Hope, Joy and Optimism in the Midst of Chaos: A System Perspective

Coming towards the last hurdle, hitting the wall during the marathon, maintaining concentration and energy.... 

Coming towards the last hurdle, hitting the wall during the marathon, maintaining concentration and energy during the last few minutes of the match are sporting challenges we are all familiar with. These are the moments when the cheers are loudest, the hearts are beating fastest, the excitement ever mounting but the struggle on the ground is at its toughest. This is where we find ourselves as we reach over a year of fear, loss, struggle, exhaustion and anxiety. In the words of Winston Churchill: ‘We have won the Great War. Let us win the Great Peace’.  Reaching this peace means continuous hard draft, the existence of constant threat and beating a year’s exhaustion, a tough ask indeed for Irish school leaders as they limp towards a more promising future, and return to school for the summer term.  

Working in the system during these challenging times has been a privilege and a struggle. There is a sense of gratitude for being relieved of the responsibility of running a school and all that entails, while the practitioners in us yearn to roll up our sleeves and assist with daily life in a school community. There is a strong feeling of responsibility to help and support school leaders as much as possible from the side lines, to cheer and encourage, to provide and facilitate. Such a motivation takes away work boundaries, necessitates constant online engagement and mentally exhausts. There is a consistent feeling of not doing enough, of adding an extra layer of work through communications with schools, and a compelling search to find out what else can be done and what innovation will succeed in finding a balance between helping and hindering. Too many messages of goodwill, encouragement and reminders of the importance of wellbeing can tip the balance and grate on the ear, too few can elicit a sense of abandonment from the system. Social media communications can hit the spot perfectly or instigate exhaustion and anger. Online events can disappoint and motivate simultaneously. Lack of face-to-face engagement raises a deep yearning for the networking opportunities of the past and a strong sense of nostalgia for the social aspect of educational events, while disillusionment with available alternatives prevailsInteraction online is haphazard depending on platforms and internet access, and the stress of presenting online or meeting a group remotely is exacerbated by the possibility of an unexpected glitch. Door bells, smoke alarms, unsilenced telephones and family pets can add humour or frustration. Being dressed professionally from the waist up and in tracksuits, jeans, leggings and pyjamas from the waist down can lose its charm when memories of long past face to face events come to mind. The working space shrinks at times, the walls close in, the laptop feels like a body part and the discourse of online engagement- ‘you’re frozen’, you’re on silent’ consistently grates. A sense of safety and reduced responsibility competes with an inherent feeling of wanting to support and assist where you can. Being removed from the tough reality of the coalface offsets an ever-ending timetable. Like every situation since the pandemic began, there are advantages and disadvantages, silver linings and challenge, good days and bad.  

A constant source of motivation during this trying time has been the strong sense of hope, joy and optimism that has shone through the gloom from school communities. Despite the challenges, people have clung to the smallest things and made the very most of the joy they bring. At CSL online events, principals and deputies have spoken about the joy of the school building being full again, and how much this means to them. They have received solace from the children, rejoicing in the fact that children will be children no matter what. They have shared pictures of treats being left in their offices and notes of gratitude on their tables. They have spoken about a renewed sense of teamwork, a building of leadership capacity and of people previously new or quiet or reticent coming to the fore. They have reported on the silver linings of the pandemic, reduced expectations, a stronger focus on teaching and learning and a pace, that although has sped up due to the management of covid19, has simultaneously slowed somewhat, due to its restrictions. There is a stronger sense of what should be prioritised, what can be left behind and where the focus should be in the future. There is also a renewed understanding of the importance of resilience and wellbeing, and how this can be taught through the curriculum, and developed among staff members.  

Right through their conversations, school leaders have demonstrated an acceptance of all that has been learned alongside a resentment that it had to be learned so quickly. Rather than a rush to put this period behind them, they speak about using the learning to be more adaptable in the future. For many, their future leadership role is about returning to the old normal with choices. It’s about considering what is not adding value to the learning and teaching in their school and being open to innovation and creative opportunities which arose out of necessity since March 2020. It’s also about appreciation of their school, the children, the staff and the wider school community. More especially, it’s about wonder and gratitude; wonder at people’s resilience and ability to adapt, and gratitude for their trust and support.  

