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Is teacher creativity the key to transforming Irish education?

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As we face into a winter of uncertainty in our schools, Covid-19 continues to plague optimum functioning of our education system. While school leaders continue to battle to keep the physical doors open, increasing cases among children and school communities are a cause of grave concern.

The challenge now is to keep school communities as safe as possible, while striving to keep the physical building open in the absence of a continuous and sustainable supply of substitute teachers. It is a case of all hands on deck, qualified or unqualified. For the first time in 20 years teacher recruitment websites are awash with teaching positions with little, if any, response to the call for help.

The pandemic has highlighted the criticality of schools and communities working together in partnership to keep schools open and functioning. Since March 2019 we have witnessed schools navigating physical closures and the historic shift to remote learning.

Deirdre McGillicuddy is an assistant professor in education in University College Dublin.
Deirdre McGillicuddy is an assistant professor in education in University College Dublin. She is also a primary school teacher and mother of three primary school children

Schools and communities are working tirelessly to implement practices in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease among our children. But our children continue to be affected, with many having to remain at home due to illness. The recent cessation of contact tracing in our primary schools has been of particular concern given the potentially deadly repercussions for extended family members who may be especially vulnerable to the virus.

School leaders are powerless, working in the dark, uninformed about positive cases while unable to share information with the potential to protect children and their families. Their hands are well and truly tied. And yet schools continue to welcome children into the heart of what they do – teaching, learning and caring.

It is crucial we pause to reflect on the level of innovation and creativity undertaken by the teaching profession during the pandemic

Teachers have led the charge in ensuring children have settled back into school in a positive manner, prioritising wellbeing and individual learning needs. They continue to support children and their families within our communities. Important rites of passage previously put on hold due to virus restrictions are now being celebrated including graduations, Holy Communions and Confirmations.

Teachers and school communities have had to demonstrate agility, creativity and responsiveness within this ever-changing and dynamic context. Teaching is a dynamic undertaking in creativity and innovation embedded within the complex reality of the relational and realised through safe spaces where risk taking, vulnerability and wellbeing are nurtured in a supportive way.

The power of teaching as creative endeavour lies in the transformative possibilities for children, teachers, schools, communities and our broader society. The pandemic has demonstrated the possibilities for teachers and school communities to create and innovate, profoundly transforming the education system from the traditional face-to-face classroom to the virtual learning environment.

Although much evidence has highlighted the profound inequities which emerged during school closures, it would be detrimental to ignore the creative endeavour undertaken by teachers during the pandemic.

While evidence highlights how unprepared teachers felt to engage with virtual learning environments when schools first closed in March 2020, teachers came together to engage in professional development and to share resources through social media in order to innovate and create a new virtual learning environment.

The pandemic has offered a window into the power of teacher agency and freedom to create, innovate and transform the Irish education system as never before witnessed.

It is crucial we pause to reflect on the level of innovation and creativity undertaken by the teaching profession during the pandemic. It is also extremely important we recognise the critical role teachers, children, special needs assistants (SNAs), school leaders and the wider school community have played in transforming the education system, not only during the period of physical school closures, but also for the future of the Irish education system.

Out of necessity, teachers were afforded optimal conditions for creativity and innovation, where they created spaces and opportunities to take risks and be vulnerable navigating the challenges posed by physical school closures and the constrictions to teaching and learning approaches deemed necessary to keep school communities safe.

As we navigate the pandemic and rebuild our society, it is an opportune time to reflect on the purpose and value of education

Empowering teachers in this way transformed our education system evidenced by innovative ways to share learning content, to partner and connect with parents/guardians and to re-engage children with learning from home. The legacy of such practices remains to be seen, but early evidence would indicate that learning platforms continue to be used for homework and apps have become the mode of communication between home and school.

Morale of teachers

However, wellbeing and creativity are inextricably linked. Prof Andy Hargreaves argues that “the quality and morale of teachers is absolutely central to the wellbeing of students and their learning”. There is no doubt that teacher wellbeing has been negatively impacted during the pandemic.

The pace, intensity and demands of unprecedented changes within the education system continues to undermine the wellbeing of teachers, SNAs and school leaders within our system. We are at a critical juncture with systemic burnout a real possibility. If we fail to nurture teacher wellbeing we fail in ensuring we have a healthy and effective teaching profession. The creative endeavour undertaken by teachers will be stifled to the detriment of continued and meaningful transformation within the system.

As we navigate the pandemic and rebuild our society, it is an opportune time to reflect on the purpose and value of education. It is clear that there is a gap between what schools do and how society understands what schools do, particularly in relation to the complex, dynamic and creative work undertaken in our classrooms. As a society, it is imperative to come to a shared understanding in redefining the purpose of the Irish education system. It is also an opportune moment to recognise the power of creativity and innovation within our schools.

In order to nurture creativity and innovation we need to ensure teachers are trusted to be agents of change, prioritising their wellbeing to ensure they can meaningfully engage in creative and innovative practices, as witnessed throughout the pandemic. If realised, the transformational possibilities for our system are limitless. If education is the “practice of freedom” (Paulo Freire), schools, teachers and children must be entrusted with the transformational and creative agency required to continue building a dynamic, responsive and inclusive system post-pandemic.

This content was originally published here.

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