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Time to Listen
Text: Lucia Mc Geady
April 10th - 14th 2001 Seattle
How Challenging can it be if we give you Time to Listen?
The Community of the School as a starting point for Community Relations
Lucia Mc Geady
RM MC 202, Time to Listen
University of Ulster, Magee
Time to Listen is an initiative which provides all of the resources that teachers require when embarking on the journey of becoming ‘reflective practitioners’. Resources include: support personnel; project officer visiting every week, recent research and publications in their chosen area, substitute cover of one day per month, termly seminars with the other participating teachers and consultations with educational consultant Jean Mc Niff and one to one guidance in developing reflective practice.
The initial aims of the project, in accordance with the original tender submitted to Craigavon District Partnership were to: ‘address the need for a teaching and learning environment which is conducive to the modeling and promotion of Community Relations. It is also to support and enhance existing practice.’ (See fuller definition of Community Relations in Bibliography)
However, as is prone to happen with projects of this type, the project has gone through a kind of metamorphosis. The project has evolved in to a practitioner led model of research engagement through the exploration of a variety of concerns that teachers have in each of the participating schools.
The main thrust of the project is for each teacher to embark on a classroom research project, which in turn leads to learning through evidence based practice. They do this by identifying a concern and then attempting to examine all aspects of that concern using the action research paradigm. Both Stenhouse (1976) and Lortie (1975) as referred to in Mc Kernan (1981) suggest that:
There needs to be careful development of a cadre of ‘teacher researchers’ who are committed to working on classroom problems. Teacher-researchers could and should liaise with outside researchers in research agencies and universities. It is not enough for teachers’ problems to be studied; they need to study these problems themselves. (Mc Kernan, 1981: 106)
Time to Listen is in conjunction with SELB (Southern Education & Library Board), Craigavon District Partnership and the EMU Promoting School Project.
Educational and Political Context of Time to Listen
Time to Listen involves teachers who are working in the post primary sector of Craigavon. A system of education that is unique to Craigavon sets the area apart from the rest of Northern Ireland. This system, known as the Dickson plan, came in to effect in September 1969. Mc Kernan (1981), ‘Refers to the non-selective system of junior (11-14) high schools. At 14 pupils transfer to either selective senior high schools (14-16/18) or to non selective technical colleges (14-16/18). The plan embraces the Lurgan/Portadown area.
The cross section of schools participating in Time to Listen ranges from Controlled (Protestant) Junior Highs, Catholic Comprehensive, a Catholic Grammar School along with an Integrated College. These five large schools are involved at present. It would be appropriate to point out that in Northern Ireland at present around 4% of pupils are educated in integrated schools. Fraser (1974) ‘Most of the remaining schools are segregated by religion, social class and many also by sex.’ It is Fraser’s (1974) belief that, ‘All these divisions make for fragmentations of resources as well as lack of opportunity for social enrichment.’ This is not a new argument in the context of Northern Ireland.
Public debate over how children are educated and why they are faced with the curriculum that they have to ingest on a daily basis, is currently underway in Northern Ireland. Changes in education are on the horizon. CCEA has been developing a new curriculum in close consultation with teachers and pupils. The new curriculum will come in to force in September 2003. It heralds a more skills based curriculum that seeks to embrace tolerance and place it at the very core of education in Northern Ireland.
In 1964 the Matthew Report recommended that a new city be created in North Armagh that would embrace the existing towns of Lurgan and Portadown. This new city was to be called Craigavon. This is the area that Time to Listen is funded to focus on. This project clearly addresses the need for an improvement of community relations in the context of Craigavon. The area has experienced civil unrest over a prolonged period of time and could be termed a ‘microcosm of a contested society’. There has been one area in particular that has caused widespread violence and mayhem over recent years; the Garvaghy Road. Mc Kenna and Melaugh (1998) comment;
On Sunday 9th July 1995, for the first time in 188 years, the Royal Ulster Constabulary prevented an Orange Order march from proceeding to Portadown on its way back from an annual church service in Drumcree.
