Teachers Inspire Ireland 20232024
TI Podcast Ep10

2022 Podcasts

DCU’s Changemaker Schools Network is helping to empower primary school childrenEpisode 10, Fiona Collins and Frank Keane

This episode looks at DCU’s Changemaker Schools Network which is a collaborative, professional, learning network of 19 primary schools from all over the island of Ireland who are creating systemic change in education.

Louise hears from Fiona Collins, the network coordinator. She tells her the network aims to support teachers to lead programmes of change in their schools and to support schools to address society's most pressing challenges such as mental health, inequality, and climate change.

The work is grounded in the four pillars of empathy, creativity, leadership and teamwork and Fiona says, “our overall ambition is to transform and reimagine the education system and to empower our students to thrive in this ever-changing world.”

Louise then chats to Frank Keane who is principal of Scoil Bhríde Shantalla in Galway City which is one of the Changemaker Schools. He tells her that joining the network, “was like finding your own tribe.”

Louise hears about Creative Nation, Sea Schools and a Mentoring Programme that have been introduced to the pupils and he says, “it's the fact that it's child led that inspires us every day.

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Hello, and welcome to the Teachers Inspire podcast. Organised and run by Dublin City University, Teachers Inspire is an Ireland wide initiative that seeks to celebrate teachers and to recognise the transformative role they play in our lives and in our communities.

My name is Louise O'Neill and I am delighted that I have been asked once again to curate, and share with you, the many uplifting stories about teachers who have made a difference in your life. Check out these stories and more on the website, Teachersinspire.ie

With this episode, we will find out a bit more about a particular network of schools that DCU is very involved with. It is called the DCU Changemaker Schools Network. And to give you an idea of what being a changemaker is like, from the point of view of one of the children, here's a clip of a student from Eglish National School in County Galway.

I am a change maker because I like to set out a good example to the younger students. That shows leadership and empathy. And I also like helping Bernie in the polytunnel. And that also shows empathy and leadership and creativity because I'm the first person to step out there and help Bernie and the older children copy what I do, and that makes Eglish national school a better place… music fades…

Fiona Collins is the network coordinator of the DCU Changemaker Schools Network. Fiona has come to the Network on secondment from Francis Street School in Dublin, where she was principal. She is also a lecturer at the DCU Centre for Education Disadvantage and a PhD candidate. And, if you're not feeling, you know, inadequate enough, she's also a TEDx speaker. So welcome to the Teachers Inspire podcast!

Thank you very much. Delighted to be here.

I'm really excited to talk about this. So, for those who haven't heard of the DCU Changemaker Schools Network, could you maybe explain a little bit about, you know, what the network is and what its goals are?

Fiona: Yep. So, the DCU Changemaker Schools Network is a collaborative, professional, learning network of 19 primary schools, all over the island of Ireland who are chosen for creating systemic change in education.

It's essentially a social innovation initiative of the DCU Institute of Education which aims to support teachers to lead programmes of change in their schools, to support schools to address society's most pressing challenges such as mental health, inequality, and climate change.

The overarching goal is to support students to develop their critical thinking skills and their problem solving skills. And we do this by grounding the work in the four pillars of: empathy, creativity, leadership and teamwork.

And it is those four pillars, upon which the network is founded, and those four pillars are the precursor to 21st century learning skills, skills of the future, and I suppose our overall ambition is to transform and reimagine the education system and to empower our students to thrive in this ever-changing world.

And where better to start than with our schools? And where better to start then with one of the most innovative universities in the country and the largest Institute of Education in Europe.

I love like, the way your goal is like, we just basically want to change not just the entire school system but, you know, the world. I think, you know, that's just you know, aim big!



I suppose, like, why do you think that we need Changemaker Schools? I mean, how will society benefit from more schools becoming involved with this network?

So, we have one very, very simple and powerful idea. And that's to support our students as changemakers. And a changemaker as someone with the skills and confidence to lead change in their home school and community. And the challenge of the network and the challenge of the schools is the development of those skills. And that's where DCU comes into it and that's why it's a School-University Partnership.

