Secret Diary of an Irish teacher: a little hedge school in my house

The morning is full of birdsong, the winter sky glimmering a bright silver, suggesting spring.
Secret Diary of an Irish teacher: a little hedge school in my house

The morning is full of birdsong, the winter sky glimmering a bright silver, suggesting spring.

The teacher prepares his kitchen, cleaning the slates for the students who’ll arrive at nine, crossing the fields to get to him. The children carry his payment with them, sometimes food, sometimes turf.

He’ll start by reading a story from a chapbook. He loves nothing more than to see their eyes dance. After lunch they’ll study maths and he’ll finish the day with Latin.

His oldest student is 16, the youngest five. He keeps things simple, letting the younger ones play with pebbles and straw when he needs to focus on more demanding material. In his pocket is a set of brass pins. He’s keen to award them to anyone who gets their ten spellings correct.

Rehearsal, rote learning, is how he must teach and how his students must learn. They will carry their knowledge in their heads, back with them, across the fields.

When penal laws made the education of Catholics illegal in the late 17th century, communities were quick to respond. In what historian PJ Dowling describes as ‘a guerrilla war in education’, a network of underground hedge schools developed. I’d always been under the impression that these classes actually gathered behind hedges! I imagined groups of scantily clad children huddled in a bush, praying together, clutching their rosary beads in the rain. As it turns out, they mostly happened in teachers’ homes. The ‘hedge’ part simply indicates their rural locations.

We’re making similar adaptations in education right now and a similar kind of ‘warfare’ is happening —When you think about it, we’re also defending ourselves against a kind of coloniser. And once again, schools are being driven underground, into the home. School is now for siblings of different ages and stages, or perhaps it is for a single child – demanding in its own way.

It’s nice to think we have our own little hedge school in my house but it’s different when a parent is at the helm. What strikes me is the level of emotion we’re encountering! Our house is like a badly tuned instrument sometimes, too often screeching, discordant and off-key.

I’ve come to realise that children, my children at least, view home as a place to express emotion, the absolute highs and lows of human existence. It’s probably a healthy sign that they feel so comfortable to express themselves, but I’m pretty sure the hedge school was quieter.

I’m also experiencing moments of true sunshine and overall, I know it’s a blessing to be together all the time. My kids are safe and well, and there’s laughter and music in the discord. Like everyone, we’re transitioning. We’re grateful.

The more significant difference between the hedge school and ours is how we’re learning now. My three started the day today with RTÉ’s new Home School Hub, and they’re currently downstairs, two swinging their legs, the eldest connected to the ground, drawing maps of our recently much-abused living room.

Education is no longer about rehearsing facts to carry back across the fields; it’s about building skills. The good thing, the liberating thing, is that these skills don’t have to be taught by teachers in a classroom.

I’m not interested in doing myself out of a job here, but for as long as this phase lasts for us, adults at home should feel empowered and capable. In a broad sense and in this crisis, if you’re building your child’s potential, you’re doing well.

I’ve been overloaded with learning materials lately. They’re all very well-meaning but I feel like my brain is a letterbox and I keep on getting new brightly coloured wonderful pamphlets through it. They are of course amazing!

I feel guilty that I’m not picking up every single one and running with it. I’ve had wonderful suggestions for creative activities, online exercise classes, poetry meet-ups and competitions. In normal life, I’d be really excited by them.

But there’s just too many! It’s like standing in a huge clothes shop, floors high and warehouse wide. I don’t know where to start! So, from today, I’m going to choose one and stick with it. Today, I’m going to do some collaging with words and pictures. And we’re going for a walk.

From a teacher and parent perspective combined, I think the main thing is to stick to the skills we try to develop in school. What you’ll find is, you do the same things at home anyway. We may not be working on slates today, but many of us are rightly channelling the simplicity of the hedge schools in our kitchens and gardens.

Over the weekend, my friend sent me a picture of her son cutting the grass with a scissors, blade by blade. Genius! There he is, out in nature, managing himself and a challenging tool, learning to be resilient and hardworking, sticking to a task that may take a lot longer than he’d planned. Education gold.

Education is not about rote learning now. It is about skills. Across all non-examination year groups, it is about fostering a love of learning. Anything you decide to do, check it off the curriculum list below. And award yourself a brass pin. Or a glass of wine if necessary.

  • Develop each child’s potential to the full.
  • Encourage a love of learning.
  • Help children develop skills they will use all their lives.

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