Violence, rioting, deaths and huge losses to the Northern Ireland economy have been the rewards reaped by the people who live there. Drumcree has cast a long shadow over this area and has almost drained the very life blood from the place and its people. Education has attempted to carry on regardless. With a backdrop such as this, of consistent political chaos, destruction, intimidation and fear, it is only natural that this will be followed by suspicion. The wake of this suspicion has been a sense of exhaustion, apathy and in some cases complete despair. Teachers in all sectors, I would believe, have been faced with these sentiments, not only in their pupils, but in themselves and in their colleagues. Many have invested their time and energies in to maintaining and building their boundaries. There has been the adoption of a ‘siege mentality.’ Wilson & Morrow (1998) further illuminate this personal observation
Most of the educational structures in Northern Ireland have evolved out of a history of both traditions defending and protecting their ethos and reproducing their values, beliefs and traditions. (Wilson&Morrow,1998:49)
The language of defending and protecting resonate throughout many aspects of Northern Irish society. We must be able to acknowledge the contested nature of where we live, how we learn and how we relate to one another. The contested nature of a context permeates all aspects of people’s lives in all areas within that context. Eyben, Morrow & Wilson (1989) cite comments made by a representative from the Youth Service in Northern Ireland:
On the whole, Catholic groups and organizations regard community relations as an opportunity. Protestant groups and organizations regard it as a threat, as a hidden agenda.
Our initial attempts to even talk with schools were fraught with difficulties. Fraser(1973) cited examples where schools had adopted a range of strategies in order to deal with the contexts in which they found themselves having to operate, ‘We banned all reference to what was going on outside and as a result have created our own ‘no go land.’ Fraser’s (1974) perspective of schools in the early 70s shows something of a contrast as to how we in education are trying to view schools in Northern Ireland today, ‘Some commentators see the school in the midst of the conflict, as an oasis to be protected because of the life that it nourishes.’ However, Smith (1999) outlines a very different picture of how education in Northern Ireland has evolved:
There has been a considerable movement away from the situation in the early days of the conflict when schools regarded themselves as ‘oases of peace’, providing children with an environment protected from the violence, but also insulated from the social issues around them. (Smith,1999: 6)
Indeed, with the new curriculum and citizenship education to be implemented from 2003, schools will find themselves facing their communities and interacting with the people, issues and conflicts that exist within it and impact on it. But Smith (1999) adds a cautionary note, ‘There is still a debate about the extent to which schools can play a reconstructionist role in leading change.’ Fraser (1974) perhaps sums up how some view the role of the school, ‘As a growing point for the community, the place where children will find their lifelong identity and affinities.’ I feel it is necessary to guard against fully embracing Fraser’s standpoint here. For if it is solely in school that we learn who we are, then our teachers would need to fully explore the role that they play in the lives of their pupils.
Action Research Paradigm & Methodology
The action research paradigm was the agreed approach adopted from the very inception of the project. Fullan (1991) further emphasizes the underling value of this approach:
The starting point for improvement is not system change, not change in others around us, but change in ourselves. There is the tendency to externalize the problem and to look for blockages or solutions at other levels. (Fullan,1991:167)
Fullan (1991) here suggests that by adopting this paradigm we can come to realize that it is not always someone else’s fault or in someone else’s power to be able to affect change. The action research approach is also one that Carr and Kemmis (1986) have embraced because of the personal and empowering nature of the paradigm:
Action research is simply a from of self - reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices and the situations in which they are carried out. (Carr & Kemmis, 1986:162)
Hutchinson (1998) concisely describes the very positive impacts that action research can have on the teacher-researcher, ‘Empowering staff is constituted by a process which enables them simultaneously to exercise more critical control over themselves and their context.’ Farrell (1998) believes that:
Action research and EMU (Education for Mutual Understanding) are ideal companions; they share the core values of tolerance, care and respect for others as equals; both have an explicit social intent; they are about transformation and change; they seek to promote movement from the rhetoric to the practice of collaboration; they are about participative democracy. (Farrell, 1998:51)
I would go as far as to say that the above comment made by Farrell (1998) would also be applicable to action research and Community Relations.