The reality is, we know school is boring.

[soft laugher]

We know the old ways are not working. We know, from all of the research, that students when they're engaged with their world, in the current context, are encouraged and inspired to change the world.

The future is now. Our students are the future. And where better to start fostering these skills than in our schools where children spend such a formative time in their lives, where their identities are created and where schools are sites for transformation and change.

And our teachers are powerful agents in developing students’ agency, and it is our students that are going to save the world and reclaim the mistakes that have been made.

Okay, now, a teacher who is involved with this network, did describe you as a spiritual leader. And I sort of thought he was exaggerating..but now listening, I'm like, I will join your cult, Fiona, like, I will follow you where you want to go!

[soft laughter]

You see, I really believe in this because from my own experience, and my own background, and I know you, you are interested in teachers, and you come from a long line of teachers.

I never wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be a social worker. And I wanted to work specifically in prisons. And I had a deep interest in social justice. And I was always very drawn towards marginalized students, particularly Travellers when I was younger.

And my mother, being the formidable woman that she was, decided that wasn't the career for me. And she told me I was to do teaching. I wanted to go to Dublin where the craic was because I'm a Cork woman, so I said let's go to Dublin.

And I wasn't, you know, that drawn towards it initially, until I had my first teaching practice in a school in Tallaght, in Killinarden and I absolutely fell in love, fell in love.

And it was there I suppose my interest was ignited in the power of education. And it was there, I knew that through connection, and through relationships that you could make real changes.

And when I left college, I got a job in a school in the inner city of Dublin, in the Liberties. And this school used to be called ‘Frantic Street’, because it was so hard to get teachers to teach in the school.

And I became principal at the age of 26.

Wow. 26.

At 26 I was principal of an all-boys school in the heart of the Liberties in Dublin eight -

Louise: your mother wasn't the only formidable woman in your family, I get the feeling! -

[soft laughter]

But over the course of my time there and I had wonderful mentors, and that's what I always say to teachers, is to support each other because it's that mentorship, and I suppose when you when you are with other people, and particularly other women who can guide you and see something in you to support you, but I had a formidable predecessor who saw something in me.

And when she handed the mantle over to me at the ripe old age of 26, over the course of 10 years with the team in the school, we developed what we now call an empathy-based methodology programme where we worked with our students around cultivation of empathy to address behavioural issues, but essentially, address some of the societal challenges that our students were facing.

But we were nominated as a Changemaker school in 2014 for that work and that's when our lives changed.

That's when the school became on the map. That's when we were introduced to schools all over the world who are doing really innovative things.

That's where we met other schools in Ireland that were thinking similar to us, which is what are the contextual needs of our students and how can we address them? And what does that look like in our classroom and how can we harness this time that we're spending with these students to change their lives and to change the world?

And then that has led me to this lovely position that I have now where I get to work with schools like this, and like Frank, that you were talking about, all the time every day.

Well, I was gonna say we can now maybe turn to Frank who is here via Zoom. And as I said before Fiona came in, was absolutely singing her praises. So Frank Keane, you are principal of Scoil Bhríde Shantalla in Galway City.

And, I suppose I've just I'm really curious to know, I suppose, what it's like to be one of the schools who put this into practice and how you're seeing results on the ground. So, Frank, when you say that, you know, you're a Changemaker School, what does that mean to you and what does that mean for your pupils?

We were operating probably, embracing a lot of what the Changemaker Schools have (do) before we joined the network. And as I said to Fiona, and some of the Changemakers in the past, when we joined the Changemaker Network, the best way I can describe this would be it was like finding your own tribe.

There was a powerful and an incredible energy between the schools and the personnel in the schools that gave us a drive and I suppose an encouragement.

And it gives… it empowered us to believe in the vision that we were presenting to our own children that we were on the right path.

And the lovely thing about the Changemaker School, unlike any other organisation, you're not applying, we were just chosen at random, and we had no idea who chose us or why we were chosen.

