My critical insights from the field of practice
My 40-year timeline as a teacher and teacher educator separates into three parts: the first 15 years as a teacher in secondary schools, the middle 10 years supporting teachers’ Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in schools on the west coast of Ireland, and the last 15 years as an educational researcher and teacher educator in a university setting. It is only in the last decade, since completion of my PhD study in education in Trinity College Dublin (Mooney Simmie, 2009) that I acquired the opportunity to delve deeply into the vast literature and find my voice in the academy in the cultural politics of education.
Teacher in a secondary school
I was a secondary school teacher of young people for 15 years in Galway city. I taught physics, science, and mathematics during the day, astronomy on a voluntary basis at lunchtime, and in the evenings I worked with interested students (about ten students every year) on research projects in preparation for entry into a national Young Scientist Competition. The school was a voluntary secondary school, under the trusteeship of a Catholic religious order, a midsize urban school with a mixed intake, many middle-class parents with ambition for university progression, and a local catchment of young people from socially deprived areas. The school had an atmosphere of care and community and offered a rich menu of extracurricular activities.
An outstanding feature of the school was its commitment to social justice and to critical consciousness. I liked to keep up-to-date with my subject area and to share in solidarity with other teachers for improvement in working conditions, in particular for access to resources to teach in new and interesting ways. I was an active member of the voluntary Irish Science Teachers Association (ISTA) and the secondary teacher’s union, the Association for Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI).
During that time, I wrote three books in chemistry and junior science for secondary school students, published by Folens Publishers and School and College Publishing in Dublin. I worked on a part-time basis with the Science Education Department of the National University of Ireland, NUI Galway where I made and presented three chemistry and science videos for teachers and students, used in lower and upper secondary schools. While I thoroughly enjoyed my “calling” to teaching and was driven by an inner commitment to the vocation of teaching, it was not always straightforward and there were obstacles and constraints I encountered along the way and there were many reflexive blind spots yet to identify.
I always had a great interest in polities, in issues of social justice and equality of condition, and I always seized opportunities in school and elsewhere to have a voice in debates. This interest arose from my background, as a girl coming from a large family and a poor background who was spurred on in secondary school by some of my teachers to aim high and to continue to progress my love of science and mathematics to university level. This was at a time in Ireland when most girls did not select higher mathematics, few studied chemistry, and fewer female voices were heard in the public forum. At home and in school, I was encouraged to debate about politics and to question the type of society and world worth aiming for.
While teaching, I worked on a voluntary basis for some years in the early 1990s with a politician at his weekly clinic in Galway, a politician who later was to become the President of Ireland, Michael D Higgins (Mooney Simmie, 2012). It was an exciting time for Irish women as the country had just elected our first woman President of Ireland, Mary Robinson.
Having a voice in the public forum and having a voice in the schooling and education systems were not always one and the same thing. At the school setting, there were occasions where I struggled with feelings of not being included. I chaired staff meetings for a time at a young age and was a member of a senior advisory group to the school principal. However, I often had a felt sense of lack of recognition (D-identity) at staff meetings, it was an elite and gendered space reserved for certain members, mostly male members of staff to voice their concerns and opinions. The majority of female staff did not participate at staff meetings preferring instead to talk outside the public forum (Baxter, 2006). It was going to be much later, and after I started my doctoral studies and read more deeply into the cultural politics of Ireland that I gained an understanding of the “consensualist” dynamics at play in schooling. Teaching was framed at that time and continues to date to be framed as a moral and apolitical endeavor. I did not question this framing for many years. I was not wide-awake to the multiple ways life in schools and reforms, such as the recent Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) reproduce inequality and society, power, and privilege (Apple, 2012, 2013; McLaren, 2015).
However, from the first day I started teaching I understood my role was not only to pass on culture and tradition and the existing (partial and evolving) canon of specialist knowledge to the next generation but also the importance of education as a practice of freedom and liberation, opening spaces for all student voices to be heard, for daring to transgress and for acting as a problem-poser and trouble-maker for a just democratic society (hooks, 1994).
As a teacher working inside schooling as a reproductive system of stratification, I sec many teacher identity contradictions in my role and have more recently learned how to articulate this and how to critically interrogate my complicit role in schooling as a transaction of domestication and colonization. Critical feminist postcolonial perspectives can hold in tension and contradiction masculinist and feminist perspectives, student-teacher
Remaining a student of teaching forever 29 contradictions, universalist-particularist perspectives, problem-solving and problem-posing perspectives, and dilemma-management as well as understanding there are also some unsolvablc dilemmas for teaching as a public good (Edling & Mooney Simmie, 2020).