Secret Diary of an Irish Teacher: I questioned Irish being a compulsory subject and I clearly upset people

Secret Diary of an Irish Teacher: I questioned Irish being a compulsory subject and I clearly upset people

One of my favourite novels to teach is Of Mice and Men. I know it’s been on the curriculum forever; I remember watching the film with Gary Sinise in school myself, but Steinbeck’s message is timeless.

You grasp the context of each character and in some way, you sympathise with them. They are flawed but worthwhile too, depicted with a beautiful kind of potential.

Steinbeck writes: “Try to understand men. If you understand each other, you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well, never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.”

Last week, I questioned Irish being a compulsory subject until the Leaving, and I clearly upset people.

I could take this in one of two ways. The first, that I’m right and hit a nerve. The second, that I weakened my argument by not considering people in context. I’d like to concentrate on the latter.

Some found my mention of Harvard and Cambridge particularly problematic. Of course, I don’t see these as the measure of an education, but I used them to represent institutions of academic rigour, with challenging academic discourse, in another English-speaking country. I read research that students from Gaelscoileanna can have difficulty in transitioning to English lessons. But I should have left it out of my article. That point didn’t need to be made.

The experience of reading reactions to my article was profound for me. I’m currently reading a wonderful book by Paul Gilbert called The Compassionate Mind. It depicts us all as having ‘just arrived here’, doing our best, all aware of suffering, all suffering in our own way.

I would like to apologise to anyone I upset when I questioned the impact of Gaelscoileanna. It is your choice where you send your child. If you see the Irish language as intrinsic to your national identity, I should of course respect that. I should understand you in context.

But I object to Irish being compulsory for the same reason. Irish needs to be an option after Transition Year because other people have their context too. We must see the struggling student in context, understand their story and their challenges. The Leaving Cert is deeply stressful for many and Irish, according to our students, often heightens that anxiety. Many don’t have an emotional or intellectual relationship with the language and so, its compulsory status seems unjust.

I would equally split English into English Language and Literature, separate subjects, and make Literature an option. I feel it would honour our differences as people. I trust students of that age to work to their strengths. Education is a lifelong project.

But there is a thin line between making people think and upsetting people. When Donald Trump was running for election in 2016, I was teaching in a school abroad and I taught a lesson on his use of language. We studied his logical fallacies, how he uses language to emotively engage and manipulate. As I left the classroom, I noticed a kid, still sitting in his desk, crying. He reluctantly explained that he was a Trump supporter and he was feeling really victimised in school due to his beliefs. To me, this student’s anti-immigration stance was wrong, but the child grew up in South Africa and was deeply affected by feelings of fear and uncertainty. He was also a child, who deserved to come to school and not feel like on odd one out, inside and outside lessons.

I should have treated him with more compassion. I should have factored him into my approach. I should always understand people in context — to understand their reasons — not only because it is respectful, butbecause it is the only way to be effective. I don’t believe Irish should be compulsory at Leaving because I think it lacks meaning for too many people and I believe that education should be meaningful. I respect anyone who holds the language dear and feels it is essential to being Irish. I respectfully differ; I look at that person with compassion, but I still want change. But I worry that we are getting increasingly bad at it.

There is very little compassion on social media. Too many people go on to argue a point and we have becoming obsessed with being right, over being compassionate.

To be truly persuasive is to cradle the other person in the palm of your argument. Hold them respectfully and ask them to question their point of view. Appeal to our shared humanity. The chief villain in Of Mice and Men is Curley. He is cruel to his wife and every other vulnerable person on the farm. But Steinbeck wants us to recognise his vulnerability too. He mentions that he wears ‘high heel boots.’ Curley doesn’t have the respect of the workers on the ranch; he is a child trying to fill his father’s shoes. His cruelty comes from pain. Every person has their story.

I still feel that students should be given more autonomy over their learning at Leaving Cert.

I respect an individual’s love of Irish, within their own context. I would just ask them to do the same for others, in theirs.

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