And there was a process that we went through and that was at, that was in 2017. And while that operated somewhat in the darkness, it was the link with DCU and, and Fiona's commitment to get involved with DCU, that set a framework for us, that made us believe and gave us, I suppose, the toolkit to go forward.

And those skills that she talks about were hugely, I suppose, impressive, in that we knew we were empathetic and in empathy, we were strong on empathy. And then suddenly, there was leadership, there was teamwork, there was creativity. And for us, that was, I suppose, the lightbulb moment for us, that was the change.

Now we had a group that we could connect with. Now, there was a community of practice that were similar to us. Now, there was like-minded people and like-minded individuals. And it had a university base giving it, I suppose, credibility to the education philosophy that we were following.

But most of all, it was child centered, child based, child led. And, like, for us, it's the fact that it's child led that inspires us every day.

So, the best way I can say as a Changemaker school – I’ll just finish with this and take the next question - is that in the past, our staff, our staff would, would be watery, or maybe not be one hundred percent all the initiatives. There was one hundred percent buy-in to the Changemaker School philosophy.

And it was because it was a positivity approach. No longer did you look at a problem negatively, you looked at the problem and, ‘this is a problem, how can we change this? How can the children be involved in changing this? What would you do as a child? How can you help us, what's your advice to us?’

Because the system we were working in, in the past wasn’t working, so we needed to get advice from the people who can make a difference in the future.

So, you said, you started in 2017, so what initiatives have you introduced in the school and what has been the response with the students and the teachers to those initiatives?

Yeah. So, first of all, a lot of the initiatives are children led, it's coming from what they need, what they see, what they value, where they see their .. where they see education can be beneficial for them.

For example, one of the huge issues that was (in) our school was a lot of children, you know, had severe language difficulty, and it was a high percentage of our children at the school had had dyslexia.

These were struggling within the class system. And one of the teachers took you know, took advice from other children who was struggling it and said, look, I'll help you.

And he did a huge advocacy for assessing children with dyslexia, even though there was no benefit directly for the school in doing that, because from an advocacy point there was a long-term benefit for them as children.

He set up, and then he didn't want this to be seen as negative, so he set it up as a positive so he, he got… he came to me and he said, I know that you're not going to like this because I want you to assess kids that you're going to get nothing for teacher-wise, but you'll get something like lifelong support for.

And in that, then we had we set up a group where, where children because they were assessed with dyslexia, were able to get exemptions from Irish. And then when they got their exemption from Irish, he was able to take off them out from Irish class and set up a group called Creative Nation.

And he created a positive link, that this was positive, that there are loads of really, really, clever people just like you.

and what is Creative Nation then Frank?

So Creative Nation is a specific group for dyslexic children, that, that addresses their issues, you know, and allows them to do things like mind mapping.


And so, the level of stress reduction for those children in a class setting, or the fact that someone supported them and someone believed in them, gave them a voice that their voice was listened to.

And they themselves then, you know, give it back to you in spades because they were leaders then. They were coming back, they were seen as, as proactive in their own education.

They were doing, they were going around the school and they were again, hugely, some of these children were hugely IT skills, you know, they, now they had access to the actual resources, the IT resources that they needed. So, I meant, that was mind blowing.

Then we engaged with forest schools. Again, a lot of our children are city based, a lot of our children wouldn't see the value of the forest, you know, the outdoor education.

So through the Heritage scheme, and I suppose, or own initiatives we decided that Forest School was, was a real opportunity for outdoor learning.

And, again, like, you know, that's what children wanted, that's what city kids needed. You know, again, they were, they were like, they were coming back, you know, muddied and wet, but smiles in their faces having learned loads.

And then, stemming from that, I could go on about it but stemming from that, we also looked at our staff and where the interests were, where they could do it.

And we had a girl who had taken a career break and gone on a, on a tall ship around the world. And then when she came back, she was lecturing to schools and in around Galway City and she showing her pictures.