What strikes me most from my vantage point in the system is the absolute willingness of school leaders to share. CSL mentors have reached out to newly appointed principals as they take the reins in the most problematic of times. Those newly appointed principals in mentoring relationships have reported on such generosity when mentors themselves have so much to contend with. They feel motivated, encouraged, reassured and affirmed by their mentors and privileged to avail of the non-judgemental safe space provided by the mentoring relationship. Mentors in turn are humbled by the courage of principals new to the role. School principals, deputies, middle and teacher leaders have taken part in online events, contributed to surveys and questionnaires, written blogs and evaluations, shared their research, made videos, and partaken in online professional learning at a time when their energy is at its lowest. They have risen to the support of others and maintained a strong sense of hope and optimism despite being pushed to their limits. Newly appointed leaders have stepped up to leadership courageously while those in retirement have maintained close contact with their schools and their successors to do all they can to navigate the ship through stormy waters.   

In the system, collaboration has become the key to successfully supporting those working in schools. Education Centres have assisted in joining the dots to link the work of professional organisations, management and trust bodies, supports services and unions. The Teaching Council, the NCCA and the NCSE have worked closely with stakeholders to address the needs of schools. The DE is fully supportive of such collaboration and advocates for more of the same. This is a key learning point for those of us working in the system and it mirrors the learning in schoolsThe best way to achieve the best outcomes for our students and to develop leadership capacity is to work together. Ní neart go cur le chéile.  

I paint a glowing picture. It’s not all roses in the garden! There are challenges and real struggles. There is deep exhaustion, a real sense of monotony and no special events to look forward to. The pandemic needs to recede, the vaccination roll out to increase rapidlyThere is fear and trepidation as schools open again and high infection rates stubbornly prevail. There is frustration and weariness about the progress of vaccinations and the identity of frontline workers. Yet, as the last hurdle is approached, the Irish education system has proved its worth once againThe learning is rich, hope and optimism prevail, and joy escapes from the cracks. This joy is a tribute to all teachers and school leaders out there who celebrate the return to school having sent school books home at the end of March just in case. It’s a sign of hope for a brighter future. It’s a safety blanket for those of us who work in the system to grab hold of and a true source of pride in our work. Although we live in a postmodern world with an uncertain future, we can proudly say that Irish schools have sustained their focus on hope and optimism. The least we can so in the system is to be inspired by their strength and courage.  

A Time to Reflect, Review, Discuss and Debate

Fáilte a Aire! - A Time to Reflect, Review, Discuss and Debate.

As I finish my thirteenth year as principal, I have noticed how our system has changed. Many changes have been very positive and some not so positive. We all know that the life of a school leader is not a simple one. In our jobs, uncertainty is the only certainty. This year certainly lived up to that. Who would have guessed what it has brought?

One thing that the pandemic has highlighted for me is how resilient and adaptable we are as a nation and this was highlighted within our school communities, through the adaptability of the teaching staff and the support staff both inside school and within our systems. The learning curve for us all has been huge, and we should celebrate that work at every opportunity.

I would not have liked to be in the position that the outgoing Minister and the senior officials were in. They had to make decisions under very difficult circumstances, with advice from the educational partners and various interest groups. We must trust that those decisions were the best they could make at the time, given the advice and information they had at their disposal.  It is very easy to throw stones. As for the return to work in late August, let us wait and see what that brings. 

There have indeed been many changes this year. Most of these changes, a lot of them good, will not make a difference unless we can at least reflect on our system as a whole and publicly acknowledge the changes that are needed to make a good education system great. We need to consider areas such as:  

  • The way in which our schools are structured
  • The composition and role of our voluntary Boards of Management
  • The continued resourcing of supports and services for school leaders  
  • The further development and coordination of our management and governance structures in the system.

We also need to reflect on the Leaving Cert and the emphasis on the CAO and University places in light of what happened this year. These are some of the issues or questions that require deep thinking and discussion in an open and safe environment. Let us have a National Education Convention, as we had in 1993, and as called for by the late Professor John Coolahan. Let us promote discussion and debate to aid us improve our education system.

Domsa, tugann an post seo fuinneamh dom. Mura bhfuil sin ann ní fiú é. Bímis buíoch d’ár foirne scoile. Thugamar faoi na deacrachtaí a cuireadh romhainn le fuinneamh agus le díograis. Tá éacht oibre déanta ag gach duine. Tá sé tábhachtach áfach go bhfoghlaimeoidh muid ón méid atá tarlaithe agus leanfaidh muid ag forbairt ár scoileanna ar mhaithe leis na scoláirí atá faoin ár gcúram. Dhein sé rí shoiléir domsa go bhfuil fíor tábhacht ag baint le úsáid na teicneolaíochta in ár scoileanna. Go bhfuil sé ar fáil do gach dalta. Ná caillimis an dul chun cinn sin.