- Initial contacts set up between all other projects operating in the area
- Meetings with principals and where possible, Senior Management Teams of the 11 schools who were eligible to become involved
- Project Officer visit to one school which requested the whole staff be informed
- Initial contact with interested teachers in a whole group setting
- Initial seminar attended by all participating teachers: Introduction to Action Research
- Allocation of financial assistance with regard to substitute cover, materials, resources and access to services offered by external agencies, i.e. Art Therapists, Film Making organisations
- Personal contact and support for teachers on a weekly basis, always culminating in whole group mini conferences every 10 weeks
- Introduction of reflective journals, to be used in the form of reflective diaries to be utilized by project staff and participating teachers, in order to chart their journey
- Formal taped interviews with teachers, pupils and principals by Project Coordinator and Evaluator
- End of Phase One conference where participating teachers disseminate their learnings in the form of papers to leading educational policy makers, colleagues and friends
Unique Aspects of Time to Listen
All of the approaches and methods that we employ in this project, have, as far as possible, being agreed in collaboration with the teachers involved. It has always been an aim of the project staff to ensure against what Mc Niff (2001) outlines, that the ‘teachers were never viewed as data.’ We have always strived to maintain as close, open and transparent an atmosphere as possible. Given the delicate and contentious nature of the context, we always felt that it was essential that these teachers could depend on us to provide them with a secure and open place for dialogue.
We aimed, through our approaches, to empathize with these teachers, encourage them and support them in their own very different school environments. We sought to treat them as the professionals that they are and hoped to assist them in developing in as full and useful a way as possible. We tried to reassure teachers who were at first in awe and disbelief about what the project set out to do. It offered them time to reflect on their practice, time to challenge the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of their pedagogies. They were offered one to one support with no judgements and a chance to grow. Our first question came from one of the participating teachers, ‘So what’s the catch?’
This question, in many ways identifies as unique the experiences that teachers in this area have. Like many other teachers in Northern Ireland, they are faced with media ridicule on a regular basis. The deprofessionalisation of our whole teaching profession has developed in to a blight that has slowly eaten away at the core of our education system. Education in Northern Ireland, as is the case in many other parts of the world, has succumbed to the product orientated mentality of the private sector. This teacher, who has been subjected to School League Tables, Raising Schools Standards Initiatives (RSSI) the Northern Ireland Common Curriculum not to mention the present conflict, asked a very valid question.
The catch, well, is for the teachers to, ‘Challenge themselves, their beliefs, understandings and ideals.’ Hutchinson (1998). For many of the teachers they feel that being involved in Time to Listen has been the equivalent to finding a torch whilst lost in a cave.
Our methods, therefore, may not be conventional but our journey together so far has been intense, enlightening and empowering. The consequences of our involvement with these particular teachers could not have been forecast. Mc Kernan (1981) refers to several commentators who have all experienced this phenomena to some degree, ‘Several writers have distinguished between intended or anticipated outcomes on the one hand and unintended and unanticipated outcomes on the other.’ (Merton, 1957; Smith & Keith, 1971; and Stake, 1967)
As has been outlined earlier in the paper, the conflict and nature of the context has brought a whole range of factors that have mitigated against education provision in this area. As Kilpatrick & Leich (1999) outlined in their report entitled Inside the Gates, many children have had to face situations that would have put any adult travelling to their place of work, ‘Name calling and buses being stoned’ had been a daily occurrence for many of them. One of the first requests from our funders was to see if we could ,’Stop them stoning one another at the bus stop.’ Not an odd request to come from this area.
Our approach did not entail a long list of strategies that would curtail the stoning. In fact we didn’t go to meet with principals and tell them that we had a grand plan in the pipeline that would solve all of their woes. No, from the outset we realized that schools in this area had been left feeling totally saturated with the number of initiatives that had come their way. The feeling from some principals was, ‘Give us training, strategies and solutions,’ we couldn’t help wondering why everyone seemed to want to address the symptoms rather than the causes. We soon realized that this had been the way things had always been done. With so many other things to contend with in this area, it seemed difficult for principals to allow their teachers to be ‘subjected’ to yet another initiative. What we offered the school principals, on our initial meetings with them, was something that was so intangible and difficult to grasp, that they were very unsure of what it was all about.
