Why inclusion in education mattersEpisode 2, Sinead O’Mahony
Inclusion in education is a recurring theme in the nominations to Teachers Inspire. In this week’s episode, Louise catches up with Sinead O’Mahony, who was one of the four awardees in 2019, the inaugural year of Teachers Inspire. She was nominated by Rachel Broderick whose son Daniel, now aged 11, was taught by Sinead.
After chatting to Sinead and Rachel, Louise introduces us to Elizabeth Mathews. She is an assistant professor with DCU’s School of Inclusive and Special Education.
She explains her interest in Irish Sign Language and tells Louise about a DCU pilot programme for deaf primary school teachers, the BEd in Irish Sign Language and the difference she believes it will make for deaf children.
Hello, and welcome to the teachers inspire podcast for 2022 organized and run by Dublin City University. Teachers Inspire is an Ireland wide initiative that seeks to celebrate teachers and to recognize 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.
Teachers inspire started in 2019, and there were over 400 teachers from all over Ireland nominated. It was an amazing response and a reminder to us that influential teachers have the ability to change our lives.
One of the awardees that year was Sinead O’Mahony, Sinead still teaches at the Midwest School for the Deaf in Limerick. She was nominated by Rachel Broderick, whose son Daniel, is now aged 11.
Inclusion in education is a theme that comes up time and time again in the nominations to Teachers Inspire, and, I know that inclusion and acceptance are very important to Rachel and Sinead, who both join me now. Welcome.
Rachel, we actually we mentioned your nomination before on the podcast. And just I suppose about how Sinead had such a positive impact on your son, Daniel. So, would you like to remind him of the listeners what was it about Sinead and really mortify Sinead now because she is on the line -I want you to really embarrass her here now okay, Rachel! So, would you remind our listeners what it was about Sinead and I suppose motivated you to nominate her in the first place?
Rachel: Oh, yeah, it is, it is kind of a hard one to answer in front of Sinead because I suppose the beauty of Teachers Inspire is that you can write it and someone else will speak for you later on at an awards ceremony and that is all fine.
But for us, I just think Sinead is a fantastic teacher, I think she approaches things with a real empathy for her students and a real kind of a questioning inside yourself, (of) how do we had we approach this particular student.
Very, very much so a person who looks at the individual and tailors it for them. So, I mean, I suppose Sinead is probably like an expert at changing education for the person the education needs to reach. That was really kind of why I really wanted to nominate her, and to have her kind of celebrated because I just think that was a really, really, it's a rare but brilliant quality in a teacher.
Yeah. And can you tell me a little bit, I suppose about how that impacted Daniel.
And for Daniel, because Daniel is deaf, and he has autism as well, he is definitely a very, very unique little man. And he had a lot of struggles being in that kind of environment, to kind of be challenged as well, because he likes to do things his own way..but Sinead knew when to approach, how to approach him, so that whenever he had to kind of take us up, that was challenging, he didn't become oppositional he kind of wanted to prove himself and wanted to kind of feel independent and feel proud of himself.
So she kind of brought out the best of him, I suppose, instead of challenging him, you know, and, and kind of making it a battle. You know, she brought him along and found things that would interest him from like Paw Patrol maths and having a little place in his classroom that had photos of his dogs on the wall, so that if he wanted to storm off, he kind of had a moment of real ‘home away from home’ and then could come back, you know, that he had a space to escape to but it was a safe in the classroom really close by.
And he always came back really quickly , well he eventually came back to the main subject, because, you know, she, she knew that you couldn't chase him that he had to come back himself.
And I just thought that was all, it was all lovely little things that came together, like there's thousands; it's so hard to pick one thing because nothing worked alone. It was the tapestry of kind of little things that worked for Daniel. I mean Daniel was only four, very, very young to start and yeah, she was very good.
And how is Daniel now? Like, do you know do you still talk about Sinead or about Teachers Inspire?
Well, you know what we do.