Tá gá dár liom féachaint ar ár gcóras oideachais agus athruithe córasacha a chur i bhfeidhm. Ar a laghad bíodh comhrá macánta againn faoi.  Pé scéal é agus sinn ag teacht chun críche agus an oiread sin éiginnteacht ann faoi tús na bliana seo chugainn tá gá dúinn an sos atá tuilte a glacadh.

For the moment I would urge everyone to try to leave the school (be it virtual or not) in the next couple of weeks and take some time off to visit places in our beautiful country and to leave the uncertainty behind for the moment. Beidh an scoileanna fós ann nuair a thiocfaidh muid ar ais.

One person I guess, that will not be able to take a break this summer is our new Minister for Education Norma Foley TD, a fellow teacher and a Kerry person. I would like to take this opportunity to wish you well in the role. I look forward to you engaging with the educational partners. I would ask you to let it be part of your legacy to facilitate that meaningful discussion and to bring positive change to our students’ learning. Go n-eirí go geal leat i do ról fíor thábhachtach nua.   

Cathnia Ó Muircheartaigh is Principal of Coláiste Pobail Osraí, Kilkenny and a former President of NAPD.

Ochoning for Cocooning

Ochoning for Cocooning  

Over my desk in my small home office, I have a large old- fashioned road map of Ireland. I put it there in the first week of my IPPN Presidency last September, to be coloured along the roads travelled after my planned multifarious journeys over the following two years as I contemplated the task of meeting and talking with as many school leaders as I could. Our September AGM season was a bright start as I clocked hundreds of miles visiting about ten counties, meeting lots of people, hearing of their good ideas and their concerns. In one particular week, I attended meetings in Roscommon, Donegal, Cavan, Kildare and Wexford, while in one day alone, I covered almost 600km in the car. Trips to Mayo and Sligo included several school visits, as well as calls to their Education Centres. Life was becoming a series of deli counters, diesel pumps, dodgy Wi-Fi and nightly road music from the kindly John Creedon as I urged the car back towards Tullamore and home.

When the Coronavirus emerged as a threat to world health and economic stability, it affected millions of people worldwide in how they would conduct their lives until there was some semblance of normality again. For me, it would involve a complete change of approach. Schools closed with barely a word of warning on March 12th. Many schools did not even have the chance to make sure their children took their school books home. Indeed, how to distribute school books to families after the lockdown formed a large part of the narrative over the following weeks. For schools involved in the School Meals Programme, it meant that serious challenges had to be met in distributing the food to children who relied on it. 

The DE Social Inclusion office sought the help of IPPN in communicating with school leaders during the Easter break after problems emerged with the food distribution chain. School leaders as ever, were wonderful and made sure that the food was received by those needing it, by a variety of means, including spending hours of their holidays handing boxes out in their school grounds, and HSCL teachers using their vast knowledge of local areas and families to deliver to children’s homes. I found the work with the School Meals distribution exhausting but very rewarding, and I got to experience at first hand, the extraordinary generosity of community spirit which existed in parishes, towns and school catchment areas all over the country. I would also acknowledge the incredible work carried out by the Community Champions service in bringing together the resources of several community and sporting organisations and clubs, and making them available where they were most needed.

Before the pandemic, IPPN and ECSI (Education Centres) had been exploring ways in which we could support each other in providing support for school leaders. From my viewpoint, the ‘positive’ to emerge has been the rapid growth in the use of digital meeting platforms, which have allowed meetings and courses to be delivered remotely. Through the Education Centres and their reach, I have over the past weeks, spoken with principals and deputy principals, together and separately through several Education Centres. These meetings have proven to be a powerful way to meet many members in a short time span, hear their ideas, share what information we have, and gauge what issues are coming down the tracks. Many of the issues in particular around school reopening were highlighted through such meetings and were included in IPPN’s lengthy submission to the DE on the subject.

I have also been very pleased to see the extraordinary generosity of spirit between all agencies, organisations and unions in sharing good practice and working together to avoid duplication to provide the best support possible to all our schools and our precious pupils.

