Teachers Inspire Ireland 20222023
TI Podcast Ep12

2022 Podcasts

Well known mathematician and broadcaster Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin discusses her passion for education and STEM in particular.Episode 12, Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin

In this episode Louise is joined by Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin. An Assistant Professor in the School of Mathematics & Statistics at UCD, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin talks about her love of education and how she did not initially set out to be a teacher.

She tells Louise she is someone who “never thought that they were good at maths,” and she had failed her maths test at Christmas in sixth year. It was a grind that helped make the difference - “it was literally somebody else explaining it in a different way.” “I really think mathematics is down to how it is explained to you and if we do more of that discussion and that peer learning and that dialogue in the classroom, mathematics becomes the subject that it is in real life and not the subject that it reflects in a book.” Now working with future science and maths teachers, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin says there is a lack of women in the sciences and specifically in STEM and with Louise she shares stories about a Barbie doll that said, ‘math is hard.’ She also talks about chairing The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.

Click here to listen to the podcast


Louise:
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

So we are coming close to the end of the current podcast series, which means that we are also closer to knowing which four teachers will be presented with a Teachers Inspire award for 2022.

I have loved recording this podcast. It has allowed me to speak to some of the men and women who nominated a teacher, and you'll hear more from them in another episode.

They have all shared their stories, and each was so powerful in its own way. And I can honestly say that each and every person we spoke to, whether they were a nominated teacher or the person who made the nomination, showed such authenticity. It was inspirational to listen to them.

Many of the teachers we have spoken to, and about, were role models for their students. And often they were unaware of the huge impact they had on their students and their students’ future choices.

The future and how it may look inside, and outside, education and academia, is something I am very much looking forward to discussing with my guest today.

Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is an assistant professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at UCD and she is passionate about many things, including STEM, and in her spare time, she is also chairing The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.

Okay, Aoibhinn, amongst your many jobs - you're just incredibly accomplished - but you are a university lecturer and researcher now, but you've also been a post primary teacher,

Aoibhinn:
Yeah

Louise:
So, when was that?

Aoibhinn:
So, a meandering path into everything, I think is what I've had but I went and I started a PhD in London, actually, and realised that I didn't want to do that. It was in Mathematical Biology and I loved the sound of it but at the time when I was doing it -

-Louise:
Did you really love the sound of that?! I am like why, how?! -

[laughter from both]

Aoibhinn:
I really did, I had a scholarship for four years but I was just really unhappy and had to take a step back and just go okay, what's wrong? What do I want to do?

And I had finished my degree and had started to get really surprised by all the people that I was meeting to say that they really hated maths and why on earth would anyone wants to do physics.

And then I realized my mother was right and I should be a teacher because I really wanted to be surrounded by people. And so I decided them to stop that PhD, I went back and then did my postgraduate Diploma in Education and taught in St. Mark's Community School in Tallaght as an unqualified teacher first, and then as a student teacher and then as a teacher.

And I taught maths, physics, Applied Maths and junior science there and learned so much from those kids. It was amazing.

And then I got an invitation to, to do a PhD then in Trinity. And while I loved teaching, I loved being in the classroom, I love being with students; there was a lot about the system that I thought needed changing. And I still think that and I'm still wondering what the best way is of, you know, effecting change.

But I thought, you know, well, maybe academia is the way of doing it. So, I did my PhD then looking at specifically teacher education and the best way for teachers to learn about their practice in their work. And then was very lucky that a position came up in UCD. So, I’m assistant professor in Mathematics Education in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, and they had just started an initial teacher education programme.

So where students, undergrads can decide to become a math and science teacher. So I do think it's wonderful. It's something that UCD does very well.

We don't ask the six years in their CAO to define exactly what they want to do. We just say if you think you want to do science, come here and after first year, you'll have a better idea of what you might like and after second year, you should know then what your degree is.

So you go in one door and you come out 27

Louise:
Yeah

Aoibhinn:
so five of those 27 are to become a math and science teacher and I am the programme director of that. So, any of the undergrads are thinking about becoming a maths and science teacher and UCD they come through me and I absolutely love teaching them.

It's given me great freedom and you know, planning the curriculum and designing what they learn as math and science teachers in UCD, we really want them to be mathematicians and scientists first and then educators second, developing into that throughout their whole study… So they do it for five years in total.

And so it's something I'm really proud of and now I have somebody in my class whose a past student of one of my UCD students

Louise:
Oh Wow, I think that means you’re old Aoibhinn,

Aoibhinn:
It means I’m old!

[laughter]

Louise:
We are the same age, it’s fine!

[laughter]

Aoibhinn:
I’m a bit older than you!

[laughter]

Aoibhinn:
It's great to see that because that is something that I did want to try and impact basically the education system and the biggest way of doing that, in my opinion, is through teachers. So, if my teachers are going out now, potentially influencing others to become teachers –

Louise:
that’s a really good sign –

Aoibhinn:
I’m delighted.