And we said, like, we're a maritime county, we're living on the sea, we are beside the sea and our kids don't engage with the sea. So, we set up our own innovative programme called Sea Schools.

And we linked with the Galway Sailing club and the Galway Hooker club and we've, we have now kids using this, going out on boats on the sea because they're, they're part of Sea School.

And that, like, again, one child came back and said when I, when I'm finished here, I am going to, to be a fisherman, or I'm going to be a sailor.

And it's just like, there's a life out there. There's so much that can be done in the sea, and like we're in year two, and phase two of this and we had kids, you know, helping to repair boats, we have kids learning about what you know, the, you know, the values of sea markers, you know, it's cross-curricular there is so much that can be done with it.

And like four teachers have already completed a course on Sea Schools and like that's up and running in our school.

We set up a mentoring program. We asked the children like who their heroes were, who inspires them. And we have had people like Gavan Hennigan, who sailed across the Atlantic and Whiskey Talisker challenge from Spain right across to the West Indies in a race.

And he was, he brought his boat in before he started and he spoke to the kids from the middle of the Atlantic while he was sailing across, across it. That was inspiring.

We had, Pat Lam was in, when he was Connaught rugby coach telling them how sport can be life changing. We had a guy in called Dean McMenamin in who had cycled around the world for four years. We had another guy in called Peter O'Connell, who had climbed Mount Everest.

And like, if you give positive role models to the children, it inspires them that they can do anything they want, if they put their minds to it

Yeah, of course, I mean, obviously, I suppose we have to acknowledge, you know, your staff as well. I mean, it sounds like it says they are really examples and (are) inspiring for, for the students. And you too, obviously, Frank, I'll have to I'll include you since you're here!

[laughter from both]

Thanks Louise! Yeah, it's lovely to have a staff that buys into it but to be honest, for us, agency is at the heart of what we do.

And it's really not about us as teachers, it's about, I suppose, making the, the treat the children that we have now, you know, are the citizens of the present, but they're the changemakers for the future.

So like, that's what we're really trying to create. And, and again, it's very easy to do it now because you have a network of support and you have a community of practice and you have people, people like, I suppose, like I said, like her Fiona is inspiring in her leadership qualities. And she's, she's certainly able to.. she's driven, but she's, she's there to crack the whip to get us all involved!

[soft laughter]

No, I'm only joking. I mean,

it's so clear listening to both of you just, I mean, your passion for this project and for this network is just so apparent.

Yeah. I think we've lived it and we've seen the transformative power of us. And it's breaking away from traditional notions of education, or that institutional idea of school.

It's working together as a network and I think, particularly post- COVID networks and communities of practice are becoming very flavoursome in a way or of interest, because we've seen how people lean on each other to manage crisis and micromanage crisis.

And I mean, the heart of this is the students and the heart of this is, and Frank alluded to it, citizenship. We're not educating citizens of the future. We are educating citizens of the now with a voice and a right to be heard and what does that look like?

And that's what's inspiring and motivating for us within the network and it unites us as well towards this kind of common interest.

And you know, yourself when you talk to teachers, teachers are often motivated. And I heard you speak about a vocation I don't I don't necessarily like using that word, but they're motivated in particular ways and it's often around social justice, or climate justice or addressing some sort of inequality or some sort of injustice in some sort of a way.

And that sense of empowerment can be quite motivating because you feel that you are doing good. And why, you know, why are we here? And we're here to do good and where better than to work with children in order to support them in their lives and support the kind of journey that they're going on.

Louise: Yeah. Well, thank you, Fiona. And thank you, Frank. That was just such as, as I said, it is just your passion for this is so clear. So, thank you both so much for coming in and speaking to me on the Teachers Inspire podcast.

Thank you, Louise.

Thanks Louise, thank you.

I'm Louise O'Neill. And thank you for joining me for this episode of the Teachers Inspire Ireland podcast. You can hear all of the episodes wherever you get your podcasts, and you can find out more at teachersinspire.ie. Until the next time…

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