In the middle of all this, we must ensure that our own families and those dear to us are supported, we must mind ourselves. Our lives have changed- that’s for sure, but these changes have included many positives. Family, nature and our own downtime have all benefitted from this. Our gardens and houses have been seen to. Our dogs have had their paws worn down from walking. Whenever the new normality takes shape, we will hopefully bring some of the learnings from this time of pandemic with us. And possibly, park permanently, some practices which had hitherto affected our personal and professional lives in negative ways.


I might even use my roadmap to visit the odd place unrelated to work, but very much related to wellbeing!

 

Damian White is the principal of Scoil Shinchill in Killeigh, Co. Offaly and is currently on secondment as President of IPPN for the 2019-2021 term of office. 

Because 'reality is real'

As we come to the end of June for the first time in almost four months students have come back in through the doors of school

All be it to empty lockers I have really enjoyed this week talking and chatting to students from all year groups about their plans for summer and their experiences of the past few months. 

For most of them like me they want to come back to school sooner rather than later. They have missed their friends, their teachers and school life. Some have even said they would come back earlier than normal. While they were hugely appreciative for the work the school had done with distance learning and keeping in contact, they all would have preferred to have been in school. Fans of Sci-fi will get the reference from “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline or Stephen Spielberg’s movie adaptation. Remote learning, online communication platforms and the almost virtual world has allowed us to connect with students, with relations, with work colleagues over the past few months and like in Cline’s novel it has become almost home and intrinsic part of our daily lives but it isn’t real. Being face to face with students, friends, relatives that is what brings true happiness. Reality is real. Being in the classroom can never be replaced by online teaching. Over the past few months being with immediate family more has been the one huge positive from COVID-19 and for that I will be forever grateful.

School Leaders over the past few months have done an amazing job, this has been one of the most challenging times ever for school leaders. School leaders have guided schools through remote learning, through the calculated grades, supported our students and teachers, and dealt with the huge levels of uncertainty. Both as a school leader and as President of NAPD I will be forever grateful for the huge levels of camaraderie shown be fellow school leaders managing and leading through this very difficult time. I have heard of, seen and experienced school leaders coming together to support one another through this difficult time. Always remember that we are not alone in this job and that there are many of us going through the same challenges and that NAPD will always be there to support you. My advice is to take a break for July and early August at a minimum. We have had a long term, many school leaders have worked late into the evening, weekends and that is not sustainable.

 

Alan Mongey
Principal of Coláiste Bhaile Chláir, Claregalway, Co. Galway and President of NAPD

FET in a Covid-19 World

FET in a Covid-19 World

March 12th 2020 is a day very few of us will forget.  Just like for other life-moments, we will probably all remember where we were when we heard the news that from 6.00 p.m. that day all schools were to close.  While many of us had begun to make preparations for the expected closure, it seemed to happen all of a sudden in the end.  Teachers had already begun to move material online - course material left to cover, assessments left to administer, learning supports to be delivered remotely.  Completed assessments and laptops were put in the back of cars.  In the College Office, contingencies for the payment of invoices and the processing of the various payrolls had to be put in place.  To a person, teachers, administrative, maintenance, learning support and canteen staff all rose magnificently to the occasion - just like in every School, College, Institute of Technology and University across the country.

Killester College of Further Education went from the classroom to online in six hours.  It was truly a sight to behold.  Our contingency plan, developed with CDETB parameters and agreed with QQI, was in three parts – part 1: finish the courses, part 2: complete the assessments, and part 3: process and approve the results.  It proved to be a great collaborative exercise across CDETB, and I’m sure, for all other schools and colleges.

What staff missed most was each other’s company and camaraderie.  Weekly staff meetings every Monday on Google Hangout discussing the week just gone and setting out the week to come proved very important.  The Deputy Principal and I, and the entire College Leadership Team, checked in regularly with each staff member by phone to ensure that they we doing ok and to provide whatever support and encouragement was needed.  From a leadership perspective, the true leaders of this period have been the staff.  The best thing I could do was to stay out of their way.  It has been truly inspirational to see their dedication and commitment to our students.

I salute all our teachers and school staff who have shown themselves to be the ultimate public servants and true professionals.

 

Dr Rory O'Sullivan, Principal of Killester College of Further Education, and Chair of the NAPD FET Committee.


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