We were faced with some principals who felt that action research was just going to be another ‘soft option’ in education. Could you weigh it, table it and statistically analyze it? If you couldn’t , then some principals just couldn’t see what the benefits would be for their school. We were dependent on the principals to disseminate what we had discussed with them. Having had a chance to reflect on this approach, we were very naïve. However, in the majority of cases, principals did communicate the outline of our project to the rest of the staff. We were intent on having only teachers who would volunteer themselves. We found that in our first whole teacher group meeting, four teachers had been mandated to attend by their principals. We quickly recognized that these four teachers would not be able to continue in the programme. We shortly after received letters telling us that they were withdrawing because they hadn’t wanted to be involved anyway.
The next time we met with teachers, our external evaluator and consultant, Jean Mc Niff was present. The main aim of this meeting had been to fully discuss the Time to Listen project and what the implications were for the participating teachers, 11 in total , at this point. For teachers who had been embroiled in target setting, benchmarking and school league tables, the very thought of concentrating on process rather than product was an alien concept. One teacher asked, ‘Well will I get a policy out of it or not ?’ I looked at these teachers and was confronted with myself. Having just completed an MSc in Education Management at this point, I had been through this very process. I had doubted the very concept of action research. I had thought that I had always been a very small cog in the machine called education that I was a part of. I had learnt, with much aggravation, self doubt and collegial confrontation, that to be involved in change was not the ‘soft option.’ In fact I had often wondered that there were easier ways to do things. The only problem was, for me, that the other ways did not involve you thinking about what you were actually doing. This seemed too much like deciding a cake was tasty just by looking at it and not being allowed to sample it. Much like existing and not living, in my book.
Discussions ensued between these teachers that I had never been a witness to before. Dialogues began and have been developing ever since. Teachers, at the table that day have always referred back to it. One teacher stated, ’I’ve never been at a course like this before.’ Since these initial days, the teachers have had many hours of intense support from the Project Officer. The developments have been there for us to see. One teacher recently commented, ‘Everything has snowballed in different directions.’ Another commented, ‘Our experiences with Time to Listen have been far better than we ever anticipated. The real value for us lies in the relationships between and the strengths of the teachers here in this group.’
Time to Listen has attempted to address the need for teachers to take ‘time out’ to investigate how they see themselves within the context in which they teach. They are being afforded time to investigate their own opinions and values with regard to their own unique school context and the wider picture of conflict and where they are situated in it.
The unique aspect of this project is that not only do the teacher-participants become involved in self reflection but that pupils and ideally parents can become involved in the process as well. The issues of identity and a personal sense of worth are the keystones of this project. Actually supporting teachers in this process of self review and reflection is also allowing the project members to examine many aspects of their own practice as well.
Empowerment of the people involved is one of the motivating factors of this project. The process of self reflection will often leave people feeling challenged and perhaps unsure of who they are and their role within their school. This is a very necessary part of the process. It is in this discomfort that teachers begin to move towards a greater sense of understanding with regard to their colleagues, their students and the parents. Confidence and self awareness invariably develop as a result of being involved in this process. EMU PSP facilitates the process where pupils and teachers and external organizations can begin to develop opportunities where they examine their value systems and beliefs together in a secure and open way.
Time to Listen attempts to develop the capacity within schools to deal with Community Relations, allowing teachers to discuss what they see as the needs of the ‘internal’ community of their school and how this invariably impacts on the wider community. We assist teachers in realizing that they are a very important part of Community Relations and that their role in community relations is an essential one.
Each of the schools have been involved in their action research projects since September 2000. Having met for the first time together in May 2000, they have made the journey together. Whether they have been investigating pupil disaffection, bereavement, the stories of low achievers, health and safety or the constraints of the curriculum, they have all been involved in community relations. Each of these teachers has been able to recognize, for some, the first time in their career, that they can make a difference. They have been small differences, but nonetheless, they have been involved in bringing about changes. Indeed, many of the changes have been internal, attitudinal and behavioral.
