.

I started work as a Learning Technologist at NUI Galway nearly five years ago, but my career has been varied. I moved home to Ireland in 2007, and soon after, the job market had all but dried up, and I was in trouble. Having been a secondary school teacher in Connecticut for a few years after college, I had some decent experience and postgraduate qualifications, but I had hit a dry spell.

In December 2009, I had just spent an entire semester unemployed. Right before Christmas, I got a phone call from my old primary school. They were looking for a substitute special needs assistant for a maternity leave cover.

I was ecstatic. It meant a noticeable pay cut, and it was not a much-coveted teaching position, but it meant that I could earn just enough to get by for a while. It meant that I could actively look for a teaching position and there would be no hard feelings if I left before the contract ended.

I was grateful to be able to make a contribution to education again and to make a living wage. So, in January 2010 I became the substitute SNA at my old primary school. I had left that same school at only eleven years of age completing fifth and sixth class at the same time, but I was humbled to return.

I would have two more lengthy stints of unemployment throughout the decade and spend two more school years where I was barely employed. I would finish the substitute SNA position and spend the following year out of work. Periods like that are hard to recover from. It takes an emotional toll. It takes a financial toll. And it’s particularly hard when you really love teaching. There’s nothing more painful than wanting to get out there to make a difference, and simply not being allowed to.

It also served to remind me that working in education is not a right, but a true privilege. I was humbled to undertake any work that I could, and I also found myself reeling many times throughout the years when I would hear colleagues complain. When you’re in a position of precarity for so many years, it can be extremely difficult to remain anything other than grateful and enthused. I’ve rarely had the privilege of being secure enough to challenge things.

The decade changed dramatically for me in the 2011/12 school year. I had returned from a visit to the States to the sad realisation that I was about to enter my second year of unemployment. That was until I received a phone call from a local principal asking me to interview for a full-time position that ticked all the boxes. I had snagged a full-time contract teaching at St. Joseph’s College, Summherhill for a full year. This meant I would get paid in the summer as well, which I hadn’t been for many years.

I had spent so long waiting for a break to come that I made one promise to myself; I would just get on with the job. I would take some time to breathe and enjoy job security. This was to be my time, and I would be selfish and enjoy it. I promised myself that I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in things, or care too much.

That lasted for a couple of weeks. What I didn’t realise was that the higher level 6th year class I was taking on had lost their teacher to breast cancer the previous year. The grief in the air was palpable, and they were well behind where they needed to be. I walked into a classroom piled high with the late Joan O’Brien’s belongings and her memorial card perched on the shelf above my computer.

I played the strict, demanding teacher for a few weeks, but that’s not who I am. In some schools, that level of control and rigour is rewarded, and I needed a permanent job. Fortunately, that’s not how things worked in Summerhill. As I got to know my students, especially my sixth years, I couldn’t maintain the facade.

I’ve always been the nice teacher. I’ve always been an advocate, and my students’ greatest champion. I’m passionate about what I do. I could march up and down the room ranting about my favourite plays or poets for hours on end. I’m the disheveled teacher – the one that accidentally wears two different shoes to work. I’m the one that will laugh at myself, and fully admit my imperfections. After all, we’re all human, and we’re all in this together.

Who I really was as a teacher was in stark contrast to the never-ending job hunt that I’d spent so many years meandering through. The job hunt makes you laser-focused, you develop tunnel vision, and it makes you inherently selfish. I spent so long talking about ‘the job’ that it became my white whale. The year that unfolded in Summerhill reminded me that getting the job was not my white whale, finding my sense of purpose was.

The year I spent in Summerhill was chaotic and joyous. I would do it again and again if I could. The sixth years had so much to cover at such a critical time. They should have been nearly finished the senior cycle curriculum but had only made a dent. I spent the entire year on edge. We worked hours a day after school. We never stopped.