Louise:
Yeah. And you said earlier about like that you, I suppose that there was change that you would like to see,

Aoibhinn:
yeah,

Louise:
in what terms or?

Aoibhinn:
it's still there in the terms of like what a teacher does in their day-to-day and how the system can support them better.

Like, you see all of the time there are so many teachers who are willing to give up their free time for the benefit of the students in their class, or for their colleagues, you know, but we don't do that.. we don't allow them to do that in a way that's very supportive, in my opinion.

And we don't provide them with professional development that they're actually asking for. And a lot of that needs to be collaborative, it needs to be school based needs to be properly funded, needs to be properly resourced, needs to be with materials that they will actually want to use and can reflect on in their classrooms.

So, it's still something that I'm hoping well, that I think we can do an awful lot better on and I hope that maybe some of the research and work that I do can influence. But I think, you know, teachers are so influential, and education is such a fundamental pillar of society, that we need to value our teachers and teaching more. And so, whatever we can do in that regard, I think we should.

Louise:
And did you always want to be a teacher?

Aoibhinn: No.

[laughter]

Louise:
I was gonna say like with your mom or your dad?

Aoibhinn:
So no more than yourself, Louise, so both my parents are teachers. My parents actually met while my mom was on teaching practice and my dad was the principal of the school. He was very young principal -

Louise:
it sounds like a rom-com waiting to be written -

[laughter]

Aoibhinn:
Yeah, in rural Ireland it really is because he had a local man who used to cycle everywhere and he used to tell him ‘téir abhaile’ because he's from Galway, like a big foreigner in the middle of Mayo.

[laughter]

Aoibhinn:
So yeah, my parents are teachers, I've few aunts who are teachers, cousins who are teachers. So, you know, the, you know, the way it is -

Louise:
it’s the family business! -

Aoibhinn:
and I swore I wouldn't do it, just you know, but I loved it. And I love it. I love teaching. And I really do love teaching my undergrads, it's a very different way of teaching, as opposed to your secondary school classroom, it's totally different. But I do enjoy being in a class with learners.

Louise:
And in what way is it different?

Aoibhinn:
teaching in a secondary school is full on like from start to finish, you are just on and you're on your feet and you're interacting with them nonstop.

You maybe have maybe 100 students going through your hands every day. And I love it. Like it's craic, it's banter, every class is different, you have all your personalities, and you need to keep track of them, you know, and keep an eye on how they're going.

So, it's just challenging, you're on your feet, it's buzzed up, it’s energy, it’s full intensity

University is very different. It's a different pace. We don't have the same hours of teaching, but we have absolute full control over your curriculum and over your assessments. And I really enjoy that part of it.

And we have different types of engagement as well. But I think you can very much direct that according to your own style. So, it’s just a different way of doing it. But you still get that enjoyment of, you know, having learners in your classroom with you.

Louise:
Yeah. You mentioned earlier now you're the programme director - again, another sort of string to your bow - you're the programme director for the BSc in Science, Mathematics and Education in UCD.

So, your research is focused on maths education and particularly teacher education. And I am aware that you hate when people say this, okay, I know you're going to be annoyed at me now…. But I did struggle with maths in school. And I think, you know, it was a lot of that was probably coming from my family saying, ‘Oh, we're not good at maths.’ You know like ‘our brains don't work in that way,’ ‘we're better at languages or, or literature’ and I suppose, like, I'd love to know about the research you're doing and is that trying to make you know, STEM subjects like maths more accessible to people like me?

Aoibhinn:
Yeah. Well, first of all, I'm not annoyed with you! It's not your fault if you didn't enjoy mathematics. I guess I feel culturally, it's something we just need to keep an eye on. Because I do think in Ireland, we can flippantly say, ‘oh, sure, I was never a maths person. I wouldn't worry about it. We are more language people’ or whatever it is.

And you know, none of that is backed up by the research to say way that your brain works in this way and not the other way. It's not a, you know, it's not one thing or the other.

So, I think we just need to be careful about that in our language but I think those stereotypes, unfortunately, are pervasive in films and in sitcoms, you know, that if it's the person who's good at maths, they're a bit nerdy and obviously can't have that many friends and they prefer being on their own.

And I just think it's such a disservice because I work with mathematicians, do you know, it's a highly creative, highly collaborative field. And I think if you joined us than our School of Maths and Statistics, which is the biggest school, in university in Ireland, like there is about 60 of us, I think it's a big disparate group and there's a lot of craic that happens, you wouldn't think it like maybe from the outside, but like, it's a hugely collaborative subject.

And I think we don't teach it in that way. It's something that I do at my undergrads a lot, I ask them to think about the subject and are we teaching it to create mathematicians or are we teaching it for a textbook and an exam?