Daniel doesn’t want to know me now, he is all grown up!
You're not cool anymore! Sorry Sinead!
No, no, no! I am the Junior teacher.
What would you say Rachel?
I was thinking about this the other day and I kind of thought it's kind of like being a good parent. It's a testimony to you that you've prepared them so well that when they move on from you they're not looking backwards.
They're like, No, am ready for the next thing, your for babies, and that's a testament to doing it well. If you're a good teacher, your children will move on to the next teacher and not need to come back.
So I thought, yeah, yeah, he definitely has moved on now cos Sinead has the younger kids and he definitely feels more grown up and stuff.
But I think it's a testament to him that he can go in with the older kids and that his little friends that he kind of pals around it, and that he got to go with kind of his peers. So yeah, no, like, yeah, definitely, we do talk and we do see the school because I think the school is phenomenal.
Like you could you could have every teacher in that school nominated because they are a cut above and like that is no lie. They're just brilliant, brilliant people. But yeah, we we had such a wonderful time having Sinead and she really like she really made his formative years so so solid.
Wow, I mean, Sinead, how does it feel? I mean, I'm impressed so I want to know, like how it feels for you sitting there, you know, listening to a parent talk about you in this way.
Um, honestly, even like, at the time, I think I just was, it was very unexpected to be singled out, like in the Midwest School for the Deaf where I work, you know, we have special needs assistants in the classroom, we work together, everything is kind of collaborative.
And also, like the conversations that Rachel is talking about that we would have had, like, I could half my ideas from Rachel, you know, and like, you try things and they don't work and you try something else because, you know, that's, that's what you do. And I got also half of my ideas from Daniel, because I suppose you see what, what's working and you know, you go with that.
So it's very hard to take credit for something, you know, to kind of just accept all of what she is saying. And I'm Rita knows this, too, that it's not just me that it is a team. And I mean, the school I work in, I do think, I mean, maybe I'm biased, but it's very special like in that the teachers are very, we all work together, we like I'm constantly going into one the other classrooms going, oh, you know, after school going, I don't know how to deal with this to be any ideas. Have you met this before? You know, this came up today?
Or are equally like you're going into another classroom saying, Oh, wow, you know, I saw your student doing this today. That's amazing. You know, they weren't able to do that last year, or you know, things like that.
It's just, that's the kind of place that is so it's so collaborative, that to be singled out was tricky, like I kind of struggled with it. But at the same time, then I read so I asked Teachers Inspire to send me Rachel's nomination, because to be honest, I was kind of going home, like I don't understand. And when, when I read it, I think it really meant a lot. And at the time, I was a bit overwhelmed. But like later on, even, you know, even still, I still have the email, like, I'll go back on a bad day and kind of just look at it and go, Okay, I did something right. Yeah, we'll try again tomorrow.
Yeah, and can I ask you, I suppose, why this particular area of education? You know, I mean, like, why were you drawn to working with deaf children? Like, why is inclusive education so important to you?
Honestly, how I got into it was almost accidental, I kind of did a placement in the school and just absolutely fell in love with the place. And so, so that was kind of how I got into it.
But I feel like, I suppose I see, I've, you know, I've been teaching long enough now to see students come in, you know, to us at two or three, maybe into early intervention, and then move up through the school through our primary, we also have post primary, and then graduate at 18.
And that, like, it's just a real privilege to kind of be able to witness that journey, first of all, but also maybe kind of support it in some way. And kind of know that you've contributed in some in some way to it.
And I think that's kind of what's so special about our school and also, inclusive education in general, you do get like, I feel like you get a deeper insight because we do have smaller numbers.
I could have, like I taught Daniel for four years I think, and you just, the relationship is very strong, you know, you do get to know them so well. It's we say it's like a family. It sounds like a cliche, but like it very much is and I suppose yeah, it's it's just so important to me to see, you know, those students reach their potential.