When I look back at that time, I’m reminded of everything I love about teaching. It was messy and chaotic. It was equal parts painful and triumphant. It was joyous and at times, so sad. Education, after all, is about people. Every person in a classroom brings their own unique experience, and it is what we do in that moment that makes a difference. It is in those relationships that we learn, build trust, and grow. And the teacher grows, too. Hell, that year, I was the one that grew most of all.

The 2011/12 school year was pivotal for me in so many ways. I also attended my first CESI conference. For a long time, I had experimented with technology in the classroom. It was one constant when you are forced to move from job to job, across sectors and subjects. I talked a bit about this on Gettin’ Air with Terry Greene recently.

When I walked into the 2012 conference, I knew I had found my people. I had barely attended any CPD since moving home, but here I found over two hundred teachers spending a weekend focusing on CPD. After that, I never missed a conference. I paid my way each year, even when I didn’t have the money. I knew the experience was invaluable. CESI is unique in that it is cross-sectoral. That network helped me become a Learning Technologist. Now, I find myself Secretary of the National Executive, and conference organiser for the past two years.

I have been reminded recently that my go-to catchphrase throughout the 2011/12 year was, ‘I remain cautiously optimistic’. I had to keep repeating it as we powered through a dense curriculum at warp speed when we should have been revising and practicing for the exam. To be honest, I didn’t really know if I could get it done, but I was willing to run myself into the ground trying. I still stand by the idea of cautious optimism. After all, what else do we have?

By August 2012, my sixth years had come out the other side unscathed, but my contract was up. I reluctantly cleaned out my classroom, and took many of Joan O’Brien’s belongings home with me. I couldn’t leave them there knowing that a woman’s legacy might be tossed away. When I was turning out the lights for the last time, I noticed a picture of Sylvia Plath on the floor. I stuck it up on the whiteboard, looked around, and said my farewells to the ghosts of Room 12.

I was about to spend another year mostly unemployed aside from three hour night class I taught once a week. It was soul destroying. Summerhill had changed everything. It had served as a stark reminder that I care very deeply about what I do, and I would make every effort to help students in any capacity that I could. The stars had aligned that year in so many ways.

In 2013/14, I managed to get some teaching hours. I taught a total of eight, and sometimes ten hours per week in three locations. I was not making enough to live on, and I was not allotted time or allowances for a demanding travel schedule.

My Thursday was downright ridiculous. I would drive from my home in Athlone to Mountbellew to teach for two hours. I would use my lunch to travel to Athenry to teach one forty-minute class period. From there, I would drive home and stop for a little while before heading out to a night class in Banagher. This is what my drive looked like.

I had nearly forgotten about this until a Facebook memory popped up a little while ago. I had posted this picture of my cozy sitting room one gloomy November evening as I headed out to my third school of the day.

It would have been fine if I had been able to live on the wages I was making at all, but I wasn’t getting by. I was tired.

I taught what was to be my last class in April 2015 in Athenry. At the end of the day, on a Friday before the Easter holidays, my sixth years stood up and gave me a standing ovation when the bell rang. Of course, this reduced me to a puddle of tears, and many gifts and hugs were exchanged. I had left many positions before, but this time it felt final. I had no idea what was to happen next, but I felt that change was coming.

I was petrified that I would not find work until September, and all signs seemed likely that I wouldn’t However, in the summer of 2015, I applied for a post as a Learning Technologist at NUI Galway for a three month period. Little did I know I would be kept on in the same role for nearly five years now. In all my working years, I have never been so secure, but I’m still not permanently full time.

In 2017, Summerhill merged with St. Aloysius College to become Coláiste Chiaráin. The first years I had taught were graduating that year, and I was invited along. I had never noticed the meaning of the school’s motto. Seeing the decorations reading, ‘Through Kindness and Effort’ reduced me to tears. It all seemed so fitting. My favourite year — the year that reminded me of all the inherent messiness and joy of teaching, was all about kindness and effort. I loved it – nowhere was there any mention of ‘excellence’ or ‘rigour’. The message was so simple, and just so lovely.