And unfortunately, I think that's we're doing an awful lot of (exam) and so mathematics, it actually, should be very much based on a dialogue in a discursive classroom where we're like, actually presenting our work and our ideas to each other, because there is always more than one way to answer a mathematics question.

And I was somebody, Louise, who never thought that they were good at maths like, I failed my Christmas tests in sixth year and was like ‘that's it now, that's the proof I needed, I'm dropping down to ordinary level.’

And thankfully, my dad said, No, I think you need to give it one more try and we'll get you grinds for six weeks, because you know, it wasn't a thing where everyone had grinds for the whole year long, we couldn't afford it either, but he said you can get six weeks of grinds, you can go to your mocks, and then we'll see.

And it was literally somebody else explaining it in a different way. And I bought the textbook from the boy’s school. And I just did that from cover to cover and I was like, oh that's.. I got that, you know, I was kind of looking for it to be more complicated than it actually was.

And I really think mathematics is down to how it is explained to you and if we do more of that discussion and that peer learning and that dialogue in the classroom, mathematics becomes the subject that it is in real life and not the subject that it reflects in a book.

And the, the textbooks often aren't written by mathematicians. And so, I don't think that they are reflective of what the subject is.

So I do think we have a history internationally of mathematics being considered as one that only geniuses can do well, and unfortunately, with all of the societal norms that we have, those geniuses tend to be male and they tend to be white and minorities can get locked out of those subjects then and we see a lack of women in the sciences more broadly, specifically, we call it STEM, it is the pSTEM subjects that I'd be looking at, which is math based, which is kind of you know, your physics, your engineering, your computer science.

And there is, there's a disparity there of the people that go into it. And a lot of that goes all the way back to the classroom. Unfortunately, it starts at about age six.

Louise:
Yeah.

Aoibhinn:
And how we talk to our younger selves, and how we talk to our children is really important about that. Even the Growing Up In Ireland study that came out last year, it found that girls who are high achieving in a classroom in primary school, their parents and their teachers often think that they aren't doing as well as the boys. But they are comparatively in all of their tests. But our perception of them says, ‘Oh they mustn't be’ or the girls themselves will internalise and say, ‘well, maybe I got the same, but like, I have to work twice as hard so I'm obviously not as good.’

And that's just not the truth. So there, there really are… it's a lot of cultural norms and societal messages and considerations of what it looks like to be a mathematician that kind of pervades all the classrooms. So that's something that I'm hopeful that the graduates from our program will start to, you know, be able to challenge.

Louise:
Yeah. Actually Aoibhinn, even as you were speaking, I was thinking of this Barbie that I had when - I'm sure have you heard about this Barbie - so you'd press a button and she would say things like, you know, ‘Pink is my favorite colour’ and ‘I want to go shopping.’ But there was one line where she says, ‘math is hard.’ Very American ‘Math’ and ‘Math is hard.’

Aoibhinn:
I use that in my first-year example and they (students) are really horrified that you pressed a button on your doll and it said, ‘math is hard, discoes are fun.’ But you still see it, in you know, like T shirts ‘too pretty for maths,’ you know,

Louise:
and you're like ‘no!’

Aoibhinn:
It’s ridiculous and so I do think it's important that we, we challenge those messages and that we have role models that we can look up to in all aspects of life, not just for maths, but in all aspects of life where there seems to be, you know a gender disparity, like we should have more female farmers and more female politicians and definitely more female mathematicians out there, you know, so yeah, I just think it's, it's good for us to highlight the positive stories about it rather than the negatives

Louise:
you're really fighting the good fight with that, because I think you've been so high profile in terms of being like, this is what, you know, for somebody who loves maths, this is what, you know, this is what it can look like.

Aoibhinn:
Thank you. I mean, I feel like a bit of a charlatan now in that I don't work as a professional mathematician anymore. I work in Maths Ed but like I did do my undergrad in theoretical physics and I absolutely loved it and those people in my class are still like really good close friends.

One of one of them actually works with me in UCD. And he, he studies gravitational waves and black holes, like he's one of the experts in the world on that. So we took a different route but we started out at the same point, but like, you know, we were working on our, our assignments and our, our problem sheets together, and it was comparable.

So, it's just really to kind of get that message out there that anybody can be good at something, it's just about practicing it in the right way.

Louise: And hard work

Aoibhinn:
Yeah

Louise:
You know, as I said, I've mentioned like a million things that you're doing at the moment, do something, you're very busy, you're very busy.

[laughter]

I know you've co presented ‘10 Things To Know About’ on RTÉ and you were talking earlier about, you know, that you've been chairing The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss, which is obviously very important. So like, why do you take off these opportunities Aoibhinn?

[laughter]

Aoibhinn:
That’s a very good question, I do ask myself…

Louise:
You know, like you’ve, your two small kids and like, your full-time job….!

