As a current senior in college, my friends and classmates all seem to have one thing on their mind—life after college. In addition to searching for jobs, preparing for interviews, and adding the final touches to our résumés, our every move is influenced by our perpetual anxiety about entering “the real world.”
While I have not completely avoided this stage, I am confident that my study abroad experience last semester in Northern Ireland has given me a more definitive direction for my future.
On top of attending classes, experiencing a new, urban culture, and exploring the stunning farmlands and coastlines of the island, I had the opportunity to be a teacher’s assistant in a local primary school. As both a student and a teacher abroad, I witnessed the significance of education and the wonders of lifelong learning.
An Education Student’s Paradise
Although the weather was dreary, I instantly fell in love with my adopted university the moment I set foot onto what felt like a secluded enchanted forest/national wildlife reserve.
As an Education minor, I was thrilled to be at Stranmillis University College, an institution dedicated to the training of future teachers. I come from a home university with very few students in the Education program, so it was refreshing to be surrounded by local students constantly discussing their lesson plans, international students comparing curricular and pedagogical differences at dinner, and professors dedicated to developing the minds of the next generation of educators. It truly was a community of learning, filled with passionate individuals and aligned with the tasks of modern day citizenship.
It was the service learning component of the program that enabled me to make the connections between theoretical knowledge and practical skills in my community.
I took classes regarding the Arts, Northern Ireland Culture and Education, Early Church History, and Current Issues in the Early Years. These gave me a basic understanding of the curriculum and practices of an education system very different from my own.
But it was the service learning component of the program that enabled me to make the connections between theoretical knowledge and practical skills in my community.
From a University Class to a Primary School
Although my practicum began as a mere requirement for my home university’s teacher licensure program, it quickly became something I looked forward to each week.
During my time in a Primary 2 classroom at Holy Rosary Primary School, I spent one day each week observing, assisting, and teaching lessons in a classroom of around 20 seven- and eight-year-olds. Being directly engaged with the community connected me on a deeper level to Belfast and its history of segregated education and religion.
Around the city, there are still remnants of the tension between Catholics and Protestants (a time period in the late 20th century referred to as “the Troubles”). But despite this, Holy Rosary places the children at the center of their vision for a “happy, respectful, progressive, successful” school.
As I watched the children develop academically and socially during my time with them, I was constantly impressed by the positive environment and overall eagerness of the students who were fascinated and engaged with every aspect of their school day.
The reflective planning of their exceptional teacher allowed the students to transition seamlessly from one activity to the next, with an emphasis on play-based learning, peer teaching, and a combination of small and large group activities. Despite the students’ differing backgrounds and levels of prior knowledge, the differentiation of task, outcome, support, pace, and resources allowed inclusion of all.
Unique Teaching Techniques and Community Engagement
Northern Ireland is unique in that personal skills and learning intentions are openly discussed and clearly labelled on all work. For example, before doing an activity with math manipulatives, the teacher passed out a worksheet with the learning intention posted on top: “Students shall make a sensible estimate of a small number of objects and begin to approximate to the nearest 10 or 100.”
With so many other tasks, worries, and goals on their mind, students and teachers alike can easily lose sight of the meaning behind a task. I found this simple act of metacognition crucial in guiding student’s understanding.
In a similar manner, my semester abroad, and specifically my time in the primary classroom, forced me to really reflect on what I want to do with my life and why.
Working at Holy Rosary was a simple way for me to become involved with and give back to the community that was my home for five months, but it also pushed me to think about the personal and professional skills I was building and how they fit into my future.
Stranmillis University College also offers a lot of opportunities for the community to get involved in continuing their education.
Even after graduating, students and community members are invited to attend professional development classes offered at Stranmillis. Topics are widely varied, ranging from Creative Drama Training for Education Professionals, Getting to Know Irish Wildflowers, Language classes, and Meditation, to Conspiracy Theories and Utopian Dreams. I was in awe of this promotion of lifelong learning, and inspired by the individuals who choose to enhance their lives through education.
Even at a young age, the inquisitiveness, eagerness, and open-mindedness of the students at Holy Rosary mirror this pursuit of knowledge.
My semester abroad helped me to see that although learning opportunities are abundant, it is up to us to take advantage of them. Although I do not have all of the answers, this experience solidified my desire to choose a profession involved with teaching in some manner, whether it be as a classroom teacher, school psychologist, or education advocate.
Study abroad opened my eyes to a wealth of opportunities for lifelong learning, and inspired me to take advantage of them in my own future.