My work will always be anchored upon these experiences. I will soldier on cautiously optimistic. I approach education with a view to be kind, and to make my best effort.

The last ten years were tough. The lean periods were much too long. The happy periods were much too short. The years settling in at NUI Galway have been rife with unease as I try to learn to settle in. It’s hard to take that deep breath when you’ve spent so long being uneasy and unsure.

Sometimes that unease plays out in front of the classroom. At Summerhill, the sixth years were due to read ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’. I have always been an avid Brian Friel fan, and it was hard to avoid the passages that mirrored our mutually desperate situations. Room 12 often felt like Ballybeg, and I felt like my counterpart, Kate, the school teacher trying to hold it all together. At one point, Kate laments:

KATE. You work hard at your job. You try to keep the

home together. You perform your duties as best you can –

because you believe in responsibilities and obligations and

good order. And then suddenly, suddenly you realize that hair

cracks are appearing everywhere; that control is slipping away;

that the whole thing is so fragile that it can’t be held together

much longer. It’s all about to collapse, Maggie.

Every time I read this aloud and discussed Kate’s role as the matriarch, and the transitional time that the Mundy family, and indeed rural Ireland, was experiencing, I felt a chill and a stark reminder that fiction had become reality. I had no idea if everything I was trying to control was all about to crack, but I was trying my best. I still have that dogeared copy of the play close to hand – I always know where to find it.

Friel writes about memory so elegantly, and in ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’, he ends the play with the most beautiful narration:

And so, when I cast my mind back to that summer of 1936,

different kinds of memories offer themselves to me.

But there is one memory of that Lughnasa time that visits

me most often; and what fascinates me about that memory

is that is owes nothing to fact. In that memory atmosphere is

more real than incident and everything is simultaneously

actual and illusory. I that memory, too, the air is nostalgic with

the music of the thirties. It drifts in from somewhere far away

— a mirage of sound – a dream music that is both heard

and imagined; that seems to be both itself and its own echo;

a sound so alluring and so mesmeric that the afternoon is

bewitched, maybe haunted, by it. And what is so strange about

that memory is that everybody seems to be floating on those

sweet sounds, moving rhythmically, languorously, in complete

isolation; responding more to the mood of the music than to

its beat. When I remember it, I think of it as dancing. Dancing

with eyes half closed because to open them would break the spell.

Dancing as if language had surrendered to movement

— as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the

way to speak, to whisper private and sacred things, to be in

touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life

and all its hopes might be found in those assuaging notes and

those hushed rhythms and in those silent and hypnotic movements.

Dancing as if language no longer existed because

words were no longer necessary …

In 2012, the music was not from the Marconi, but from the iPod. This time around, it was an American punk rock band that provided the soundtrack that will forever entwine music and memory.

While this post is obviously focusing on my professional self, and not the personal, I find the personal and professional hopelessly intertwined at times. In particular, the Summerhill year was an emotional one. That year, I discovered a band called The Menzingers and their seminal album, ‘On the Impossible Past’. I loved the literary allusions, the chaotic melodies, the bombastic sing-alongs, and everything in between. I listened to it on repeat. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the band became my Artist of the Decade. Everything about that album evokes memories from that year. Every song evokes a ‘memory atmosphere’.

For posterity, here are some playlists.

As the decade comes to a close, they have released another record, ‘Hello Exile’, and it has more than met my emotional and sonic expectations. It’s only fitting that many of the songs have formed my soundtrack to round off a tumultuous ten years.

Closing this post is difficult, as it was meant to cover so many things. The past decade defined who I was as an educator. I am forever grateful to the students of Room 12. I am forever grateful to Sharon and Iain and the CELT team at NUI Galway. I am grateful that I somehow found the strength the soldier on, cautiously optimistic. Most importantly, I am thankful to Amy, and hopefully, she knows why.

Through Kindness, Effort, and Cautious Optimism

One thought on “Through Kindness, Effort, and Cautious Optimism

  • January 1, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    A very compelling read – thank you, Kate.


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