Teachers in one school were very wary about taking a group of very low achieving boys out to make a film, ‘Sure you would need an eye like a travelling rat, will all the equipment be insured, does the crew understand that these boys are from a very low academic ability?’ This teacher continued, ‘Do they know the type of these boys. They’ll need tin hats you know. I mean there would be no bother or worries if this was an ‘A’ class. But these boys are a difficult ball game.’ The shift in the teacher attitudes towards the boys, after they had conducted formal taped interviews with them, was encouraging: ‘I was totally shocked by how undervalued these boys actually felt. I saw the boys in a different light. They were responsible and well behaved, I was astounded by how they responded to the opportunity to produce a film about Portadown.’
This paper is a short outline of how our work in this area has developed. It is in no way a full reflection of the levels of commitment, enthusiasm and hard work that the teachers in the project have invested. For myself I feel that I have had a fabulous opportunity to be involved in such rewarding and meaningful educational dialogues. I have been encouraged by the teachers, project staff and evaluator of the project to value my own experiences. I hope that I have been able to do the same for them.
For each teacher involved in the project, a journey has been embarked upon. Without external accreditation, extra payment or the promise of promotion, these teachers have begun to discover how valuable they are in their institutions, in their own right and as people.
We are currently preparing the teachers to write papers for their end of Phase One conference which will take place in Craigavon Civic Centre on June 8th 2001. The Chief Executive Officer of the Southern Education and Library Board will deliver a keynote speech. We are hoping to share our learnings with as many people as possible in education. The film that the boys produced in conjunction with the Nerve Centre will be on view as well. The whole day will be spent in celebration of the work and the journey that these teachers have embarked on. We intend to publish the conference proceedings, which will include some of the pupils. Please feel free to contact me via email for a free copy of our Biennial Review and a copy of the proceedings.
Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986), Becoming Critical: Knowing Through Action Research. London: Falmer Press
Eyben, Morrow and Wilson (1997), A Worthwhile Venture? Practically Investing in Equity, Diversity & Interdependence in Northern Ireland. Belfast: The Understanding Conflict Trust
Farrell, S. (1998), Peer Mediation, An Evaluation 1995-1998. Derry: EMU psp
Fraser, M. (1974) Children in Conflict. Middlesex. Penguin
Fullan and Stiegelbauer, S. (1991), The New Meaning of Educational Change. London: Cassell.
Hutchinson, B. (1998), Learning Action Research and Managing Educational Change - Improvement in Careers Education: A Case Study of Managerialism in Action? Educational Management and Administration, Vol 26, pp373-379
Kilpatrick and Leich (1999), Inside the School Gates & the Troubles. Summary of a Research Report in to how schools support children in relation to the political conflict in Northern Ireland. Belfast. Save the Children
Lortie, D. (1975), Schoolteacher. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Matthew, Sir R.H. (1964), The Belfast Regional Survey and Plan, Belfast. HMSO
Merton, R.K. (1957), Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, Illinois. Free Press
McKenna, F. and Melaugh, M. (1998), Parades and Marches - Developments at Drumcree, 1995-1998, http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/parade/develop.htm
McKernan, J. (1981), Transfer at 14 - A Study of the Craigavon two tier system as an organizational innovation in education. London. NICER
McNiff, J. (2001), In conversation with teachers at the Seagoe Hotel, Portadown, February 18th 2001.
Smith, L.A. and Keith, P.M. (1971), Anatomy of Educational Innovation: An Organizational Analysis of an Elementary School. New York: John Wiley
Smith, A. (1999), Education and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, Paper presented at AERA Conference 1999. Montreal
Stake, R. (1967) ‘The Countenance of Educational Evaluation.’ Teachers College Record, Vol.68, No.7, pp 523-540.
Stenhouse, L. (1976) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann Educational Books
Wilson, D. and Morrow, D. (1998) Understanding Work. Belfast. The Understanding Conflict Trust
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