Well, Sinead, and Rachel, I want to say thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. And I really appreciate the the two of you just sharing your story and talking to me today.
Thanks. Thank you.
No problem. Thank you very much.
So our chat with Rachel and Sinead has, I think, reminded us of just how important inclusion is in education. So many nominations have spoken about how a teacher allowed a child or student to feel like they were important, and that they mattered. Just as Sinead did when she made that extra effort with Daniel.
DCU has a school of inclusive and special education on it’s St. Patrick's campus, and Elizabeth Matthews is an assistant professor there and she lectures in Inclusive and Special Education. And Elizabeth joins us in studio today. How are you?
I'm great. Thanks.
Thank you so much for coming today.
Thanks for having me.
I'm really interested in hearing a little bit more about this. And I just, firstly, look, why did you decide to go into this area of education, but I mean, especially deaf education,
I suppose for me, I don't have any personal connection to deafness so this began, very specifically with an interest in sign language. And I think I, I had an interest in languages generally in how we use different languages to communicate with different people. And that brought me to sign language and a desire to learn sign language.
I had the opportunity to learn American Sign Language while I was living in the US for a while and it was through studying American sign language that I learned about the history of deaf education. And that really was the turning point for me, where I became, I suppose, captivated by this, this really deep social injustice that there had been in the history of the deaf education system, not just in the US, but we see it replicated across the world, where many deaf children had been denied the right to use sign language. And that was something that really struck a chord with me and
why sorry to interrupt you, why were they denied the right,
I suppose, there was a period of time where success for deaf children became synonymous with learning to speak and using sign language was seen as, as some sort of threat to that.
And there, there would have been periods in in the deaf education history, if you look across the centuries of, of deaf education, where the emphasis would have very much been on on spoken language acquisition, and on successful spoken language attainment.
And for various reasons, you know, if you look back through, you know, periods of, say, even eugenics in history, where sign language would have been seen as, as a lesser language compared to spoken language and deaf children would have been discouraged from using it.
In the Irish context here, you know, we have have quite a lot of documentation around things like, you know, deaf children being discouraged from using sign language or being, let's say, even encouraged to give it up for Lent, for example,
Oh my gosh that it was so Irish
It is just that it didn't have the same standing as spoken language would have had in the education system. So I suppose it was that it was that injustice, and that, you know, they're very, very much pitching one language as being superior to another language that that struck a chord with me, it might be as well, because I'm an Irish language user and you know, I had an interest in minoritized languages anyway but but this issue with sign language really struck a chord with me.
Yeah, leading on from that, like, Why do you think it's important that education is well, firstly, I suppose why is it important that education is inclusive? And secondly, how has it evolved to be more inclusive over the last number of years?
That's a big question. And I think, you know, when we start to talk about inclusion in education, it's important to maybe tease out what we mean by inclusive education. And part of the problem there is that inclusion has become synonymous with mainstream for a lot of people and that to be included means to be in, in your local mainstream school, where actually sometimes your most inclusive environment might be a school for the deaf.
And, you know, we've heard the clip there from Rachel and Sinead, and you know, that that sometimes to be included means to be with your peers, who are the same as you and who use the same language as you.
So, you know, when you ask about what's the the importance of, of why education needs to be inclusive, you know, I think we all want to be in a space where we feel like we belong, and that that really is what an inclusive education is. And that can be in a mainstream environment. But it may also be in a different type of setting.
You asked as all about you know, we've we've come a long way in terms of inclusive education -
no more you're asking children to give up sign language for Lent, I would assume
no, we've we've moved beyond that. We've moved beyond that. But you know, there's there's a degree to which we still need to examine us as a country and in our education system, whether or not we still prioritise one language over the other or view one language as being superior to the other.
And, you know, I think that there is work that still needs to be done on putting Irish sign language on an equal footing with spoken English and ensuring that deaf children you know, who use either or both of these languages, aren't sort of seen as, as separate or different or unequal that you know that there are many different ways to be deaf. And you know, if you're a deaf person who speaks English, that that is as good as but not better than being a deaf person who uses sign language to communicate, that these are these are all different varieties of of the deaf experience and all need to be respected and appreciated.
