Teachers have vital role in young people's lives

Straight Talking with Advertiser columnist Mary O'Rourke

Because I could not stop for Death

He kindly stopped for me

The Carriage held but just Ourselves

And Immortality.

That sad but wonderful poem by the American mid-19th Century poet, Emily Dickinson, sums up the mood of Ireland, young and old, at the moment.

The events in Berkeley in California where six young Irish people were killed and so many more injured has left horror, disbelief and suffering all over Ireland.

Death was the last thing on these young people’s minds as they flew out to put their best foot forward for that great adventure, the J1 work visa in the US. Many have gone, so many have enjoyed it and so many have brought back the wonderful memories which went through their immediate lives after, their lives and their loves and their hopes, their dreams, their ambitions but above all the potential.

You can’t help but think of the potential these young people had for themselves, for their families, for their lives in the future and the potential good they would do for Ireland when they would start on their work careers.

It is grief inexplicable and as the bodies come home and the funeral masses were held and the grieving families lived out their trauma, our hearts went out to each and every one of them.

Young people to their families, their friends, their schools, their colleges and their country will be forever young, forever fresh, forever glorious.

During the time all this was happening I met one day, by chance in Athlone, with a group of Leaving Cert/Junior Cert students who had come out from their exam that morning. They were in great high spirits when I met them and full of the fact that they had liked that particular subject and felt in a reasonable frame that they would be doing well at it.

All the young people were in their school uniforms down from the schools on Retreat Road and their brightness, good humour and joy at everything seemed so uplifting.

Many of these students would be the students who would be going on in a year or two from college to the US on the J1 visa. The contrast between those good, bright scenes in Athlone and the later sad and horrific scenes we witnessed on our TVs from Berkeley hit me starkly.

That brings me on to teachers and the huge roles they play in the lives of young people. For a few years before I embarked on a political career, I was a second level teacher in Athlone. I enjoyed every minute of it, particularly when you would part with your students in early June and come back and meet them three months later. These would be girls of 15, 16, 17, maybe pushing 18.

In the intervening three months, they had matured so much, both in their bodies and in their opinions and in how they would express them.

Many of the teachers at second level have been involved for some time now in an ongoing altercation with the Government regarding how their students' work is assessed.

Teachers at second level are not against ongoing curriculum reform, far from it. They have engaged in a huge amount of curriculum reform. What they are against is assessing their students' final examinations based on a teacher in the classroom’s assessment of her pupil. A certain amount of this goes on anyway with Christmas and Easter tests and all sorts of project work, etc. But the real crux was that teachers would find it very difficult to be impartial in an all over national sense for the individual student’s work.

This is hugely important for parents, for teachers, for community and for the future good standing of our public examinations.

There has been a settlement of sorts and I hope it will be clarified in September when the new school year begins. Remember, there is nothing in this for teachers. They took the stand they did on behalf of their students.

After all, State Examinations and results are the last great system of complete lack of corruption of any kind. When a student sits an examination, he/she does so under a number. There is absolutely no connection to a student’s name or school or family or any other detail. It is purely the work as put forward on that day by that student.

And finally all our thoughts and hearts go out to those bright young people who had life before them and to all the young students in Ireland who have finished their state examinations and for whom summer stretches out endlessly.

Look up your Soundings poetry book. Read Emily Dickinson or whatever poet appeals to you and let your heart be quiet as you do so.

Mary O’Rourke

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