Teaching Council Interviews: Mary Claire Relihan

We have given a platform to any primary school teacher wishing to be on the Teaching Council to answer some tough questions. Last time Séamus O’Connor answered our questions and now it is Mary Claire Relihan’s turn. If you haven’t seen her on the posters in your school, it’s because she is running independently. She has not been nominated through the union structures. While the INTO have a right to promote their candidates, it’s harder for teachers who are not affiliated with unions to get their voices out there. I hope this interview will help a little bit for Mary Claire. Below are the questions:

Why do you want to be a rep for the Teaching Council?

The answer is simple I love my job and I’m really passionate about what we do. The Irish education system is undergoing a major revamp and my experience in Australia has given me great insight into the direction we could be heading. Working in a different education system pushed me way outside my comfort zone. I had come from a traditional educational system into one where all teachers took part in professional development and where there was a very definite mentoring structure for NQT’s and new teachers like myself. I spent over 4 years teaching full time in this system, so I have experienced the successes and the CHALLENGES of using these policies in a school.

I am the only primary school candidate running for election with overseas experience who has actually worked with these policies! Having now returned to the Irish system, it is frustrating to see our education system blindly follow the bigger nations and letting our profession evolve into some co-operate office. I didn’t become a teacher to do hours of paperwork! Do we really want a retention rate like our neighbours in England where nearly 4 in 10 teachers will leave the profession in their first year!!! I’m sick of hearing people in positions of power make empty promises to us. I want to give it a go and see if an every-day teacher can have her voice heard.

What have the Teaching Council ever done for us?

Well if I was to ask my colleagues, they would say very little! The Teaching Council are seen as lazy money grabbers and people constantly ask me what do they actually do! I think it is good that our career is now recognised and the standard of our education system protected but it has been approached in the wrong way and teachers feel a lot of anger towards the Council.

What do you think is the Teaching Council’s biggest challenge?

Well its blatantly obvious teachers dislike the Council. The biggest obstacle for the Council will be winning back the trust and faith of its teachers, especially after all the controversy surrounding the payment of fees during the early years of the Council. We don’t feel any ownership over the policies such as Droichead and Cósan and I think that is why they are met with such resentment. There seems to very little engagement with actual teachers and there seems to be a great sense of ‘them vs us’! If the Council want to seriously roll out a mentoring programme and a professional development initiative, there needs to be a lot more dialogue and the Council need to be seen as more transparent! People want to know where their annual fee of 65euro is going!

What do you think is the difference between the INTO and the Teaching Council in terms of their attitude to education?

Well, I think the INTO sees themselves as a grass roots organisation and they definitely have the power and money to get their message into schools. Just look at the way they are able to market all their candidates running for this election! I guess both parties seem to have very different focuses in education. The INTO claim to protect the teachers interests and the Council is protecting the interests of the Department of Education and our government. We are currently going through a period of serious accountability and standardisation in education. Everything can now be measured, even teachers. This is what worries me most about the Council.

“Everything can now be measured, even teachers. This is what worries me most about the Council.” Can you expand on this?

Well, I just feel teaching is becoming very corporate. The essence of teaching; creativity, innovation and student teacher relationships are things we have always prided ourselves on in the Irish system but I think these elements are coming under threat. They can’t be measured on a checklist or through standardised testing like Maths or Litreacy. A lot of education systems have started to evolve into a sort of ‘input vs output’ system. There is a growing shift towards increased accountability of teachers to have their students ‘perform’. I just wonder where it will end? How much more paperwork can we do?

On Droichead…

I think the idea of mentoring among staff can be very beneficial for all involved if the initiative is set up properly. Unfortunately, it seems the Droichead program has been met with very mixed reviews, with a lot of NQT’S feeling more stressed out and over worked! Some mentors don’t seem to rate it too highly either. The main problem with this policy is financing!!  The Council are trying to bring in a mammoth change to our system and there doesn’t seem to be a budget to support it. If it is to be effective, more teachers need to be allowed to train as mentors, not just the principal as is the case in a lot of primary schools.  We also need to look at how to best support small schools with an initiative like this. There needs to ample time for mentors and NQT’S to chat, discuss and observe lessons in both classrooms. This requires a lot more supervision cover.

In Australia, all graduates went through a mentoring programme. After an initial settling in period, they would approach a staff member who was a trained mentor and ask them to mentor them. Both teachers were given lots release time together out of the classroom to plan lessons, catch up on paperwork and observe lessons.