Aoibhinn:
Yeah, I guess part of it is my consideration of what education is in the first place. And I think that that's not restricted to the formal classroom setting. So if, if you think of yourself as an educator in any sort of way, and I do, you know, that's public engagement and informal learning, as well as what you do in a classroom.

And so, I was catapulted into media totally by accident. And you know that that all began with The Rose of Tralee a long time ago. But with that, I started to talk about physics and the things that I really enjoyed.

And I guess that just kind of snowballed into being a science communicator and happily talking about science in a way that I hope is accessible to other audiences.

And so, when opportunities come around to continue doing that, I just, you know, I jumped at them, because it's something that I really enjoy doing.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss has been a complete eye opener, I've learned so much in that process.

It’s such a heartwarming experience that ninety nine random members of society will put up their hand and say, ‘Yeah, I'm going to give up six, actually seven weekends of my time,’ and not see my family or my friends but jump into a room with all these strangers that I've never met before and we're going to do some work together and come up with recommendations for the government.

But those people learned so much in those seven weekends from presenters from all across the world in all walks of life and they were taking in that information and then, you know, bringing it back as recommendations that we can give to government.

And I hope that my role in that, as chair, was to make sure that they were learning as much as they needed to, but also that we're communicating that back in a way that we can in an accessible way.

Louise:
So it's about education again..

Aoibhinn:
for me yeah it all boils down to what can we do to have a more societally, a society that's more engaged and for that to happen I think we need to be more scientifically literate especially nowadays there's so much information hitting us from all aspects, and particularly on social media, we need to be a bit more discerning about ‘well, hold on, what's that information telling me, who's telling me that information? Why are they showing me that graph? That looks a bit funny but I actually don't believe that because those numbers are all all over the place,’ you know.

So, I think it's all part of us becoming that engaged society and to do things as a society, as a humanity together, we need to have a good level of education for that… so that's kind of where it all boils down to.

Louise:
Yeah, this was, you know, coming back around to Teachers Inspire, which is why we're here, and that's, you know, really celebrating the work of teachers outside of the classroom and how they help, you know, and inspire kids. So, I suppose this is quite a charged question but Aoibhinn like, do you think in Ireland that we value teachers enough?

Aoibhinn:
I don't think we do. It is potentially a charged question. But I do think it's easily answered. I mean, as I've said, you know, teachers are really key to, to learning but to society.

You know they look after all of our young people from an early age, you know, I am so grateful for the teachers that my, my little boys have in their creche right now.

Like they're teaching them so much, but all the way through teachers have such an important role to play. And they impact the learners in their classroom, do you know.

I do say to my student teachers so often, like, it's a privilege that you have, but it's also something that you, you have a lot of responsibility as a teacher.

And so in that, I do think we should be kind of celebrating them more which is great that this this podcast, and, you know, awards do that as well.

But I probably think with the teacher shortages that we're having at the moment that we need to be putting even more support behind that and I do think we don't pay our teachers well enough.

They are highly skilled graduates. They are in high demand across the world for a reason. They're well, well-educated and they're driven, they're organised, they're enthusiastic, they're innovative, they're creative. You know, they're the ones who are bringing the next generation with the place they need to be. And I love that, like Ireland has a really good education for sustainable development strategy at the moment. But whose key to that?

Teachers!

Louise:
It all comes back to teachers.

Aoibhinn:
They are a corner stone, they really are. And we had a great history of respecting our teachers so well in our society but that has kind of dissipated.

And I guess it has, you know, with, we're introduced to far much more in society right now, but it's not on the career highlights of as many people as it probably should, at the moment, and we need to do our best to bring it back to that.

And I say that as somebody who, yes, I left teaching in the classroom, but I always keep up my registration, because I do always think maybe I will go back. Maybe when my boys are older, I'll go back, you know, because I do think it's such a rewarding job. And it's so lovely to meet your former students. And I love meeting my teachers, you know, from my secondary school and having chats with them now. And, you know, sharing with them ‘that was really influential’ and, you know, I had a great physics teacher who talked about like time travel and that, like, ignited so much in me that I was thinking about it. And I was like, ‘maybe I want to go and study this later in university.’

So yeah, teachers are integral, I think we should be paying them more. I think we should give them workable contracts that are more full time and I think we should be providing in their contracts for more time to allow them to be the professionals that they are rather than having to do that in kind of open times that they're not acknowledged for

Louise:
Yeah. Okay, so now I know what your next job is going to be after this. You’re going to be lobbying for teachers! Thank you so much for coming in today. It was so good to talk to you.

Thank you to Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin for joining me for this episode. You can find out more about Teachers Inspire and links to other episodes of the podcast at Teachersinspire.ie and you can listen wherever you get your podcasts. Until the next time.

Stories of inspirational teachers