I'd love to hear a little bit more about the pilot program, the BEd in Irish sign language.
So this is a pathway into the Bachelor of Education for primary teaching. So this is the, you know, the B Ed, which would be a very well-known program for a four year program where students come in to become primary school teachers.
And there are a couple of different pathways into this program. But we have developed a pathway for deaf people who are Irish sign language users to enter the BEd so that they can hopefully graduate and go on to become primary school teachers who work in sign language with other deaf pupils going forward.
So prior to this, there was there was a real barrier to entry for for many deaf people to primary school teaching because to be a primary teacher in Ireland, as you probably know, you need quite a high level of the Irish language.
If you are deaf and attending a school for the deaf, it's highly unlikely that you will have learned that language because you'll have an exemption from it. So, you won't you won't have needed to do Irish when you're in school. And you won't need to have Irish when you go back to teach in that environment, because it's not delivered there as part of their curriculum
so it is a sort of a Catch 22
It is a Catch 22 because you needed Irish to become a teacher
Then you won't need it that particular environment.
Yeah, exactly and I think, you know, over the course of trying to get this pathway established, anyone that we spoke to could recognise that this was an anomaly, you know, from the Department of Education through to the Teaching Council, they all recognised, this is an issue that needs to be addressed because the end problem for us in the deaf education system was you have deaf children coming into a school environment, where they are unlikely to be taught by teachers who are fluent in sign language.
So if you have deaf children who are using sign language as their means of communication, they're highly unlikely to meet a language model in their primary schooling who has as good a level of sign language as they have. And this was a real difficulty for deaf children in terms of their own linguistic development and their educational attainment.
So we needed to address this and we decided to within DCU, we worked with closely with partners like the Department of Education and the Teaching Council to bring this pilot group through a pathway of where they don't need to have Irish to enter this program but they need an equivalent level of Irish sign language on entry.
So we assess their ISL before offering a place, and they come in and they go through the four year B Ed program, they're just starting fourth year now so most of their lectures are with their hearing peers, and in those usual lecture or similar environments, and then they do a specialism in deaf education and they take a number of modules in Irish sign language in lieu of doing Gaeilge or Irish language modules so we hope that at the end that we have this cohort of highly qualified teachers who have done the BEd but who also have a specialism in deaf education.
And one last question, Elizabeth, you know, what difference will it make for deaf children to have a teacher who who is deaf,
I think this is that has the potential to be huge. This this can be a game changing moment in, in the Deaf Education sector to have deaf teachers enter the primary school system, for a couple of reasons.
I think for deaf children coming into the school, they will see a teacher who was just like them for a start. So you know, they, the bar is raised immediately to know that I could be a teacher someday.
They'll see their language being used in a professional context by a professional. And even at the, at the school level you know, it's not just about the impact that it will have on children, but it has the potential to change the whole dynamic in a school when you have deaf professionals enter the staff room and enter the workforce.
And, you know, we have a fantastic range of deaf people who are working in other areas in this field of special needs assistance or in other roles, the potential for impact when it's a teacher when it's someone who is managing the classroom environment, who has input on the pedagogical approaches that are to be used in the school, and who can advise on communication, I just think that this is something that has been needed for so long in this sector in the Republic of Ireland. I can't wait to see the change that this cohort of student teachers bring about once they're working in in those schools.
Yeah, that's absolutely incredible. Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for coming in today and speaking to us on the Teachers Inspire podcast.
It was lovely to be here.
I'm Louise O'Neill. And thank you for joining me for this episode of the Teachers Inspire Ireland podcast for 2022. You can hear all of the episodes wherever you get your podcasts, and you can find out more and maybe tell us about a teacher that made a difference in your life at teachersinspire.ie Until the next time…