All the focus on Droichead seems to be about passing or failing probation but surely if someone holds a teaching degree, they are qualified to teach and this process of mentoring should just be a matter of supporting a new staff member to navigate their first year in their chosen profession, not turn them off teaching completely! The negative AND positive feedback of this policy from teachers, mentors and NQT’S needs to be taken on board by the Council.

I agree with you when you say that once you have your teaching qualification, you should be deemed qualified to teach. However, it seems this is not the case as there’s this probation year. How can we use this 4th year of training college better to have our teachers prepared for life in the classroom?

I think our teaching training programmes are to a high standard. Who says it’s not the case? Nothing can prepare you for teaching fulltime in the classroom. Any teacher will tell you, you learn the most you will ever learn in that first year out. All the lectures in the world can’t prepare you for the pace of a busy loud classroom when it’s been raining 2 days straight, the kids haven’t be able to get out for break and you are trying to teach long multiplication for the first time and you can’t find the geo boards and counters you needed for your lesson because someone ‘borrowed’ them from your room without asking! This is where having a mentor comes in! It is this support network that is vital to a NQT. The best people to judge the new added 4th year in teaching training are our NQT’S. Their voice needs to be heard.

On Cosán…

Just like Droichead, I think there are huge benefits to having a professional development policy but what is the incentive for teachers? There is no financial benefit to doing further study at the moment. No new post holders! No wage increase for doing a post grad or masters! I feel like the Teaching Council has all these great initiatives but they are unable to finance them properly. They are just rolling them out, hoping the unassuming Irish teacher will just take it all on.

My experience of professional development in Australia was extremely positive. It was the norm that everyone was engaged in further study and it was widely encouraged by all leadership staff. There were lots of middle management positions and curriculum focus jobs which allowed more senior teachers to step out of the classroom and instead support teachers in different curriculum areas and in the classroom. There was lots of opportunities to further your career.

In my school, we received at least 2 hours a week during school hours for professional development. During this time, we discussed new policies or initiatives, read professional teaching articles about the topics we were teaching or areas we needed to address. It was very reflective process and we were able to have a huge input into what we wanted to learn about or work on. These meetings were chaired by middle management within the school. Guest speakers were regularly invited in especially during our numerous in-service days. There was a great sense of ownership over the teacher learning at this school.

Professional development cannot be seen as a chore. Teachers love to learn..it’s our job to promote a love for knowledge. This new Cósan document makes it seem like yet another cross we have to bare, another checklist to prove our validity as teachers. The policy is just adding to the growing emphasis on the accountability of teachers and the need to provide evidence to reassure ‘ the profession and the public that teachers are engaging in lifelong learning’.(Cosan Report 2015 pg 20) This sense of restoring the public’s confidence in their teachers often makes me wonder when did the public lose confidence in us in the first place? The wording of the document itself is pitting teachers against the public.

You say the Teaching Council are trying to overhaul the education system but they’re doing it badly. How would you approach Droichead and Cosán if you were elected?

I just feel there hasn’t been enough communication with teachers. I know the Council does email teachers but to be honest, most teachers trash the emails before reading them. They don’t really value it. The Teaching Council needs a more visible presence. If I was elected, I would want to gather the data that supports or opposes these policies. We need to really value feedback from the teachers who are ACTUALLY working as mentors or being mentored through the Droichead programme, not just bashing the policies to get a few votes for this election or air time at the staffroom table. These are the people who are best able to tell us how the Irish mentoring programme is working or not working.

With Cosán, I think more ground work needs to be done before it is introduced or it will be met with the same hostility. My biggest query about Cosán is budgeting. Is there a budget available to allow all the teachers in Ireland to engage in further learning and how is it going to be implemented? I have read the Cosán document and I think it is very vague. We want to know how would this be carried out in a 3 teacher school rural school or a 30 teacher city school?? We need to be reassured that this has been properly planned out and isn’t just another fad or something that has been created on a whim. I know a lot of people have worked tirelessly to create this document but the average teachers feels so removed from the policy. There is no ownership by the everyday teacher!

Do you think teachers need to be more professional than they are?

This ‘professionalism’ jargon is being bandied around a lot by different agencies and everyone is taking their own interpretation of it! For me, its means supporting and nurturing your students and respecting your colleagues and the responsibility that comes with this job. I don’t think we need to be more professional but I do think we are all feeling a bit disillusioned with it all and need to take back ownership of our career. We need to be a bigger part of the process especially since so many new policies are now being rolled out.

Secondary school teachers were up in arms about correcting their own kids’ exams. Primary principals seem to be up in arms about probating teachers? Are we wusses? Isn’t this just proof that we aren’t professional enough to do a professional job?

No, I disagree! I think this shows that Irish teachers don’t feel supported or listened to. We are being asked to overhaul our whole system and all the processes that have become so imbedded in our practise with very little discussion.

We have been given very little voice and choice in these monumental decisions. Schools have not been given enough opportunities to discuss with their staff how these changes would impact on the teaching and learning in their school. A small little focus group isn’t sufficient when you want to bring about huge change but letting teachers have their say costs money and it seems to be all about making our system more cost-effective!

One reason that teachers seem to have a problem with probating NQTs or marking students state exams is because “Ireland is a small country” What do you think about this? Is this a good enough reason for scrapping Droichead and JC Reform?

I don’t think it is enough to scrap everything but it is one of my main concerns with ALL the new legisalation that is being rolled out in our education system. We CANNOT just COPY what the UK, Australia and America do. We are a very small nation and everyone is connected or related, so it does make it harder to be impartial. We need to create a system that works for us and not just get rid of something because it’s the latest trend or buzz word in education. Like I said in an earlier question, I am one of the few candidates who has actually worked in an education system that had regular professional development and an successful mentoring programme. I would like to try and share this experience with these policy makers.

Do you think teachers should have contracts?

This is a very delicate topic. I was very lucky when I graduated in 2006 as there were still plenty of permanent jobs and we all gladly signed contracts for life.  That is no longer the case and I don’t know if those days will ever return. Teaching contracts seems to be a total mind field and I do worry that our system will start to mirror that of the English system where pay scales and contract renewal are hugely influenced by teacher and student outcomes. This sort of appraisal encourages a very corporate competitive element to our teaching, something I would hate to see.  A close colleague recently commented to me ‘What was wrong with our old system of contracts? Wasn’t that supposed to be one of the perks of our career..job reliability!’

Do you think teachers should have non-teaching time built into their day?

Yes I definitely think teachers need to be given some non-teaching time within a given week. I experienced it first hand in Australia through our professional development hours. It does require serious some serious timetabling and a lot of extra staffing.

How could we practically change timetables around in primary schools to give teachers free time? Ultimately, don’t we need to add non-contact hours to our week?

No I don’t think so. We already spend lots of non-teaching hours every week at our kitchen table or in the study working on plans or correcting! In my Australian school, the non-teaching hours were timetabled so that certain teachers (who specialised in subjects like music/sport/ict) covered your class which allowed you release time to work with other members of your school to plan out schemes of work, discuss new initiatives or teaching ideas. Ideally this works really well in a large school and we really need to think how a system like this could work in a smaller school setting.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about what your aims are if you get on the Teaching Council?

Well, I’ve been asked a lot recently why support an independent teacher who isn’t backed by the Union?

My reply is….why not!!! The council is made up of 37 members. 22 of these are teachers. Of this 22, 6 positions already go to the unions. This means they nearly have 30% of the voice. I think the other 70% deserves to be the average every day teacher. Some of the teacher candidates who are backed by the unions are demanding more transparency about the fees and the issues with registration and they promise better communication!!

The entertaining thing about these statements is that the Finance committee of the Teaching Council AND the Registration committee of the Teaching Council are currently CHAIRED BY UNION MEMBERS! I have no malice towards any of the Unions at all but I do think we need LOTS of representatives in the Council who actually correct copies, plan lessons and make teaching resources daily. It’s time the everyday teacher was listened to! All questions/comments are welcome on my Facebook page ‘Mary Clare Relihan Leinster Candidate 2016’.  Please help the underdog out and share/like my page!

Bio: Mary Clare Relihan is currently teaching 4th class in St Laurence’s Primary School in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. She began working there in 2006 after completing her degree in Mary Immaculate College. She has recently returned to the school, having spent over 4 years working in the Catholic education system in Melbourne. Mary Clare describes it as an amazing experience professionally as she worked in a very innovative school. She has also begun a Masters in ‘Educational Mentoring’ in UL and hopes this will allow her to further develop the skills she acquired in Australia.

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